Few American cities have labor policies like Chicago, where the nation’s third-largest school system closed this week after teachers’ union members refused to work in person, claiming classes were unsafe amid the Omicron surge.
But elsewhere, the precarious work peace that has allowed most schools to operate normally this year is in danger of collapsing.
While the unions are not yet threatening to walk out of work, they are back at the negotiating table, in some cases pushing for a return to distance learning. They often cite a shortage of staff due to illness, a shortage of rapid tests and medical masks. Some of the teachers in the rear guard took sick leave.
In Milwaukee, schools are closed until January 18 due to staffing issues. But teachers union president Amy Mizialko doubts things will improve much. and worries that the school board will resist the expansion of online classes.
“I assume it will be a fight,” Ms. Mizialko said.
She credited the district for at least postponing face-to-face classes earlier in 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 can all say that schools will be open,” Ms. Misialko added, referring to the US Secretary of Education and the mayor of Chicago. “But if they don’t have hundreds of thousands of people to replace educators sick of this uncontrollable surge, they won’t.”
For many parents and teachers, the pandemic has become a source of concern about the risk of infection, crises in childcare, tedious schooling and, above all, chronic instability.
And for Democrats, a resurgence of tension over distance learning is clearly an unwelcome development.
Because they have close ties to unions, Democrats are concerned that additional closures like those in Chicago could lead to a possible repeat of the party’s recent defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial race. The poll showed that school disruptions were a significant issue for swing voters who had split with Republicans, especially suburban white women.
“It makes a big difference in most of the polls we do in the states,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at ALG Research, whose work in Virginia has shown that school closures are hurting Democrats.
“Anyone who thinks this is a political issue that stops at Chicago’s city limits is kidding themselves,” added Mr. Stryker, whose firm conducted the poll for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It’s going to resonate all over Illinois, all over the country.”
More than one million of the nation’s 50 million public school students suffered from school closures in the district in the first week of January, many of which were announced suddenly and caused a wave of disappointment among parents.
“Children are not the ones who are seriously ill in general, but we do know that it is the children who suffer from distance learning,” said Dan Kirk, whose son attends Walter Peyton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, which was closed due to the district mode. confrontation this week.
Several charter school chains and non-union districts have temporarily transitioned to remote learning after the holidays. But as has been the case throughout the pandemic, the majority of temporary closures across the county, including in Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee, are taking place in liberal-minded neighborhoods with powerful unions and a more cautious approach to the coronavirus.
The demands of the unions echo those they have been putting forward for almost two years, despite everything that has changed. Now there are vaccines and encouraging knowledge that transmission of the virus in schools is limited. The Omicron variant, although highly contagious, appears to cause less severe illness than previous versions of Covid-19.
Most district leaders and many educators say schools should remain open. They cite a large body of research showing school closures cause academic and emotional damage to children, as well as increasing incomes and racial disparities.
But some local unions are much more wary of overcrowded classrooms. In Newark, schools began 2022 with an unexpected period of remote learning that is due to end on January 18th. John Abeygon, president of the Newark Teachers’ Union, said he was hopeful of a return to the buildings but remained unsure if every school would be able to operate. safely. Vaccination of students is far from universal, and most parents did not consent to their children being routinely tested for the virus.
If tests remain low, Mr Abeygon said he could ask for distance learning at certain schools with low vaccination rates and high case counts. He agreed that online learning was a burden on working parents, but argued that educators should not be sacrificed for the good of the economy.
“I’d rather see the whole city of Newark unemployed than let one single teacher’s assistant die for nothing,” he said.
In Los Angeles, the district worked closely with the union to keep classes open after one of the nation’s longest pandemic closures last school year. The vaccination rate for students aged 12 years and over is about 90 percent, with mandatory vaccination for students due to take effect this fall. All students and staff are tested weekly for the virus.
However, local union president Cecily Myart-Cruz did not rule out pushing for the county to return to distance learning in the coming weeks. “You know, I want to be honest – I don’t know,” she said.
Tensions are not limited to liberal states. In Kentucky, teacher unions and at least one major school district have said they need the flexibility to move to telecommuting amid rising infection rates.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature has granted no more than 10 days for such training in the county, and local unions fear that may not be enough. Janie Ward Bolander, state union leader, said teachers may have to quit their jobs.
“Frustration builds on teachers,” Ms. Ward Bolander said. “I hate to say that we would have left at that moment, but it is absolutely possible.”
National teacher unions continue to call for classes to remain open, but local affiliates have the most power in negotiating whether districts will close schools.
And over the past decade, some locals, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, have been taken over by activist leaders whose tactics may be more aggressive than those of national leaders such as Randy Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Becky Pringle of National Education. . associations, both close allies of President Biden.
To complicate matters, some local unions are facing internal pressure from their members. In the Bay Area, splinter groups of teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco have scheduled sick leave and demanded N95 masks, more virus testing and other safety measures.
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Rory Abernathy, a high school teacher in San Francisco, arranged for a sick day there on Thursday. She said the action in Chicago prompted some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this?”
In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color are disproportionately sending their children to public schools, and they often maintain strict security measures during the pandemic, including periods of distance learning. And in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, schools are operating with increased virus testing with limited objection from teachers.
But politics is getting more complex in the suburbs, where union leaders can find themselves at odds with government officials who are trying their best to retain face-to-face learning.
In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest county, the superintendent has a plan to transition selected schools to remote learning in the absence of many teachers.
Kimberly Adams, President the local education association said its union could demand stricter action. And she said districts should plan for virus outbreaks by distributing devices for possible short outbreaks of online learning.
But Dan Helmer, the state’s Democratic delegate whose swing constituency includes part of Fairfax County, said his constituents have little support for a return to online education.
Deb Andraka, a Wisconsin Democratic representative whose district is just north of Milwaukee where schools went telecommuting last week, said the Republicans were targeting her place and that she expected the schools to be the attacking line.
“Everyone I know wants schools to stay open,” she said. “But there’s a lot of talk about teacher unions not wanting schools to stay open.”
Jim Hobart, partner at Public Opinion Strategies, an opinion polling company whose clients include several Republican senators and governors, said the school closure issue has created two benefits for GOP candidates. This helped close their gap with the demographic they traditionally fought against – white women in their 20s and 50s – and generally undermined the Democrats’ pretensions to competence.
“A lot of people — Biden, Chicago Mayor Lightfoot — have said schools should be open,” Mr. Hobart said. “If they can’t prevent school closures, it shows weakness on their part.”
Labor officials say many of their critics are acting in bad faith, using pandemic-related parental frustration to further long-standing political goals such as discrediting unions and increasing private school vouchers.
So far, neither the criticism nor the broader challenges of the pandemic have had a significant impact on the public standing of trade unions, even according to polls conducted by researchers are skeptical about teacher unions.
And if it turns out that Democratic candidates are paying a political price for union assertiveness, local union officials don’t see that as their main concern.
If periods of distance learning this winter hurt the Democratic Party, “that’s a question for consultants and think tanks to decide,” said Mr. Abeygon, Newark’s union president. “But what is right? I do not have any questions”.
Holly Secon provided a report from San Francisco.