New York public middle schools are on schedule to resume in-person classes this week. They were closed for more than six months when Covid-19 first hit, followed by multiple false starts—before a partial reopening across the five boroughs in late September. In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the suspension of in-person teaching for certain Covid–19 hotspots in Brooklyn and Queens and shut down the entire system in November when Covid-19 infection rates surged. They remained closed until now.
Randi Weingarten, who heads the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, and served as president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers from 1998 to 2009, said New York’s current reopening model of testing, layered mitigation, and vaccine prioritization has the support of 85% of her AFT membership. Teachers and other school employees are among those prioritized for vaccines under New York State guidelines. Still, supply chain issues and a rollout proceeding in fits and starts have hampered a streamlined effort.
In Chicago, the local government has announced that Chicago schools could gradually start to reopen for in-person learning this week under a tentative agreement with the teacher's union on a safety plan. On Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, with Chicago school district CEO Janice Jackson said that the framework of a potential deal between the city—which has the third-largest school district in the country—and the Chicago Teachers Union (representing 28,000 educators) has been struck.
For months, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office have been at odds with teachers who stress the need for strong health and safety protocols to combat Covid-19 spreading in classrooms: measures like substantive ventilation, testing, contact tracing, and health committees were created to monitor the situation. Sticking points for the unions have been over the availability of vaccinations for teachers and over what metrics will be used to decide when to close schools if infections go up again. They also could not agree on how to accommodate teachers who prefer to work remotely if they have or live with people who have medical conditions.
The Chicago Teachers Union said members have yet to approve the deal, and in response, stated that “all of our members must first review and assess because it is our members who are being asked to return to school buildings in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Speaking for Chicago schools, Janice Jackson outlined the plan to bring students who opt to resume in-person learning back to schools once unions are happy to ratify the agreement. This would mean pre-kindergarten and special education students return Thursday; however, she did not specify if their teachers would also be back or if substitute monitor would be used with teachers operating remotely. Elementary school teachers returned on Monday, with their students returning next week. Middle school staff would return to school on March 1, with their students returning on Mar. 8. No announcement was made about when high school students might be given an option to go back to school.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, right, with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, in Chicago on Aug. 5, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune via AP)
In making their case for teacher’s interests, the union said teachers would stop working altogether, form picket lines, and strike if the district retaliated against any members who refused to teach in school buildings. In fact, these kinds of labor disputes have taken place across the U.S., lining up teacher unions against district officials concerning what conditions are needed for reopening and returning the nation’s 50 million students to schools.
School Reopening Problems in Virginia
In Virginia, email records surfaced indicating how stringent teachers have been in-fighting to keep schools closed. Virginia teachers' unions contended that in-person learning is still too risky. When Republicans in the state Senate put forward a bill (SB 1303) requiring school districts to offer parents both in-person and virtual options, unions were not in favor. “We can recover from a loss of learning, but we can’t recover from a loss of life,” said Virginia Education Association (VEA) President Dr. James J Fedderman.
Presently, Fedderman and the VEA have indicated they can support an alternative school-reopening bill proposed by the Democrat-led House, coordinated with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Though, from documents found during Freedom of Information Act requests, we find that a big behind-the-scenes pressure campaign took place by the unions to influence Democratic state lawmakers and stipulate reopening conditions the unions favored.
The Republican State Leadership Committee sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on Feb. 3, to twenty-six Virginia House Democrats (from the total fifty-five Democrats) who represent four counties—Fairfax, Loudoun, Chesterfield, and Henrico—to investigate whether unions sent thousands of emails to Democratic House delegates about aspects of school-reopening plans they opposed. They requested copies of any correspondence beginning in early November between the delegates’ offices and several national, state, and local teachers' unions, and union-aligned groups, “regarding in-person learning and the reopening of public schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” For the time period, the twenty-six delegates said they received 5,274 emails and email chains of correspondence with the unions, just over an average of more than two hundred emails per delegate.
Specifically, around ninety percent of the emails went to nine Democratic lawmakers, who in turn did not return requests for comment and referenced a state law that allows them to shield their communications from the public. Representative Dan Helmer, however, who reported 675 emails and 72 email chains, was prepared to comment and stated that “it was like 700 emails, that were literally the same email, or same version of an email, 700 times. My inbox was filled with form emails from constituents and non-constituents, from all over the state and from some site that generates them.” He declined to comment on why he refused to release them if they were just standard emails.
Representative Ibraheem Samirah, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, did release a few emails from people affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in Virginia and the Virginia Education Association. Via these emails, the union leaders asked Samirah to get behind a pause on school-reopening plans, prioritize school employees for vaccinations, oppose the school-reopening bill, and consider cosponsoring a series of other bills supported by the unions. FOIA findings indicated that these emails too looked like generic mass emails of the kind probably sent to all Democratic lawmakers described above.
Nevertheless, for Virginia, a bipartisan coalition-building effort in January headed by Republican Virginia state senator Siobhan Dunnavant has led to some independent Democrats agreeing to withhold their votes on the state budget until the school-reopening issue is resolved. For example, Senate Democrats—Chap Petersen and Joe Morrissey—said, “This can’t go on.” Moreover, self-described “independent Democrat” Joe Morrissey from Henrico County moved his elementary-aged kids from public school back to in-person Catholic school last fall when his district announced teaching would be remote. He stated that using standard health-safety measures, that none of the 26 diocesan schools in his area have had a Covid-19 outbreak: “These parents, they want their kids back in school, and I know there are some young teachers that want to get back in the classroom—that’s their passion—but I can’t help but think that these unions are driving some of this, and I think it’s wrong.”
Morrisey (L) and Petersen (R)
Dunnavant then introduced a reopening bill—it only has one sentence—saying that all school districts in the state must make virtual and in-person learning options available to all students, leaving the choice to parents. The bill passed the Senate 26-13 on Feb. 2 and will go into effect in July for the 2021-22 school year if supported by the state Congress and Governor. Yet, just a week or two later, the Democrat-led House coordinated with Northam to propose a substitute for the bill—supported by the VEA’s Fedderman and others, which also lists July as the return date, but allows for local school boards to define “in-person instruction” and lets staff members continue to work “in a fully remote or virtual manner.”
As the bill's sponsor, Dunnavant said she has a lot of power to guide the legislation through the General Assembly and accept or deny House amendments. At the moment, she said, she and her Senate colleagues are “talking nicely” with House leaders. “But if their the intent is that they’re going to water down this bill . . . so they can keep making the same bad mistakes, then the conversation is not going to go well,” she said.
Fairfax County was also in the news last week when some students went back to school while teachers—ninety percent of whom have received the first shot of the vaccine or have their appointments made—stayed home. In their place, eight hundred “classroom monitors” were hired by the county to supervise students receiving remote instruction from their school desks.
For schools to reopen, unions want total safety to be the priority. The CDC is also setting guidelines for school reopening, which is also causing much debate, as reported this week on UncoverDC. Yet, many agree with New York schools Chancellor Richard Carranza who said, “educators have done an incredible job supporting students remotely. But as we’ve said from the beginning, nothing can replace in-person learning and the support that our students receive.” Along with the New York Mayor, he went on to point out that reviving schools has become imperative due to mounting evidence of the damage wrought by student isolation.