What’s at Stake in the Fight Over Reopening SchoolsRoundup
tags: teachers, public health, public schools, COVID-19
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of several books, including Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, which was a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for history.
As tens of thousands of Americans continue to die of covid-19, a new debate has emerged over whether public-school students, their teachers, and all of the staff necessary to make schools function should return to school buildings. In the United States, forty-two per cent of students are exclusively attending “virtual” school, thirty-five per cent are attending in-person school, and twenty-two per cent have a combination of in-person and remote learning. But there is mounting pressure from elected officials and some—mostly white—parents to jettison remote learning and fully resume in-person schooling. The move has been buttressed by recent studies, touted by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arguing that schools can safely reopen—always with the caveat that mitigation tools, such as mask wearing, proper ventilation, and regular sanitation, be put in place and community transmission be controlled.
But the rush to get back to normal, by securing the child care necessary to truly open the economy, is coming into sharp conflict with many teachers, who want vaccines and airtight mitigation protocols before agreeing to return to schools. Most parents of Black and Latinx students share their concerns. According to one recent study, only eighteen per cent of Black parents and twenty-two per cent of Latinx parents would prefer to send their children back to in-person schooling full time, compared with forty-five per cent of white parents. Over fifty per cent of Black and Latinx parents prefer to keep their children in remote learning.
Not all teachers have the legal right or political latitude to negotiate their working conditions. But where their unions are strong, teachers are standing up to unilateral directives mandating their return to school buildings. The city of San Francisco sued its school district to demand that schools reopen immediately, and Los Angeles’s city-council president has threatened to use the same tactic. In Philadelphia, the city’s school district directed teachers to show up in person on Monday, but the teachers’ union told its members to continue working remotely.
In Chicago, sharp disagreements about when and how public schools should reopen brought the city to the edge of a strike. Since schools rushed to close last March, at the onset of the pandemic, the city’s teachers have taught their classes from home. Chicago schools were slated to reopen in the fall, when the school year began, but rising rates of community spread and a lack of proper protections resulted in the continuation of remote learning. Chicago Public Schools then announced that it would plan to reopen in January—just as infection rates and deaths were rising exponentially across the country.
Chicago teachers voted with their feet. When they were asked to report to their buildings on January 4th, only forty-nine per cent did. After Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced, unilaterally, that schools would reopen on February 1st, seventy-one per cent of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to defy the order. After weeks of negotiating, the school district and the union reached a tentative agreement on Sunday. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the key items in the deal include a phased-in return to school buildings that stretches through the first week of March. With the exception of preschool teachers and special-education teachers, who have already returned to work, no union members will be required to return until they have been vaccinated. The city has also agreed to increase the number of teachers who will be allowed to continue teaching remotely because they share a residence with someone who has compromised health. The C.T.U. president, Jesse Sharkey, has said that eighteen hundred teachers have requested to work remotely for this reason, but only six hundred have received permission so far. If the C.T.U. votes to affirm the agreement, it may serve as a model for other teachers and their unions. Without bargaining, teachers would have been expected to return to schools with minimal protections in place. Just last week, Chicago Public Schools and Lightfoot were not even willing to wait for teachers to receive the vaccine.