Teachers Unions Aren’t the Obstacle to Reopening Schools

A student returning to public school in Brooklyn for in-person learning. Photo: Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

Donald Trump Jr. is thinking of the children. “One of the things I want to talk about,” he said in a recent video, “is the teachers unions.” Sitting in front of a wall of guns, he continued: They’re “out of control,” they’re “destroying our kids’ futures,” and they should “follow the science” and let schools reopen. As Junior mostly mimics Senior, and to less impressive effect, his school diatribe isn’t all that striking on its own. The Trump White House was determined to reopen the country swiftly without much regard for the physical well-being of the vulnerable — and it wasn’t known for its union-friendly posture, either. But remove the school-shooter aesthetics from Trump’s video, and the content isn’t all that unusual. It’s not even partisan.

Liberal commentators are also urging schools to reopen, and a number have blamed teachers and their unions for getting in the way. “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.”

Public-school closures do harm poor students at a depressingly disproportionate rate. Their parents can’t afford tutors and often lack the technology required to successfully complete classwork at home. A January study estimated that if schools were to close for a full year, high-school freshmen living in the poorest communities would experience “a 25 percent decrease in their post-educational earning potential.” Wealthy students would likely experience no such loss at all, it added.

Schools need to reopen, but the process is complicated by problems created by years of underfunding, not by teachers unions. The CDC guidelines say it’s “critical” for schools to open, and stay open, as soon as possible. But they have to do so safely, the guidelines add — a caveat that Abramsky and Trump Jr., have both ignored. 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.

A full year into the pandemic, teachers say they’re still waiting for school districts to make in-person instruction safe.

In Philadelphia, where schools are set to reopen for hybrid learning on March 1, teachers worry that their schools are unprepared. “What they’ve done is laughable,” said Philadelphia music teacher Michael Leibowitz. The school district “got these plastic window fans, like the kind you get at Walmart. They put two of the fans next to each other, then attach them to plywood and put them in the windows.” Leibowitz has to keep his windows open in the middle of winter for this makeshift ventilation system to work; the fans also have to run all day and all night. His school building is over a hundred years old, he said, and it already had rodents and cockroaches when the pandemic began. Students didn’t always have running water or soap in the bathrooms, he added.

Remote learning may not be as effective as the traditional alternative, but Leibowitz believes that, as matters stand, conditions in his classroom won’t be much improved for students when they return to classes in a few days’ time. “They’re going to be six feet apart from each other. They’re going to be wearing masks, besides the fact they’ll be in a freezing cold classroom,” he said. “They’re not going to leave the room all day but to go to the bathroom.”

Jia Lee, who teaches fifth grade at a public school in New York City, also works in a century-old school building and has had to keep her windows open for ventilation fans to run ever since her school reopened for hybrid learning last year. “We’re kind of dependent on the Department of Education and the mayor’s office to set conditions in the buildings for safe air ventilation,” she said, and she isn’t happy with the results. “The No. 1 concern for so many of us in the building is that we don’t trust what the DOE and even what our union leadership has been telling us about how much to leave our windows open. A lot of us have been freezing right along with our students.” Lee shared photos with Intelligencer that show a digital thermometer in her classroom reading 50 degrees one day in January. In another, students in winter coats sit huddled against the classroom heaters.

Jia Lee’s students sit up against the heaters to stay warm at the Earth School in Manhattan. Photo: Jia Lee

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.

Despite the miserable conditions, some parents are still demanding that schools reopen now, and they have the attention of major public school districts. Chicago is “incredibly segregated,” said Eichhorn, a member of the bargaining committee for the Chicago Teachers Union. “The parents that have been able to work remotely are largely white. Even though they are only 10 percent of our entire school district, they have the loudest voice.”

Data supports Eichhorn’s observation. Black and brown families are most likely to choose remote learning over in-person instruction. In a new survey from the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of adults want schools to reopen as soon as possible whether teachers are vaccinated or not. White, wealthy respondents are overrepresented in that group. Overall, 59 percent of adults surveyed think schools should wait to reopen until teachers are able to get the vaccine. When school districts like those of Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia forge ahead with plans to reopen school buildings, it isn’t because the masses are clamoring for music lessons in 50-degree classrooms.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I think certain families have lost sight. Not all families have the same ability and privileges to be safe at home,” said Lee in New York. Many don’t live in multigenerational households, or in low-income communities, where COVID is a palpable threat. “I hear the stories all the time,” she added. “Grandma just got COVID, and she’s in the same room but Mom has to go to work.” The main priority, she said, should be to find out whether a student is okay. “Children will learn. That’s not something that’s going to be lost,” she said.

Public opinion does not, of course, dictate scientific consensus. Even so, the science isn’t as settled as many claim. While it’s true that kids aren’t as likely to fall seriously ill with COVID and aren’t as likely to spread the virus, the risk isn’t zero. As The Intercept reported in January, three recent studies indicate that the risks posed by reopening schools vary depending on rates of community transmission. According to one of the studies, reopening schools in Florida did lead to higher incidences of COVID infection among school-age children. Teachers in a school building can also spread the virus to one another and to parents if mitigation strategies aren’t sound.

It’s easier, perhaps, to blame teachers unions for closing schools than it is to talk about inequality. Conservatives have been attacking unions for decades, and so have education-reform-minded liberals. But it doesn’t help anyone — students, teachers, or parents — to pretend unions are to blame for buildings being in disrepair. Public school districts often struggle for adequate funding; in a handful of states, funding levels still haven’t recovered to prerecession levels. In Chicago, for example, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability estimated that public schools were underfunded by $2.43 billion in 2017. The city’s education budget yokes funding to school population, which, according to one report, concentrated the underfunded schools in Chicago’s majority-Black neighborhoods and contributed to school closures in the same poor communities.

Nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board Education, school districts are still highly segregated. Black and brown families aren’t just more likely to have direct and deadly experiences with COVID; they’re more likely to live in communities with run-down, aging school buildings with ventilation systems that aren’t up to a pandemic. Academic outcomes were already uneven. Well-heeled parents worry that school closures threaten the so-called success sequence: graduate from high school, graduate from college, get married, and flourish. But the success sequence never worked for everyone, or even for most; for many families, the pandemic simply moved an unlikely outcome even further out of reach.

Ironically, unions have tried to solve these very problems. Months before the pandemic, Eichhorn and her union went on strike to demand more school nurses, more counselors, and a commitment from Chicago to create more affordable housing. After COVID, those demands look prescient. Thanks to a deal Eichhorn’s union struck with Chicago Public Schools, the city will prioritize teachers for vaccinations and reopen schools on a phased, gradual basis, giving teachers more time to get their shots before they’re expected to return. (The school district is considering a vaccine mandate for teachers, which Eichhorn doesn’t support, and is disciplining some teachers for allegedly “misinforming” parents about the safety of in-person instruction.)

Deals like the one negotiated by the Chicago Teachers Union might be more common if school districts and powerful parents actually listened to what teachers unions are trying to say. Unions and parents face a common enemy, and their problems are linked. 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 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.

Unions Aren’t the Obstacle to Reopening Schools