Nearly a year into the pandemic, teachers unions across the country are still delaying the reopening of hundreds of schools, demanding that their members receive preferential treatment that other essential workers have long learned to do without.
While schools in many areas have begun to welcome students back, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for children and parents who have struggled academically and psychologically over the past year, some school districts have admitted that trying to start in-person learning this school year might be a lost cause.
On Friday, the largest Los Angeles teachers union voted overwhelmingly not to resume in-person classes until every teacher is vaccinated, among other demands. The powerful United Teachers Los Angeles union, which represents 35,000 teachers in the Los Angeles area, voted 91 percent against teachers and students returning in person to the classroom, the union declaring its members “united against an unsafe return.”
“We as educators are prioritizing the health and well-being of our students and their families,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “This vote signals that members are prepared to refuse to accept an unsafe work assignment.”
The union has three main demands. First, Los Angeles County must be out of the “purple tier,” the highest level in California’s color-coded system for coronavirus positivity, meaning the area has a seven-day coronavirus test positivity average of above eight percent. All of southern California is currently in the purple tier, but infection rates in Los Angeles County are declining. Second, the UTLA demands that all teachers and staff be provided access to the coronavirus vaccine. Finally, the union is requiring safety precaution at schools including PPE, physical distancing, improved ventilation and daily cleaning.
The vote came just hours after California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has overseen the imposition of stringent restrictions on residents over the course of the pandemic, signed a $6.6 billion legislative package earlier on Friday intended to incentivize schools across the state to reopen before the end of the school year. The package provides $2 billion for health safety precautions such as frequent coronavirus testing, personal protection equipment and upgraded classroom ventilation systems, while the remaining $4.6 billion will go toward learning resources and other support for students.
Newsom, whose party has long allied politically with teachers unions, previously expressed frustration with the unions’ demands and warned parents that in-person learning would likely not resume this school year if teachers refuse to compromise on everyone receiving the coronavirus vaccine.
“If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth, there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California. Just tell them the truth. Don’t mislead people,” Newsom said in late January as he struggled to reach a compromise with the teachers unions.
Seattle students must also wait longer to enjoy the benefits of in-person learning as the city’s teachers union, the Seattle Education Association, continues to tussle with Seattle Public Schools. Union leaders voted Wednesday not to restart in-person instruction and to continue teaching remotely after the school district attempted to call 700 teachers back to the classroom this week.
The union blamed Superintendent Denise Juneau, who is set to resign at the end of June, for teachers’ reluctance to return to school.
“It is Superintendent Juneau’s inaction that has caused the district’s bargaining team to drag their feet and it is her responsibility that buildings are not following safety protocols,” said union president Jennifer Matter in a statement. “SPS needs to work with us, the front-line educators who see what happens in buildings every day, put into writing what readiness looks like rather than push our educator’s expertise aside and put students at risk.”
Amid mounting pressure from residents of the state, Democratic Oregon Governor Kate Brown, like Newsom, has felt compelled to push back against the generally pro-Democrat unions, warning Friday that she will issue an executive order requiring all of the state’s public schools to provide universal access to in-person instruction for all K-12 students before the end of the school year.
In Virginia, the teachers unions in several school districts had insisted on vaccinations for all teachers and refused to reopen classrooms at all since the beginning of the pandemic until Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam formally requested that all schools offer at least some in-person learning by March 15. The Fairfax, Loudoun, Alexandria and Arlington school districts all acquiesced and resumed in-person instruction, but only for two days a week. Meanwhile, the exemptions some teachers have been granted for health conditions led to Fairfax County hiring hundreds of classroom monitors to supervise children in classrooms as their teachers teach virtually.
In some areas, cracks have opened up in the unions’ demands, and the prospect of a return to in-person instruction is more hopeful.
In Washington, D.C., students returned to the classroom for the first time since the pandemic began. However, the Washington Teachers Union floated going on strike shortly afterwards as teachers complained about the lack of safety precautions in school buildings. While public schools are still open in the nation’s capital, parents have complained that D.C. health guidelines are hampering the ability of allowing every child who wants to resume in-person learning to do so.
In Chicago, the city at long last reached a hard-won deal with teachers last month on safety precautions for reopening schools starting this month. The agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city board of education includes prioritizing teachers to receive the coronavirus vaccine, and Chicago Public Schools must provide “at least 1,500 first vaccine doses per week” to employees and guarantee second doses to follow.
No union member “will be required to resume in-person learning prior to having the opportunity to be fully vaccinated,” the agreement states.
The deal is still substantially limited, though, since Chicago public high schools, which have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, still do not have a reopening date.
In Phliadelphia, where schools have also been closed for nearly an entire year, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers finally relented on its demand that all teachers be vaccinated before returning to the classroom and after many delays made a deal with school officials to restart some in-person classes for pre-K through second grade students on Monday. The agreement is still thin gruel for the city’s public high school students, however, who have not set foot in the classroom since last March and have no start date to return.
In San Francisco, the the teachers union reached a tentative deal Friday with school officials after months of negotiations. Classrooms will reopen for the city’s youngest students beginning April 12. Still, officials have said it is very unlikely middle and high school students will be invited back for in-person instruction before the end of the school year.
In New York City, public high schools are set to reopen for in-person classes on March 22nd, four months after all schools were shuttered per an agreement with teachers unions during a November spike in coronavirus infections, when the average test positivity rate rose above 3 percent. The unions agreed to reopen pre-K and elementary schools shortly afterwards in December, while middle schools did not reopen until last month. The majority of the city’s public high school students will continue taking classes from home, however.
Recent research suggests that in-person classes can be resumed safely and that vaccinations for every teacher is not an absolute prerequisite. Several studies released in January by the CDC provide evidence that students can resume in-person classes safely, even in areas with higher coronavirus infection rates, as long as health safety precautions are observed, such as wearing face masks, physical distancing, cleaning and organizing students into small groups. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found zero instances of child-to-adult transmission within schools among 90,000 students and staff in 11 North Carolina school districts who returned to in-person classes.
“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” wrote CDC researchers in an essay published in late January in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last month that teachers do not need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen, although she qualified that teachers and students who are at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus should have the option to continue teaching and learning virtually.
“I’m a strong advocate of teachers receiving their vaccinations, but we don’t believe it’s a prerequisite for reopening schools,” Walensky said.
Biden said at a town hall last month that the goal is to have a “significant percentage” of K-8 schools open for in-person learning five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office.
Meanwhile, half the nation’s children remain out of school and many have struggled severely with remote learning.
Some of the nation’s larger school districts, including Houston, Texas as well as Miami and Broward County in Florida have opted to forego limiting in-person school attendance and have welcomed back students from all grades.
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