Some local teachers unions balk at unsafe school reopening plans
Banners in support of elementary school teachers hang outside Brentano Elementary School on Jan. 4, a week before some teachers were required to return to in-person teaching. | Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

CHICAGO – President Joe Biden has set a goal of reopening the nation’s public schools safely within 100 days. Some local teachers unions are balking, saying school bosses are rushing ahead to in-classroom learning without taking all needed safety steps against the coronavirus pandemic.

The biggest head-to-head conflict appears to be in Chicago, which, with 355,000 students, 25,000 teachers and thousands more paraprofessionals, is one of the nation’s five largest districts.

There, the Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, is in intensive talks with the school district over the first phase of reopening the city’s schools, for kindergarten and pre-K kids and for students with special needs.

The top issue: Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s and the school system’s continued insistence that teachers return, even if they’re in empty classrooms because the kids are all learning via Zoom from home.

The teachers would love to go back, CTU President Jesse Sharkey says, but only if the schools are safe. And the Chicago Public Schools can’t guarantee that. So the teachers and staff voted overwhelmingly not to return, even though the school system forced hundreds of support staffers—such as custodians and cafeteria workers—back earlier.

“The overwhelming majority of our members have chosen safety, unity and solidarity, and an agreement is within reach, but we need a willing partner,” Sharkey said in a statement. CTU members voted 71%-29%, electronically, in an 86% turnout, not to go back.

“Our collective power is our greatest strength and this vote cements our intention to continue to stand together in unity to land an agreement that protects educators, students and all of our CPS families.”

While the Chicago tussle, which has again postponed the return of K-12 classes, to Jan. 27, is the largest such to-do, it’s not the only one. Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., and the state school board there have done a sudden about-face and ordered a return to schools—for some teachers, staff and students—on March 1.

Hogan wants a hybrid learning scheme, similar to the plan CPS has imposed in Chicago. The difference is that Chicago is trying to force all the teachers and staff back, even when the physical classrooms are empty.

And the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, responded long ago with its own detailed how-to-reopen plans and protections, which several of the state’s 24 school districts have adopted as their own.

“When schools are planning to reopen, MSEA recommends that a group of educators who actu­ally work in the building—such as the building rep, faculty council, and very importantly, the chief custodian or building manager—carefully go through the checklist and if some­thing is missing, or resources are in­adequate, report it to their local union,” ” union general counsel Kristy Anderson said on its website.“It’s incumbent upon us, especially with the lack of leadership from” the state Education Department, “to be proactive and demand the time to go through the building.”

Hogan’s stand for reopening the schools, along with his current jousting with state public workers unions over a new contract, is a new tack for the moderate Republican in the heavily blue state, and especially for a governor who has been an outspoken GOP critic of the prior GOP Trump regime’s massive mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.

And that mismanagement included Trump pressure on school districts and school boards to reopen schools for in-learning too soon and too fast, before safety measures—such as taking everyone’s temperature daily, mandatory masking, smaller class sizes and physical distancing—were in place.

By contrast, Biden includes full reimbursement of school reopening costs in his proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic aid package. Congressional Republicans are, as usual, opposing it.

“All too often in this crisis, educators’ concerns were dismissed or derided to downplay or minimize the virus,” said Randi Weingarten, the national AFT president and a New York City civics teacher, after Biden unveiled his reopening executive order. “We are already seeing the opposite with the Biden administration: They recognize that safety is paramount, and we are working with them to relay the direct experience of teachers who’ve tried valiantly to educate their kids absent any federal leadership or support.

“This executive order will produce guidance that embeds and disseminates best practices—based on the science—for safe and effective in-person, remote and hybrid learning. It will source emergency supplies, such as personal protective equipment for schools and childcare providers. It will help establish early warning and screening systems, including testing and contact tracing, and require school districts to consult teachers and their unions to make these plans happen. It will kick-start the equitable rollout of vaccinations and accommodations for educators who need them.”

National Education Association President Becky Pringle, an African American science teacher from Philadelphia agreed, but added too many school districts are still reopening too fast.

Adrienne Thomas, left, and Irene Barrera teach remotely outside their school in Chicago on Jan. 11 to protest reopening. | Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

“President Biden also recognizes the needs of students in distance or hybrid learning settings and provides critical tools and resources–especially for our most vulnerable populations as these crises have disproportionately impacted Black, Brown and Indigenous communities–to deliver a just and high-quality public education….But we cannot forget that, right now, the reality in far too many schools and institutions of higher education is that effective distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and other crucial mitigation strategies are not in place.”

At least one urban school district, in Washington, D.C., has already put teachers and school staffers in the #2 spot in its vaccination line, behind only essential health care workers, and scheduled 5,850 vaccination doses for them. That’s because Mayor Muriel Bowser, who, like Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot, controls the schools, wants to reopen on Feb. 1, even if most students will still be home learning via Zoom.

“These vaccinations, which will serve as an extra layer of protection on top of the thorough health and safety protocols already in place, mark an important milestone in this pandemic. They represent our community’s ongoing commitment to getting young people back in the classroom with their teachers and classmates,” Bowser wrote in an open letter to all city residents.

A spot check of website for major school districts around the country disclosed a variety of responses:

  • The Broward County (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Teachers Union is suing the school district over its unilateral decision to end furloughs of all teachers who had medical waivers from in-person teaching, letting them teach online only. School Superintendent Robert Runcie is forcing them to return to school buildings. The local, an AFT affiliate, also launched a radio ad campaign, in English and Spanish, to tell parents what’s going on.

“Even though less than half of our students are learning in person, Runcie wants to force our most vulnerable educators into environments that are risky for them,” said BTU President Anna Fusco. “These are educators with cancer, kidney disease, diabetes and other life-threating health conditions. It’s completely unnecessary to put these educators’ lives in danger when they are already teaching full time at home, and it is a betrayal of the agreement we reached in good faith to protect our most vulnerable educators.” The ad directs listeners to a petition at protectourteachers.net.

  • The Bellevue Education Association and the city school district\ headed for court over forced reopening of the schools in Bellevue, Wash., too, The Stand The county lost and the two sides went back to bargaining over the issue.
  • New York State United Teachers, the Empire State’s joint NEA-AFT affiliate, is urging the state to stall, after infection rates shot up in six of the state’s 10 regions beyond the key 9% threshold in the week that ended Jan. 6.

“There are many ways to mitigate risk, but weakening school safety standards is not one of them,” said NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta. “We’re seeing new research from Europe that says schools can be vectors. But in New York schools that reopened, the safety guardrails we’ve put in place ensured in-school spread has been curbed. We can’t throw up our hands now—the positivity triggers for closing must be upheld, and if they are exceeded, we must close buildings and then redouble our efforts to crush community spread so they can reopen.”

  • The pandemic’s spread is dire in Los Angeles, the United Teachers of Los Angeles says. And Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed education budget shortchanges those districts—like Los Angeles—with the highest numbers of both coronavirus cases and students of color.

“The budget provision to offer extra funding to schools that offer in-person instruction has a built-in bias against large districts like LA Unified, which are least likely to be able to reopen because of high community infection levels. Students in wealthy areas would benefit, while low-income children would be left behind. This provision would exacerbate inequities in learning and is another hit to the students we teach, who are predominately from the low-income communities of color that are suffering the brunt of the health and economic impacts of the pandemic,” UTLA said in a statement.

  • California school unions call “unacceptable” Newsom’s lower COVID-19 threshold for reopening elementary schools when counties report up to 25 new infections per 100,000 people.

“Our state is behind in vaccinations. We are behind in distributions of the vaccine,” said David Schapira of the California School Employees Association, told the Los Angeles Times.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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