Teachers’ unions push for distance education, Democrats worry

Few American cities have such a heavy-handed union policy as Chicago, where the third-largest school system in the country closed its doors this week after teachers’ union members refused to work in person, arguing that classrooms class were dangerous in the middle of the Omicron wave.

But in a number of other places, the precarious labor peace that has allowed most schools to function normally this year is in danger of collapsing.

While not yet threatening to quit their jobs, unions are back at the bargaining tables, in some cases pushing for a return to distance learning. They frequently cite understaffing due to the disease and a lack of rapid tests and medical grade masks. Some teachers, in a rearguard action, have organized work stoppages.

In Milwaukee, schools are set apart until Jan. 18, due to staffing issues. But teachers’ union president Amy Mizialko doubts the situation will improve significantly and fears the school board will resist expanding online courses.

“I predict it will be a fight,” Ms. Mizialko said.

She credited the district with at least delaying in-person schooling to start the year, but criticized Democratic officials for putting unrealistic pressure on teachers and schools.

“I think Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona and the newly elected mayor of New York and Lori Lightfoot – they can all declare that the schools will be open,” Ms. Mizialko added, referring to the US Secretary of Education and the mayor of Chicago. “But unless they have hundreds of thousands of people to replace the educators who are sick in this uncontrolled wave, they won’t be.”

For many parents and teachers, the pandemic has become a drudgery of anxiety over the risk of infection, childcare crises, on-screen school boredom and, most importantly, the chronic instability.

And for Democrats, the resumption of tensions over distance education is a clearly undesirable development.

Because they have close ties to the unions, Democrats fear that additional closures like the ones in Chicago could lead to a possible repeat of the party’s recent loss in the race for governor of Virginia. Polls showed school disruptions were a big issue for swing voters who shattered Republicans – especially white suburban women.

“That’s a big deal in most of the state polls we do,” said Brian Stryker, partner at polling firm ALG Research whose work in Virginia indicated school closures were hurting Democrats.

“Anyone who thinks this is a political issue that ends at the Chicago city limit is delusional,” added Mr. Stryker, whose company polled for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It’s going to resonate all over Illinois, across the country.”

Over one million of the country’s 50 million public school students were hit by district-wide closures in the first week of January, many of which were abruptly announced and sparked frustration among parents.

“The kids aren’t the critically ill ones overall, but we know it’s the kids who suffer from distance learning,” said Dan Kirk, whose son attends Walter Payton College Preparatory High School. of Chicago, which was closed amid deadlock this week.

Several non-union charter school networks and districts have temporarily switched to distance learning after the holidays. But as has been the case throughout the pandemic, most of the district-wide temporary shutdowns – including in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee – are taking place in liberal-leaning areas with strong unions and an approach. more cautious of the coronavirus.

The unions’ demands echo those they have been making for nearly two years, despite everything that has changed. There are now vaccines and the reassuring certainty that transmission of the virus at school has been limited. The Omicron variant, while highly contagious, appears to cause less severe disease than previous iterations of Covid-19.

Most district leaders and many educators say it’s imperative that schools stay open. They cite a large body of research showing that closures harm children, academically and emotionally, and widen income and racial disparities.

But some local union officials are very wary of crowded classrooms. In Newark, schools began in 2022 with an unexpected period of distance learning, which is scheduled to end on January 18. John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he was hopeful about the return to the buildings, but was unsure if every school could function. without issue. Student vaccination is far from universal, and most parents have not consented to their children being tested for the virus on a regular basis.

Mr Abeigon said if testing remained scarce, he might require distance learning in specific schools with low vaccination rates and high caseloads. He agreed that online learning is a burden on working parents, but argued that educators should not be sacrificed for the sake of the economy.

“I would see the whole city of Newark unemployed before I let a single teacher assistant die needlessly,” he said.

In Los Angeles, the district worked closely with the union to keep classrooms open after one of the nation’s longest pandemic shutdowns last school year. The vaccination rate for students 12 and older is around 90 percent, with a mandate for student vaccination expected to go into effect this fall. All students and staff are tested for the virus weekly.

Still, local union president Cecily Myart-Cruz would not rule out pushing for a return to district-wide distance education in the coming weeks. “You know, I want to be honest – I don’t know,” she said.

Tensions aren’t limited to liberals States. In Kentucky, teachers’ unions and at least one large school district have said they need flexibility to walk away amid rising infection rates.

But the Republican-controlled state legislature has given no more than 10 days for such a district-wide instruction, and unions fear it is insufficient. Jeni Ward Bolander, leader of a statewide union, said teachers may have to quit their jobs.

“The frustration builds on the teachers,” Ms. Ward Bolander said. “I hate to say that we would be leaving then, but it is entirely possible.”

National teachers’ unions continue to call for classrooms to stay open, but local affiliates hold the most power in negotiations over some districts to close schools.

And over the past decade, some residents, including those of Los Angeles and Chicago, have been picked up by militant leaders whose tactics may be more aggressive than those of national leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Becky. Pringle of National Education. Association, both close to President Biden.

To complicate matters, some locals are under internal pressure from their own members. In the Bay Area, splinter groups of teachers in Oakland and San Francisco have planned work stoppages and demanded N95 masks, more virus tests and other safety measures.

Rori Abernethy, a college teacher in San Francisco, organized a work stoppage on Thursday. She said the Chicago action prompted some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this? “

In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color disproportionately send their children to public schools, and they have often supported strict safety measures during the pandemic, including periods of distance learning. And in New York City, the country’s largest school district, schools are operating in person with increased numbers of virus tests, with limited dissent from teachers.

But politics gets complicated in the suburbs, where union leaders can find themselves in conflict with civil servants preserve in-person schooling.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest district, the superintendent has a plan to move from individual schools to distance learning in the event of many absent teachers.

Kimberly Adams, President of the local education association said his union might want tougher measures. And she said districts should plan for virus outbreaks by handing out devices for potential short periods of online schooling.

But Dan Helmer, a delegate from the Democratic state whose swing district includes part of Fairfax County, said there was little support among his constituents for a return to online education.

Deb Andraca, a representative for the Democratic state of Wisconsin whose district is just north of Milwaukee, where schools became remote last week, said Republicans had targeted her seat and she expected that schools are a line of attack.

“Everyone I know wants schools to stay open,” she said. “But there is a lot of talk about the fact that teachers’ unions don’t want schools to stay open.”

Jim Hobart, partner of Public Opinion Strategies, a polling company that has several Republican senators and governors as clients, said the issue of school closures created two advantages for GOP candidates. This has helped shrink their margins within a demographic they have traditionally struggled with – white women in their mid-twenties and mid-fifties – and it has generally undermined Democrats’ claims to competence.

“A lot of people – Biden, Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago – have said the schools should be open,” Hobart said. “If they fail to prevent schools from choosing to close, it shows weakness on their part.

Labor officials say many of their critics are acting in bad faith, exploiting parental frustrations over the pandemic to advance long-standing political goals, like discrediting unions and expanding vouchers for private schools.

So far, neither the criticisms nor the broader challenges of the pandemic appear to have significantly hampered the public reputation of unions, even according to polls conducted by researchers skeptical of teachers’ unions.

And if it turns out that Democratic candidates are paying a political price for union assertiveness, local labor officials don’t see it as one of their main concerns.

If the distance learning periods this winter have hurt the Democratic Party, “that’s a question for consultants and brains to resolve,” said Abeigon, the Newark union president. “But is it the right thing to do?” There is no doubt in my mind.

Holly Secon contributed to San Francisco reporting.

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