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Teacher: What Americans keep getting wrong about our unions during the pandemic

Garrick Ruiz, a member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles union, center, yells while teachers and supporters march outside of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2019. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

President Biden recently said that he does not blame teachers or their unions for refusing to go back into schools that they think are unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic — a stance that countered a growing chorus of critics blaming the unions for keeping schools closed.

Schools have been closed in some districts, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., since last March when the novel coronavirus took hold around the country — and city officials are now pushing teachers to return to classrooms, saying they have taken necessary health measures to keep the virus from spreading. The officials also said that available evidence shows that transmission of the virus is low in schools that have opened.

But teachers and their unions say that in some districts the safety measures taken are not adequate to protect educators, staff members or students, and educators are refusing to return to classrooms. Chicago is in the middle of a confrontation between city officials and the powerful teachers union over whether to return to in-person classes.

The Washington Post published a story last month by my colleagues Perry Stein and Laura Meckler chronicling the difficulty that D.C. officials and the Washington Teachers Union were having reaching an agreement to resume in-person learning, revealing just how complicated reopening schools can be. They wrote:

How D.C. and its teachers, with shifting plans and demands, failed to reopen schools

A combination of mismanagement by the mayor and her aides and intransigence from the District’s teachers union combined to thwart every move, according to interviews with city officials, union leaders, educators and activists. The city kept changing its plan, and the union kept changing its demands. A lack of trust on both sides fueled failure at every turn.

At a recent news conference, a reporter asked Biden whether teachers should return to classrooms. His response was not an automatic “yes”; instead, he said districts should prioritize fixing ventilation systems, securing sufficient personal protective equipment and establishing coronavirus testing systems.

Biden: I don’t blame teachers or their unions for schools staying closed

“If you are anti-union, you can say it is all because of teachers,” said Biden, a longtime ally of labor groups. “If you want to make a case, though, [that] it is complicated, you say, what do you have to do to make it safe to get kids in schools?”

The unions aren’t acting in lockstep about whether to reopen schools. The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union, issued a detailed report last summer explaining health measures that districts could take to reopen schools, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has pursued that position ever since. She co-authored a piece last month with Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, noting places where health measures — such as coronavirus testing — have allowed schools to reopen. They wrote:

Data from the United States and abroad suggest that because of strong mitigation measures, schools are some of the safest places in a community, particularly with testing in place. Widespread, regular testing remains critical to school reopening, and combined with the right steps and federal support — even before the new vaccines are widely available — the nation’s more than 98,000 public schools could be open soon, getting students back to in-person learning.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers union and the largest labor union in the country, has not written a plan for reopening schools.

All of that brings us to Karen Engels, a fourth-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., who wrote the following piece about teachers and unions. She said she has been speaking with colleagues around the country and has found a consistent dynamic: People seem to love teachers but hate their unions.

By Karen Engels

When we look back on the horrors of the covid-19 pandemic, we will remember not only the devastation in lost lives and lost livelihoods, but also the profound breakdown in our collective trust. In public schools, this dissolution of trust has reached a crisis point. While some Americans are experiencing a renewed appreciation for teachers’ crucial role in the fabric of our society, we are also witnessing a vitriolic backlash against teachers’ unions.

I’m a fourth-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., where fourth-graders have been learning remotely for almost a year, and I’ve experienced this ironic dichotomy firsthand.

From the parents in my classroom, I’ve received consistent, effusive expressions of gratitude for the close and caring community I’ve helped to nourish across the screen. They know that I love their children and will do everything in my power to keep them safe and help them grow during a terribly difficult time. They can see that I’ve been working around-the-clock to translate what had been a hands-on, project-based curriculum to new modalities.

One parent recently shared, “You make such an incredible difference in our lives, bringing your infectious positive energy to the classroom every day and keeping our kids curious and engaged learners despite the unusual circumstances. You are a true ray of light!” Another wrote, “I’ve been so impressed with the scope and ambition of the curriculum. … I can’t imagine how much planning and work goes in behind the scenes, and we’re tremendously thankful for it.”

How is it that we love teachers as individuals but hate them collectively? I received quite a different email this summer after publicly stating my support for greater educator involvement in reopening planning:

You are on the wrong side of history- lobbying in a way that shows your true colors and harms children that are disadvantaged, stuck at home with remote learning (widely proven to be ineffective) because you are too ignorantly scared and uninformed to enter the classroom. As a physician, why should I care for you and your family when you are sick when you can’t put on a mask and teach my kids? Shame on you! Stop fear mongering! Learn some science and do your job!

Unfortunately, since the summer, that anger has only grown more palpable. Everywhere I turn, teachers unions are being chastised as self-interested, lazy obstructers of reopening.

A Jan. 27 editorial in the Boston Globe proclaimed: “In Chicago, the third-largest district in the nation, teachers are refusing to go back to work. Unions across the country have resisted in-person teaching. It took a spate of student suicides in Las Vegas to prompt that district to finally make plans to reopen.”

In a Jan. 28 column, New York Times opinion writer David Brooks linked teachers to the “wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America” and asserts that teachers unions “deny evidence, invent their own facts and live in their own fantasyland. ”

Adding to the irony is the fact that in a 77 percent-female teaching force, many of us are also working mothers. My own three children — in the second, eighth and 10th grades — have been learning remotely since last March, so I can absolutely empathize with families’ mounting despair as the months drag on.

So why are unions more cautious about reopening than the districts that employ them? Is it true that teachers are simply unwilling to make sacrifices?

I’d offer another explanation. In districts across the country, the pandemic has exposed the perspective gap between education decision-makers and front-line classroom teachers. We’ve never really had a seat at the table when it comes to decisions that affect our daily lives and the lives of our students — only now, those decisions can directly jeopardize our students’ health, and our own.

Like viewers of a pointillist painting, state- and district-level decision-makers see a holistic picture, grounded in legislation, local politics, assessment trends, and parent advocacy. They view the painting from a distance, where the individual dots form the impression of a single landscape.

But educators see the individual brushstrokes of color, the stray marks, the nuances that go missed when you stand too far away. We see the children. Both perspectives are needed. But states and districts have done a notoriously poor job of creating structures and cultures to truly incorporate educators’ close-range perspective.

How does this play out in pandemic times? In Massachusetts, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently increased the hours that students are required to attend “live” instruction remotely, a misguided decision that falsely equates face time with learning outcomes.

Teachers who have actually been teaching remotely for a year now have learned that remote learning is inarguably most effective when students have a lot of autonomy and choice, and when there is a healthy balance between live instruction and discussion and independent work.

In a high-functioning remote model, students who need more targeted support can receive it for longer stretches, while students who are more independent can do a higher portion of asynchronous work on their own. Forcing kids into longer seat times bores children who don’t need the extra time while stealing instructional attention from those who do.

Similarly, we’ve seen many districts design bizarrely untenable hybrid models, like models where students “beam in” from home while a teacher juggles in-person and remote needs simultaneously.

Anyone who has done teaching in either format knows the absurdity of this model, and yet many districts have rolled over educator concerns and implemented a plan that prevents both remote and in-person learners from accessing the unique advantages of their specific learning context.

And policymakers overlook the critical details that can make or break the implementation of any remote, hybrid or in-person plan. For example, some districts have mandated that masks must be worn within 3 feet before thinking through how kids will eat lunch when there are no additional spaces for students to spread out, or figuring out how students will safely use communal bathrooms. The list goes on and on.

Most importantly, as teachers, we see the individual stories of the pandemic.

We see some students who have become worrisomely tethered to screen time during the closure.

We see some children who are actually thriving with the greater self-direction of remote school, or who were shy in a large classroom but light up in the small groups of Google Meet.

We see many students living in intergenerational households or with high-risk family members who are not ready to return to school this year even when buildings open.

We look at potential opening plans through these students’ eyes to analyze how it will benefit or harm them.

What about the charge that teachers are obstructionists who love to complain without offering solutions?

The reality is that teachers have always been nimble problem-solvers. When schools closed in March, teachers immediately stepped in to fill the gaps left when our paper-based instructional materials became anachronistic overnight. In our district, teachers formed Educator Collaboratives so that we could leverage our collective expertise and creativity to develop actively anti-racist, relevant, engaging remote-learning experiences for our students. We’ve been meeting long past the school day without compensation because we know it’s what our students need.

Ask any teacher, and we also have lots of ideas about how to design a school experience where kids can learn and grow safely during a pandemic. Why not learn remotely before lunch, focusing on the kinds of learning experiences that work well on-screen, and gather together outside for 90 or 120 minutes after lunch to connect socially, hold small group discussions, exercise together, or explore the natural world?

It’s the perfect year to shed the false pressures caused by decades of test-driven schooling to reconnect with more authentic and purposeful learning. We could provide supervised, in-person mornings at school for a smaller number of students who really need a full-day, in-person experience to make progress academically, or who need a safe and structured environment while family members are at work.

Unions have been falsely characterized as refusing to “return to work,” when in fact, we want desperately to return to our classrooms (and the “work” has never left — it’s with us seven days a week). But we want to be partners in designing what school looks like. There’s too much at stake to ignore teachers’ fine-tuned understanding of children and their needs.

After a year of exile, I’ll be returning to my own classroom on March 1. I’m lucky to be able to go back, because my family and I do not have high-risk factors and I don’t rely on crowded public transit to get to school.

I’m certainly nervous, given that teacher vaccinations in Massachusetts are still many weeks away. But as I begin to set desks and plan bulletin boards, I feel strangely hopeful.

We’re starting to believe that normalcy will return. We have a new president and soon a new education secretary whose words and actions let us imagine the possibility of a post-covid-19 world in which teachers are rightfully valued for their expertise, not pitted against the students and families we love and serve.