Teachers’ unions worked fervently to unseat President Trump and elect longtime ally Joe Biden. They’ve gotten their wish. Now, they’d do well to recall the old adage: Be careful what you wish for. Trump’s imminent departure means that unions are about to lose the erratic, impulsive, cartoonish foil that has allowed them to portray their resistance to school reopening as sensible rather than self-serving.
Teachers’ unions are riding high. Facebook pages are rife with newfound appreciation for just how exhausting a teacher’s job can be. President-elect Biden’s education landing team could be mistaken for an NEA-AFT softball game. And, as Biden told the National Education Association in July, “You [w]on’t just have a partner in the White House, you’ll have an NEA member in the White House. And if I’m not listening, I’m going to be sleeping alone in the Lincoln Bedroom.”
At the same time, there’s a lot of exasperation and resentment with public school systems, with almost 40 percent of students attending school remotely and another quarter following various hybrid schedules. Those same Facebook pages that celebrate teachers also feature frustrated rants at mindless asynchronous learning, tedious Zoom sessions, and a sense that the needs of kids are coming behind the convenience of bureaucracies and school staff.
And the evidence is mounting that schools are not big spreaders and that responsible reopening is wholly possible. That’s why Dr. Anthony Fauci noted this Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that “the default position should be to try as best as possible within reason to keep the children in school or to get them back to school . . . If you look at the data, the spread among children and from children is not really big at all.” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield has observed the evidence appears to “confirm that K-12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely, and they can do it responsibly.” From the CDC’s perspective, he said, schools are “one of the safest places [children] can be.” Indeed, most of Europe has already managed to keep schools open in a relatively safe way: As Otto Helve, an infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, commented, “It is still difficult for me to understand why schools are closed in the United States. Schools are not driving the epidemic.”
This all raises grave questions about the role of teachers’ unions in keeping 2 in 5 students wholly remote and just one-third of students in school full time. School closures are a product of many factors, including district leadership, parental concerns, and budgetary uncertainty, but they are also very much a product of union intransigence. Unions have fought for restrictions on teacher workdays and instructional duties. The fall kicked off with the Chicago Teachers Union releasing a list of conditions for reopening that included the enactment of Medicare-for-All. In the 190,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, one of the nation’s wealthiest systems, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers has called for keeping schools shuttered until at least summer 2021. In Baltimore, the union fought the governor’s push to reopen schools. In the District of Columbia, teachers protested reopening by dumping body bags in front of central administration and took a mass “mental-health day” break from remote teaching.
Union reluctance to reopen schools and classrooms is evident across the land. Indeed, in a study of 835 district reopening plans, researchers found a clear relationship between union strength and prolonged school closures. This is hardly surprising. During the summer, AFT chief Randi Weingarten said that the union was prepared to halt reopenings by any means necessary “until we get the virus under control.” Of course, that’s an infinitely elastic marker—unions opposed reopening this fall in plenty of communities where COVID-test positivity was remarkably low. And, since vaccine distribution may not hit the 70 percent target for herd immunity until late 2021 or later, this could be a call to keep schools shuttered well into the 2021-22 school year.
Obviously, as I’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic, school staff should expect that they’ll be supplied with personal protective equipment, that schools will be socially distanced, and that every reasonable effort will be made to provide for the safety of students and staff. Nobody should ignore that there are real health considerations, especially for more at-risk staff. That’s not the issue. The problem is when reasonable expectations seem to morph into an excuse to shutter schools indefinitely and without regard to the evidence regarding public health or the harm of prolonged school closure.
In the face of even the most dubious union resistance to reopening, Trump has served as a convenient bogeyman. With his reckless calls for schools to open immediately, without regard for safety or science, Trump turned a practical conversation into another polarizing culture clash. In response, plenty of otherwise ambivalent parents, teachers, and onlookers instinctively lined up on the side opposing Trump. That made it easy for union leaders to present their resistance as something more high-minded.
Without Trump, things change. If Biden is wearing his mask, pushing through new school funding, and saying the nation needs kids back in school, unions will no longer be able to insist that school reopening is just a Trumpian rush back to business as usual. And this shift is already underway: President-elect Biden recently told NBC, “I think we should open schools, as rapidly as we can.”
Under a President Biden, reopening schools and helping the nation “build back better” will no longer be a nefarious Trumpian stratagem—it’ll be a patriotic cause. Unions are likely to face significant pressure from their allies to help that cause. Of course, after nine months of foot-dragging, unions have stoked outsized fears among even younger school staff while nurturing the sense that educators shouldn’t be expected to return to school until they choose to. We’ll see how this plays out. But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if union leaders find victory more complicated than they might’ve hoped.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.