We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About School

A teacher interacts with students virtually while sitting in an empty classroom during a period of Non-Traditional Instruction at Hazelwood Elementary School on January 11, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky. Jefferson County Public Schools, along with many other school districts in the U.S., have switched to NTI in response to severe staffing shortages caused by the prevalence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Chicago’s kids head back to school on Wednesday, after Mayor Lori Lightfoot reached a deal with delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union. Teachers had previously voted to teach remotely, in the face of rising COVID cases among staff and students, crumbling school infrastructure, and an inadequate testing regime. Chicago Public Schools retaliated, and locked teachers out of class for four days. If the agreement is approved by the union’s rank-and-file membership, it would increase testing and create a formula to trigger remote learning, such as if 30 percent of teachers are out sick for two consecutive days, or if 40 percent of the city’s student body are quarantined. In either case, school will go remote for five days. That will help protect teachers and students alike from the virus. It will also likely inflame a debate that has grown further and further detached from reality over time.

A chorus of critics wants schools open for in-person learning no matter the cost to educators. For example, Dr. Leana Wen, previously the health commissioner of Baltimore, took to Twitter and urged teachers unions to stop unspecified “delays.” She added, “We need all schools to be in-person, now.” In a follow-up editorial published by the Washington Post, she claimed that “left-wing activists are pushing for schools to remain closed” and wrote that Chicago teachers, who’d demanded more testing and a remote option, weren’t following “the science.”

One parent, Rebecca Bodenheimer, joined Wen in pointing the finger at teachers unions. She “began to fear that even in-person school in fall 2021 was at risk because of the impossible demands of the teachers union (that schools remain fully remote until there were ‘near-zero’ COVID cases in Oakland),” she wrote in Politico, “and apathy of the school board and district; even after teachers were prioritized for vaccination, there was no urgency to get kids back to the classroom.” In practice, however, teachers are trying to weigh two pressing risks: the virus spreading and learning loss. Their actual demands frequently fall short of “impossible.” Recently, a group of Oakland teachers recently organized a sick-out to draw attention to their demands, which include two weeks of remote learning, HEPA filters in cafeterias, and the “mass distribution to staff and students of N95 and KN95 masks,” the Mercury News reports. They cited student absences as a motivator to reopen safely.

Pundit Nate Silver took matters to even more grandiose extremes. When Mother Jones’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffrey, asked Twitter whether unions were “pushing closures” not “prompted by staff shortages due to their own infections,” he replied, “Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?” he asked.

Teachers and their unions did successfully call for remote education in the past, before vaccines were available. In blue states, at least, officials complied, given the obvious danger of COVID. Red states were less concerned, and less likely to close schools or even enforce mask mandates in them. While remote education undeniably contributed to learning loss in children, Silver’s point is easily knocked aside — nobody died because officials closed schools. Wen, however, tries to map out a more complicated middle path. She condemns Republican governors for their opposition to masks in one breath and attacks teachers unions in the next, but she and critics like her ignores the inarguable fact that if a teacher is too sick to work, or a student is too sick to come to school, learning loss is inevitable. Remote learning is inferior to in-person school; it’s better than nothing at all.

In their haste to attack teachers and unions, critics fail to keep up with the times. It’s not March 2020, and teachers know that. Most are now vaccinated. They’re not asking for another remote semester. Where unions are calling for virtual learning at all, it’s as a temporary measure until the Omicron wave subsides. Their demands to date are focused on safety measures, as seen in Chicago and Oakland. Critics either ignore those demands in favor of mischaracterizations, or, like Wen, insist that Omicron is mild enough to justify the risk.

It’s far easier to blame teachers and their unions than it is to ask difficult questions about the state of public education, which the pandemic turned into an emergency. In June 2020, the Government Accountability Office estimated that around one-third of the nation’s public schools “have inadequate heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems,” Chalkbeat reported. Districts are understaffed, a problem that predates the pandemic. Despite some efforts to raise wages, an Edweek Research Center survey found last October that “the most common strategy in the short term for tackling the shortage” is to ask “employees to take on additional responsibilities. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they’ve done that this year.” Teachers are burning out, and staff shortages are often felt most keenly by low-income schools, according to one National Bureau of Economic Research working paper cited by The Guardian. Staffing shortages extend to other school workers, too: Rural schools often lack school nurses, a significant problem amidst a pandemic.

Union critics often say they’re speaking on behalf of these children, whose chances of social mobility rest, often, on their access to quality public education. The Children’s Defense Fund says that children are “the poorest age group in the country,” with around one in six living in poverty. The great American myth is a fragile, unsupported thing. The idea that this country is a place where anyone can get ahead mostly rests on the shoulders of educators. When they stumble, critics perceive weakness rather than the heaviness of the load.

Perhaps this is why teachers unions have always had their critics. Today’s debaters are retrenching themselves along old battle lines. The U.S. boasts a long tradition of union-bashing, and teachers are tempting targets, because they are something of an American rarity: a unionized and mobilized profession. They also occupy a politically delicate, if powerful, position: Everyone cares about kids, or claims to. Poised as they are to influence the minds of the young, teachers are potential enemies of the right wing. To some liberals, the teacher is most of the time neither peer nor foe but something closer to the help. When a teacher asserts herself, she must be disciplined.

“I kept hoping that someone in our all-Democratic political leadership would take a stand on behalf of Cleveland’s 37,000 public-school children or seem to care about what was happening,” one self-described liberal, Angie Schmitt, complained in a piece for The Atlantic. “Weren’t Democrats supposed to stick up for low-income kids?” Schmitt went on to say that she suffers from symptoms of long COVID, without showing much regard for teachers who might worry about the same. She removed her child from traditional public school, and placed them in a charter school, where teachers are much less likely to be unionized. Bodenheimer removed her child from public school altogether, and sent them to private school instead.

In this way problems reinforce themselves, and no progress whatsoever is made. Teachers and students alike deserve a better conversation. Their interests aren’t opposed but aligned: The virus is still here, it is circulating in schools, and kids and school staff are getting sick in droves. There’s no replacement for in-person education, but if it’s temporarily inadvisable, why blame teachers and their unions for a reality they did not create and can not change? It would be far better indeed to discuss why schools aren’t safe in the first place; why they lack proper ventilation and the staff necessary to keep going. That would require a much more nuanced and grounded debate than the one we’re having now. Officials and pundits pit parents and teachers against each other, but both groups need more help than they’re getting, and both have reason for fury. They share an enemy the size of a country. America was failing its kids before COVID. We’re reaping the consequences now.

We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About School