Teaching Profession

Has the Public Turned on Teachers?

At First Deemed Pandemic Heroes, Some Now Feel Like Villains
By Madeline Will — January 25, 2021 12 min read
Cyndi Pristello, a school wide support teacher at JoAnna Connell Elementary School, greets students and their families on April 18, 2020, as they drive through the school's parking lot during a drive-by parade. The school will begin online classes on April 20 after being closed due to the coronavirus shutdown.

Gone are the social media posts from exhausted parents saying that teachers deserve to make a million dollars. In contrast to the beginning of the pandemic, many teachers these days say they’re being made to feel more like villains than heroes.

As a growing number of schools consider bringing more children into classrooms, and coronavirus cases continue to surge in some parts of the country, teachers’ unions have been pushing back. More safety precautions are needed for reopening, they say. But proponents of resuming in-person instruction point to studies showing that COVID-19 transmission rates in schools have been relatively low when mitigation strategies are in place and community transmission remains low.

That rift about when school doors should open, teachers say, is causing them to take some heat.

National polling data show that overall support for teachers and their unions has remained steady. Yet many teachers still feel like they’re under attack. And some worry that the public goodwill they gained in recent years while advocating for higher salaries and more school funding is now eroding.

The pandemic began with people cheering teachers for pivoting so quickly to remote instruction, said David Labaree, a professor emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. But now, teachers are seen by a vocal segment of the public “not as the first responders, but more the people blocking the path to the classroom door.”

Across the country and throughout the pandemic, teachers’ unions have been pushing for a more conservative approach to getting teachers and kids back in buildings. In some places, their political maneuvering has escalated. Members of the Chicago teachers’ union voted Sunday to collectively refuse to work in person, despite the districts’ orders. The West Virginia state teachers’ unions filed lawsuits to halt the state’s mandate of in-person learning. In the Bellevue school district near Seattle, the teachers’ union encouraged some of its members to not show up to work in protest of the district’s expansion of in-person learning; the district responded by taking the union to court.

And while many states are working to vaccinate teachers in hopes of protecting employees and easing labor tensions, some unions—including in Fairfax, Va., and in California—have said that vaccinations alone aren’t enough to convince them it’s safe to return to work.

Such stances have sparked outrage from some parents, opinion columnists, and a vocal contingent on Twitter. Dr. Vinay Prasad, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at University of California San Francisco, tweeted that teachers’ unions “will be held responsible for their irrational demands and stonewalling, and I am not sure they will survive the public reckoning.” Others have accused unions of playing politics and not putting kids first.

Teachers say this criticism has been demoralizing, especially since many are working harder than ever to teach and reach students remotely. “Back in March, we were considered heroes,” said Alison Eichhorn, a high school teacher who sits on the Chicago Teacher Unions’ executive board. “Now it’s like we’re lazy, we just want to teach in the comfort of our own homes, we don’t want to teach students. … I don’t know how many times in the past year I’ve thought about a new career. It is to a point where you feel like you can’t do anything right.”

Even so, a nationally representative Education Next survey, conducted from Nov. 10 to Dec. 3, found that just 30 percent of parents said teachers’ unions have a negative effect on schools—about the same as survey results from May 2019 and 2020. Forty-six percent of parents said unions have a positive effect on schools, up from 40 percent last spring.

And parents rated 35 percent of teachers in their local schools as “excellent” and 30 percent as “good.” That’s in line with past polling data from last spring, and slightly higher than when Education Next polled parents in May 2018.

“We found that although parents are concerned about learning loss amid the pandemic, they also report fairly broad satisfaction with how their local schools are responding,” said Martin West, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and the editor-in-chief of Education Next. “I interpret that pattern as suggesting that American parents … are sympathetic to the challenges schools are facing. That sympathy may be carrying through to teachers and even to the unions that represent them.”

The Education Next survey also found that about a third of parents who have the option to send their children to in-person school report that they are not doing so. And parents of Black and Hispanic students are, respectively, 19 percentage points and 8 percentage points less likely than the parents of white students to choose to send their kids back to full-time in-person instruction if they have the option.

“In plenty of places where unions have opposed reopening, they have the support of many parents who are concerned for their own children’s safety,” West said. “I think it is always risky to reach conclusions in trends of public opinion generally based on what you hear from the loudest voices.”

Some parents are furious

Still, teachers say they worry that they have lost some support in their communities. Over the last couple of years, teachers’ unions have built up goodwill through the Red for Ed movement, in which teachers protested—and sometimes went on strike—for higher wages and more school funding. Teachers were fighting for their students’ learning conditions, and the public was largely behind them.

Parents and teachers were on the same side, Labaree said, and that camaraderie continued in the early months of the pandemic, as parents got a firsthand look at remote instruction. But as the pandemic wore on and teachers’ unions continued to resist going back into school buildings, “that started putting teachers on the other side of an issue that a lot of parents were concerned about,” he said.

There’s always been some confusion among the general public about the role of teachers’ unions, Labaree said: Are they professional organizations supporting the institution of public education? Or are they labor groups defending their workers’ rights? Teachers’ unions tend to straddle that line, he said—but now, what’s best for children can be at odds with what’s best for teachers.

“The public consequences of their demands can look very self-serving,” he said. “It puts them in an awkward position.”

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Kathleen Sheehan, a parent of two school-aged children, said she supported Massachusetts teachers’ unions’ calls for smaller class sizes and building upgrades before the pandemic. But when the state teachers’ union included those and other demands beyond coronavirus-related safety precautions in its proposal to reopen schools, Sheehan was no longer on board.

“At that point, it was really eye-opening to me that there was something more than just safety and fear and anxiety,” she said. “It’s clearly political.”

Remote learning has been “disastrous,” she said. Last spring, when schools first shut down, her 9-year-old daughter would sob while trying to do her schoolwork and told Sheehan that she wanted to die. Experts have pointed to the psychological toll that school closures have had on children and warned of the risk of more student suicides.

So when Sheehan’s local teachers’ union, the Avon Education Association, said last summer that teachers wanted to begin the school year remotely—in part because social distancing in school could have “traumatic effects” on young students and “a hybrid model will only exacerbate student and faculty anxiety and mental health concerns”—Sheehan was furious. She switched her two children to another school district, where they are now attending two mornings a week of in-person school.

But her kids are still missing opportunities for socialization, Sheehan said. She feels like union officials are citing health concerns without considering the mental health consequences of remote learning: “Quite frankly, it’s bullshit.”

A vaccine might not be enough to open schools

At least 23 states have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to Education Week’s vaccine tracker. That has sparked some hope that more schools will be able to reopen soon. But vaccines will not be a silver bullet, some union officials say.

The Fairfax Education Association in Virginia was among the first in the nation to draw a hard line: Schools should remain closed until there’s a vaccine or a widely available treatment for COVID-19. Now, teachers there are starting to receive shots—but the union says it’s still not safe to resume full in-person instruction.

FEA President Kimberly Adams said case numbers in the region are well above what is considered safe to reopen schools, both by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the national unions. Also, she said, vaccinating teachers doesn’t mean everyone is safe from the disease: It’s still not clear whether vaccinated people will be able to transmit the disease, and students will not be able to be vaccinated anytime soon. (The pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna are now testing their vaccines in adolescents 12- to 17-years-old. Pfizer has additional studies planned for children under 12.)

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Adams said schools should remain virtual until cases start to drop below a certain threshold. Then, she would be in favor of vaccinated staff returning to school buildings—but there should still be an option for parents to choose remote instruction, she said, in part so that educators who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccine can stay home, too.

Adams said there hasn’t been an uptick in public backlash to the union’s stance, adding that parents can now see an endpoint and are willing to wait a few more months until they are vaccinated themselves and case numbers in the region have gone down. “There’s hope on the horizon,” she said.

Still, there has been some outrage from her community throughout the pandemic: websites and social media accounts criticizing the union, angry emails laced with profanity, and even a few threats that Adams had to forward to the police.

“Our union is not a big, bad thing,” Adams said. “[We] are the teachers who are parents, and the bus drivers who are grandparents, and the food-service workers who are community members. The target becomes the union, but the union is made up of all the individual people who are trying to protect our community.”

Yet many parents say they’re not against teachers or even their unions, they just want their kids back in classrooms.

“There’s been such a binary created that if you’re pro kids going back to school, then you’re somehow anti-teacher,” said Jennifer Sey, a parent in San Francisco with four kids, including a kindergartner and a high school senior. “Somebody has to represent the kids in all of this.”

Her kids are lonely and isolated learning from home, she said, and she’s worried about other kids in the city with fewer resources who are falling behind academically. Sey said she’d be OK with schools waiting to reopen until after all teachers have been vaccinated, but she’s worried the goalposts will move again, and unions won’t want to return until children can be vaccinated.

Susan Solomon, the president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said the union is not calling for schools to remain closed until students can be vaccinated. UESF and the California Teachers Association have said vaccinating school staff is a key part of reopening schools. However, the unions have said that schools in areas with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission—like San Francisco now—should remain closed even with the vaccine until case numbers decrease.

Solomon said that’s in order to protect students, especially those in communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus. “If ... there are high rates of COVID, especially in particular communities, then it won’t feel safe, because kids could carry it home to their multi-generational households,” she said.

In addition to the vaccine, Solomon said there need to be other safety precautions in schools before teachers will feel comfortable going back to campus, including proper ventilation, personal protective equipment, surveillance testing of staff and students, a robust system of contact tracing, and big enough classrooms to accommodate social distancing.

The union has also said there need to be lids on toilets to prevent the spread of the virus during flushing—a proposal that prompted some derision, since no confirmed COVID-19 case has been linked to a toilet. (On Twitter, Prasad, the epidemiology professor, sarcastically asked, “Will unions demand we slaughter a goat before schools can re-open?”)

Solomon said she thinks the toilet request is important, but it’s not a top priority: “Will that stop schools from opening if we have everything else in place, including a vaccine? It might not.”

‘I’m not willing to risk my life’

Teachers say they understand the frustration among parents. They feel it, too. Remote learning has been difficult and time-consuming, and they worry about students’ declining engagement. But many feel like the stakes of reopening are life and death.

“I want nothing more than to be back, but I’m not willing to risk my life, my students’ lives, or my colleagues’ lives,” said Eichhorn, the Chicago teacher. At least 180 current teachers across the country have died from COVID-19, according to an informal count by Education Week based on media reports, although those deaths weren’t necessarily tied to schools.

A teacher sets up her laptop outside of Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary School to begin virtual classes in solidarity with pre-K educators forced back into the building in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021.

The Chicago school system hasn’t yet announced a return to in-person instruction for high school, but it has said elementary and middle school students will return to campus on Feb. 1, with their teachers reporting to school buildings this week. (A small group of staff members are already on campuses with a few thousand prekindergarten and special needs students.)

CTU members, however, have voted to refuse to return to work in person, saying they want to wait until more safety measures have been put in place and educators are vaccinated. The district has pushed back staff’s return date from Monday to Wednesday to allow more time for negotiations.

Eichhorn said it was a difficult vote, especially since she knows the union’s 11-day strike in 2019 looms large in parents’ memories. But she’s confident that the union has built up trust, especially among parents of color, who are less likely than white parents to want to send their children to in-person school right now. Part of that is because there are so many inequities across the school system—schools with mostly students of color are more likely to lack the adequate cleaning supplies and ventilation, Eichhorn said.

Still, she said, the criticism from some parents is hard to bear.

But Ryan Griffin, a Chicago parent of three young boys, including a 1st grader, said he doesn’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. He’s tired of the fighting between the union and the school system. He said he would be fine if school reopening is delayed another month or so until all teachers can be vaccinated—he just wants an agreed-upon plan.

“It’s in nobody’s interest in this to reopen in an unsafe environment,” Griffin said. “Our interests should be aligned, and somehow they’re vastly not aligned. And our kids … are just being forgotten.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as Has the Public Turned on Teachers?

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