With our children adrift in Zoom orbit, an in-depth look at who is to blame for America’s continued school closures
Last spring, as the COVID-19 virus was spreading across the globe and state and local officials in the U.S. scrambled to announce pandemic safety precautions, most K-12 schools across the country closed as a temporary emergency measure. At the time, parents of school-age children supported closures, given that so many aspects of public life were being curtailed and so little was known about the risks posed by the virus, both to children and to adults.
Local school systems cobbled together virtual classrooms as best they could, and parents picked up a great deal of the educational load at home while still juggling their own work responsibilities. Most were happy to make these sacrifices not only to protect their own families but also their children’s teachers and teachers’ families.
One year later, the educational landscape looks quite different… While most private schools and some public schools spent the summer of 2020 making plans to reopen safely for in-person learning for students in the fall (at least partially or with a hybrid in-person and virtual model), many more never contemplated reopening.
By January of 2021, a clear divide had emerged in the nation between places where kids could go back to school in-person and those where they could not: According to National Public Radio, by early 2021, approximately 18 million American children had never returned to a classroom for in-person instruction. They remained at home, forced to take classes online – and usually with few resources (or even functional Wi-Fi), struggling to keep up with often-subpar schooling.
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And this wasn’t accidental. There was something these all-virtual school districts had in common: powerful teachers unions. As Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation found, the “relationship between unionization and reopening decisions remains substantively and statistically significant even after controlling for school district size and coronavirus deaths and cases per capita in the county during the month of July.”
In districts where teachers unions are powerful, they refused to cooperate with elected officials who wanted teachers back in the classroom, even resorting to lawsuits, strikes, and protests – all while continuing to receive paychecks for doing far less effective, virtual teaching.
How Did We Get Here?
For most Americans, unless you have a teacher in the family or are one yourself, you likely haven’t given much thought to teachers unions. Perhaps it’s time we did.
There are two national teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) – as well as countless state, regional, and local teachers unions. The NEA is the nation’s largest public-sector union, with 3 million members. As Daniel DiSalvo observed in an assessment of public sector unions in National Affairs more than 10 years ago, there are more public-sector employees who are union members than private-sector employees, and thus unionized workers “are more likely to be teachers, librarians, trash collectors, policemen, or firefighters than they are to be carpenters, electricians, plumbers, auto workers, or coal miners.”
The teachers unions are among the Democratic Party’s largest donors and most reliable voters. Even after the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which limited public sector unions’ ability to compel workers to pay union dues, teachers unions have lost none of their political power.
As DiSalvo and Michael Hartney note in Education Next…
Since 1990, the AFT and the NEA have regularly been among the top 10 contributors to federal electoral campaigns. They have forged an alliance with the Democratic Party, which receives the vast majority of their hard-money campaign contributions as well as in-kind contributions for get-out-the-vote operations. [Teachers unions are] the single largest organizational bloc of Democratic Party activists.
When the boss (in this case, a Democratic mayor or governor or president) is beholden to the teachers unions, he or she tends to run on a platform that aligns with their demands. With regard to school reopenings, that means schools are staying closed where unions have clout. As researchers at the American Enterprise Institute’s “Return to Learn” school reopening tracker project found, “Districts in counties that voted for Joe Biden have three times the percentage of fully remote districts compared to counties that voted for Donald Trump.”
In states and school districts with powerful unions, the threat of strikes is unmatched by any equivalent power on the side of school officials.
At the AFT’s annual convention last summer, amid the pandemic, President Randi Weingarten rattled off a list of progressive policy goals and noted, “That’s not from an AFT resolution. That’s straight from the Democratic Party platform, born out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations we helped draft.” She also insisted that teachers were akin to “first responders” like doctors and nurses, and “essential workers” like grocery store employees and truck drivers, even though none of those other groups have enjoyed the luxury, as teachers do, of refusing to show up in person to perform their jobs while still getting paid.
Weingarten can boast of her union’s power because it’s real… In states and school districts with powerful unions, the threat of strikes is unmatched by any equivalent power on the side of school officials. Due to collective bargaining agreements negotiated by many unions, school officials are often legally barred from firing teachers. And while elected officials face many restrictions on lobbying, unions have large portions of their budgets devoted solely to the practice, and a great deal of impact on who gets elected to oversee them (and with whom they also negotiate their contracts).
More than 20 years ago, in an assessment of teachers unions in City Journal, author Sol Stern observed that because there are no market incentives for teachers to improve, and teachers exercise near-monopoly power over families who can’t afford private school or can’t homeschool, change is sclerotic or nonexistent:
When school board representatives sit down with union officials to negotiate a labor contract, neither party is under pressure to pay attention to worker productivity or the system’s overall competitiveness: if the contract allows some teachers to be paid for hardly working at all, and others to perform incompetently without penalty, there is no real economic danger for either side.
Schools continue to get money, and teachers continue to get paid, regardless of whether or not they are performing well.
That might be changing… The outrageous demands made by many teachers unions during the pandemic could have repercussions for Americans’ feelings about the country’s educators and the unions that speak for them.
Teachers Unions Are Ignoring the Scientific Evidence
At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers’ concerns about safety were legitimate expressions of fear, given the possibilities of hospital overcrowding, uncertain information about community spread, and the unknown risks that asymptomatic children with coronavirus might pose to adults. Time and again, teachers union officials cited the need for “an abundance of caution” in the face of the risks.
However, an “abundance of caution” with regard to school reopenings is no longer a feasible guiding principle. One year into the pandemic, we know a great deal more about its lethality, including the salient fact that COVID poses a vanishingly small risk to the health of children. More than 95% of the tragic deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. are among people over the age of 60.
Since last summer, scientists and epidemiologists have had ample evidence that schools could be reopened safely. Schools in many countries in Europe have been successful managing the risk, and many private schools in the U.S. have done the same. In states such as Florida, which reopened its schools in the fall, studies have shown minimal infection rates caused by in-person learning.
A large-scale study of schools in North Carolina by researchers at Duke University, published in Pediatrics, found a very low rate of in-school transmission of COVID. A range of experts in pediatrics and public health have repeatedly advocated for the reopening of schools, noting that the evidence is clear that it’s safe to return to classrooms even before all teachers are fully vaccinated as long as reasonable mitigation procedures are in place.
In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the results of research showing that with proper precautions in place, schools can and should reopen. “There is accumulating data now that with high face-mask compliance, and distancing and cohorting of students to minimize the total number of contacts, we can minimize the amount of transmission in schools,” one CDC researcher told the New York Times.
And yet, teachers unions in cities like Los Angeles have ignored such evidence, instead issuing their own reports that ignore the scientific evidence. The Los Angeles report listed both political and pandemic-related demands that it argues should be in place before they return to the classroom. The demands included the enactment of Medicare for All, a “millionaire’s tax,” defunding the police, and a ban on charter schools. Embracing the never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste approach, the union report notes, “Normal wasn’t working for us before. We can’t go back.”
Los Angeles is the second-largest school district in the nation, with more than half a million students. Students have spent the entire 2020 to 2021 school year in virtual learning. In early March, despite increased vaccination rates, federal COVID relief funds directed at schools, and California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent signing of a $6.6 billion relief package that would direct money to public schools reopening, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union refuses to budge… 91% of union members voted to refuse to return to in-person teaching. “UTLA members have voted overwhelmingly to resist a premature and unsafe physical return to school sites,” a spokesperson told local news reporters. According to the Wall Street Journal, the union also called the state’s efforts to reopen schools “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”
Even in districts where teachers have been given priority access to vaccination, recalcitrant unions refuse to acknowledge clear scientific evidence that in-person learning can resume safely. In Fairfax County, Virginia, teachers unions demanded – and received – priority for vaccination, claiming it was essential they be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
After receiving the vaccine, however, the union moved the goalposts again, insisting that it wouldn’t be safe to return to in-person teaching until all children were vaccinated (but none of the current vaccines have yet been approved for use on children). “Concern remains that students will not be vaccinated before they return to school,” the Fairfax County teachers union spokesperson said.
In Cleveland, Ohio, the teachers union recently voted to refuse to return to classrooms for in-person teaching, despite the school district’s plans to reopen on March 8. Like teachers in Fairfax County, they had been given priority for vaccination, but still refuse to return to the classroom, claiming they need further health and safety precautions.
Numerous unions have also sued school districts rather than return to work. In Cincinnati, the teachers union sued the school district so they wouldn’t have to return to teaching, and a judge ruled against them. The New York City teachers unions issued several threats throughout the summer of 2020 to strike over plans to require in-person teaching.
And in Washington, D.C., amid negotiations about reopening schools, the teachers union staged weeks of protests, including piling dozens of fake body bags in front of the Mayor’s office, to demand that schools remain closed… The mayor caved to their demands and did not reopen schools.
Students Are Suffering
Now that it’s safe to return to the classroom, teachers who refuse to do so have contributed to the creation of a serious educational crisis, most notably for the children who rely on school for a range of social services, including daily meals.
There is also now ample and disturbing evidence of the social and emotional harms to children caused by distance learning. Mental health crises have increased dramatically among school-age children over the past year. “When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore,” one Nevada school official, told the New York Times. A lengthy investigation by ProPublica described in heart-wrenching detail the trauma experienced by teenagers who have been isolated and unable to interact normally in school with their peers for more than a year.
But this hasn’t swayed the unions… Over the summer, as civil unrest played out in many cities, the Chicago Teacher’s Union found the time to tweet support for activists who had erected a guillotine outside the Washington, D.C. home of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, noting, “We are completely frightened by, completely impressed by and completely in support of wherever this is headed. #Solidarity.” (The union later deleted the tweet.) They also created and circulated on social media a dance video where they repeated, “Not until it’s safe!”
Even President Biden has been bulldozed by the unions. As the Wall Street Journal noted, despite promising teachers more money and agreeing to many of their demands, Biden is “discovering what America’s parents have learned in the last year: Unions run the schools, and no one – not parents, not school districts, not mayors, and not even a new Democratic President – will tell them what to do.”
Stories of union hypocrisy from the past year have also emerged, angering parents… The Chicago teachers union official who argued that it was unsafe for teachers to return to the classroom while posting images of herself poolside (and mask-less) in Puerto Rico on vacation… or the president of the Berkeley, California teachers union whose own daughter has enjoyed full-time, in-person private school while he denies public school kids that same privilege by arguing that teachers cannot safely return to the classroom… or the recent warning by Los Angeles County teachers union officials to members on their Facebook page to make sure they don’t post pictures of their spring break trips to social media since “it is hard to argue that it is unsafe for in-person instruction, if parents and the public see vacation photos and international travel.”
But there are signs that parents and elected officials have reached the limits of their tolerance for the teachers unions.
Some parents have begun filing lawsuits. As local news outlets in Albuquerque, New Mexico recently reported, “Accusations of civil rights violations have been filed against the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education on behalf of students who cannot return to in-person learning.” Parents across the country are organizing locally and on social media via hashtags like #reopenschools.
A few state legislatures are vowing to withhold funding if schools don’t return to in-person instruction. Arizona’s governor announced that he would issue an executive order requiring public schools to offer in-person instruction for students that want it. Interest in homeschooling has also skyrocketed during the pandemic, and lawmakers in 28 states are now considering bills that would expand school choice options for parents.
Ironically, by refusing to follow scientific evidence and the needs of students, teachers unions might succeed in keeping schools closed in the short term, but they will drive away students from public education in the long term.
As Kerry McDonald, a scholar at the libertarian CATO Institute observed…
A vocally progressive agenda and broad Democratic Party allegiance by powerful teachers unions, combined with the proliferation of more schooling alternatives resulting from the pandemic, may prompt more parents to opt out of their local district school for other options.
For over a year, parents of school-aged children have watched as teachers who refuse to return to the classroom still get full pay, and, backed by powerful unions, make increasingly unreasonable demands that have nothing to do with keeping themselves or children safe from a virus, but everything to do with exercising their political power.
No wonder the benefit of the doubt that parents struck at the beginning of the pandemic has disappeared… They now find themselves unwittingly a party to the devil’s bargain the unions struck long ago with school administrators and Democratic politicians, the latter of whom fear losing the financial support and votes of union members.
But as school closures and disingenuous union demands drag on, more and more Americans are finally seeing teachers unions for what they really are and have always been: a special interest group with no interest in the well-being of America’s children.
Christine Rosen is senior writer at Commentary magazine and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.