The same day the union staged a teacher sickout — or, as the union called it, a mental health day — that disrupted online learning for the 47,000-student system, Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee announced the cancellation of plans to bring back 7,000 students for the start of the new term next week. Students selected for this limited in-person learning included those most at risk — those who are homeless, disabled or learning English as a second language — and whose parents had opted in. It was the second time that D.C. officials scrapped plans for classroom instruction in the face of opposition from the union. Plans to start the school year with a hybrid schedule were dropped in favor of all-virtual learning after a week of protests from the union that included the delivery of body bags to the system’s headquarters as a warning of the deaths that might result from covid-19.
Teachers are right to be concerned about health risks — to them and their families, as well as those of students — and it is the union’s job to advocate for its members. The rate of infections in the area at the start of school was such that it may have been prudent to opt for virtual learning. But more is now known about the coronavirus and it has been demonstrated — by school systems in other cities and countries, as well as some private and public charter schools in D.C. that have resumed classroom learning — that schools can safely be opened with proper precautions in place. The toe in the water approach advocated by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was a sensible first step, and it’s distressing to see it upended. The D.C. teachers’ union has complained that the administration failed to adequately consult with teachers, a curious claim given the hours spent at the bargaining table since the summer and how the union managed to persuade the public employees relations board not to allow the city to use the results of a survey it had sent to teachers about their needs and preferences.
There needs to be more urgency in getting students back in the classroom. If grocery stores and hair salons and gyms and restaurants can adapt, why is there not similar impetus to get children back to school in a way that is safe for them and their teachers?
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, told us that bargaining talks have resumed with the city. She said the union wants to see children start to return to school as long as conditions are safe and there are teachers willing to volunteer. All good to hear, but talk isn’t going to help the city’s children who are struggling at home while schools sit vacant.