Teacher’s unions are the obstacle to reopening schools

My headline might sound obvious to you but it’s not obvious to all. Case in point, today New York magazine published a piece headlined “Teachers Unions Aren’t the Obstacle to Reopening Schools.” The piece opens by pointing out that people on the right and left had lately been criticizing teacher’s unions for opposing the reopening of schools.

“It is an abdication of responsibility for teachers unions and district administrations to reject CDC guidelines on returning to schools over the coming months,” Sasha Abramsky recently wrote for The Nation. At Vox, epidemiologist Benjamin Linas conceded that teachers ought to be prioritized for vaccinations but added, “If educators and their unions don’t embrace the established science, they risk continuing to widen gaps in educational attainment — and losing the support of their many longtime allies, like me.”

But according to author Sarah Jones, the problem isn’t that unions are rejecting the science or CDC guidelines, it’s that the guidelines don’t work in practice.

The virus-mitigation strategies the CDC recommends aren’t possible in all school buildings: Social distancing can be impossible in some, and adequate ventilation remains a serious concern…

Alison Eichhorn, who teaches high school in Chicago, said she’s still working remotely for now but isn’t optimistic about the prospect of going back to class. Like Leibowitz and Lee, she says she works in a building that is more than a century old. “The guidance that we received from the district is that the air purifier that they put in the room is too small,” she said. “So it doesn’t actually circulate or clean the air as effectively as it should during this crisis, and consequently, they’re calling the air purifiers ‘additional support.’” Teachers were told to open a window and keep their doors cracked, which isn’t the easiest proposition in wintertime Chicago.

Note that I didn’t add the tweet from the Chicago Teachers Union, the author of the piece titled “Teachers Unions Aren’t the Obstacle to Reopening Schools” did. But okay, forget that for a moment. The union has a point that it may not be possible or practical to open windows for ventilation in every situation. But the problems teachers are facing aren’t that different from the ones other workers are facing including private school teachers who went back to work months ago.

There are studies from the CDC and others showing that the risk to teachers is no greater than the level of community spread in those same neighborhoods. But it’s not zero. It’s not zero for anyone right now. So the question is: How safe does it have to be to decide that the harm being done to students makes it worth the risk. The CDC and Dr. Fauci have both said that it’s not necessary to vaccinate teachers so long as other mitigation efforts are in place. Despite that, many areas are vaccinating teachers and many unions are demanding vaccination before returning.

But safety is a moving target. So in some places, like districts in Oregon and Fairfax County, VA, teachers have been promised the vaccine but unions are still resisting a return to school because they still don’t feel safe even though all of the evidence suggests they are. And all of this fear is being channeled through unions into resistance to returning to classrooms.

Ultimately, the author abandons any talk about science or data as it relates to reopening and instead suggests a feel good progressive solution: Demand more funding and an end to all inequality:

Without open schools, it’s difficult for parents to work, especially for women who find themselves locked into a housewife track so many had sought to avoid. Children can suffer psychological isolation; if they’re poor, they’ll fall even further behind in a race that was rigged by people above them well before they were ever born. So why not even the stakes? Why not clamor for better funding? What’s the purpose of education, after all — is it simply job training, or should it be more holistic, enrichment for enrichment’s sake? “We need to think more globally about all of our community members,” said [fifth grade teacher Jia] Lee. “Does everyone have what they need? Health care, food, water? Settle those things before we worry about the next steps.”

The question of reopening schools ought to reframe the reopening debate altogether. Teachers unions were never the problem: It was inequality all along.

This is truly cringe-worthy stuff. I’m not trying to bring up a conservative boogeyman here but what does this call to “even the stakes” mean? Does everyone have what they need?  Health care, food, water? I honestly believe the teacher and the author quoting her are trying to tell us that Bernie Sanders is the answer to all of our problems.

This has to be the ultimate dodge of responsibility in a moment like this. Students are suffering, emotionally and in terms of learning and future potential. Every month they are out of the classroom the situation gets worse. Some kids have simply disappeared and may never return to school, a decision that will impact them negatively for rest of their lives.

Rather than seeing this as a crisis that needs a quick solution, and yes even some slight risk taking on the part of teachers, we’re being invited to forget all of that and instead embrace a vague, multi-generational project of equity. Only then when all the kids are rich and everyone has new schools with perfect ventilation can we worry about a little thing like the well being of current students.

What we need right now is the British public’s response to Dunkirk; what we’re getting is the Cowardly Lion as union president. This kind of nonsense is the road back to the minority for Democrats. Normally I’d be happy to celebrate that but in this case the price is too high.

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