“Science is not the obstacle. Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of willpower, “said Mitch McConnell, chairman of the Senate minority, on Wednesday.” Not among students. Not among parents. Only among the rich, powerful unions who donate large sums to Democrats and have a grip on education in many communities. “
What, we’re supposed to believe that the “rich, powerful unions” have just decided to vote for this particular struggle for no good reason? Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, got together and decided that the best way to build power was to use a lot of political capital that blocks personal education. Oh please. This is definitely a case where the teachers put pressure on their leaders and the reason for this is that the teachers are scared.
Additionally, teachers are scared because people keep telling them that it is safe to enter the classroom if a long list of precautions is followed, and they know that there is no chance of it in many of their school systems. They have stories of overcrowded classrooms where the windows won’t open to let in fresh air and they’re not allowed to open doors as this could put them at risk in the event of a school shooting. They have stories of schools where students are not held within two meters of each other for 15 minutes by telling them to get up and run around every 12-14 minutes. They have photos that show creative interpretations of just how far six feet really is.
What the teachers say is that contrary to McConnell’s assertion that “federal money is not the obstacle,” federal funding for the job of keeping schools safe has been completely inadequate and local leaders have not necessarily been better. They point out that studies of COVID-19 transmission in schools regarding the role of schools in transmission have been and are common around the world as the media lines up to highlight the most reassuring data.
In Chicago, the teachers’ union strongly advises parents to vote with their feet too. Only 19% of Chicago students returned to school in person in January, despite the city doing everything it could to force teachers into the classrooms. The teachers’ union points to racial disparities in which students have returned – white parents are far more likely to send their children in person than black parents – and notes that plans for simultaneous personal and distance learning will further penalize distant students. Students who, in turn, are disproportionately likely to be black.
It’s not just Chicago where black families drop out of personal school during the pandemic. So, yes, basically everyone agrees that distance learning isn’t great. But you cannot label personal learning as a racial justice issue when the children who return are disproportionately white. One can criticize a system that has for too long made black families suspicious of how much it values the safety of their children. You can point out the inequalities exacerbated by a pandemic year where some schools have the resources to open safely while others don’t. where some children have private assistance for distance learning while others don’t even have internet access; in which there were chasms between the rates at which different racial groups got sick, were hospitalized, died.
While all of this is happening, political leaders say schools are safe while they generally refuse to do the things that schools would make safe – the things that the studies indicate they would make schools safe make schools safe – teachers are also placed on vaccination priority lists in many states. This is not exactly the way to show that you really want to prioritize school safety, shall we say.
And when it comes to reopening schools, teachers’ fears and the political power of their unions are not the only factors. Montgomery, Alabama recently switched to all-remote learning after the death of four teachers. It is safe to say that it is not the incredible power of the teachers’ unions in Alabama that motivated this decision. In at least several other districts, schools were forced to close or move away because they simply could not maintain staff levels for teachers who were sick or quarantined from exposure. In Utah, some schools had to be isolated so often from outbreaks that they made up 40% of the fall semester.
Vaccinating teachers won’t be a perfect silver bullet until we have better data on whether and how much COVID-19 transmission the vaccines block, or until teachers’ potentially at-risk family members are also vaccinated. But it would be a big step, and one that the same political leaders who are pushing for schools to reopen are not so indebted.
Will Republicans now manage to turn parents against teachers by yelling about teachers’ unions? Probably more than they should be, at least among the white suburbs they are targeting with this message. However, it is also possible that Republicans underestimate how many people know a teacher. Just a person you know who is a teacher who may be scared of herself.
In any case, this news deserves the greatest pushback. And anyone who disagrees that teachers should be prioritized for vaccination can definitely hammer the sand. All the sand. All day.