Teachers’ Unions Are Making Totally Reasonable Pandemic Health and Safety DemandsRoundup
tags: unions, K-12, teachers, education, labor history, COVID-19
Josh Mound holds a PhD in history and sociology from the University of Michigan and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.
Since early in the pandemic, both Republican- and Democratic-leaning pundits have portrayed virtual school as an educational disaster for students, an economic disaster for the country, and a political disaster for Democrats. They’ve also united in blaming teachers’ unions, rather than the pandemic and the government’s failed response to it, for school districts’ decisions to go virtual. This narrative waned as schools across the country returned to in-person instruction in 2021.
However, teachers union-bashing has returned with a vengeance in the past few weeks, as the omicron variant infects record numbers of students and staff members. Some school districts have retreated to virtual learning due to student absences and lack of staff, and little learning is happening in many that remain open.
In only one case has a union action been central to the shift back to virtual learning. Before returning to in-person after the holiday break, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) called for expanded COVID testing, a request that Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker reportedly offered to help implement. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, instead chose last week to lock out teachers. The standoff continued, until yesterday, when the two sides reached an agreement to reopen school on Wednesday.
Predictably, anti-union pundits have blamed the CTU for having the temerity to ask for safety procedures that already exist in many other districts. Both Yahoo News White House correspondent Alexander Nazaryan and National Journal columnist Josh Kraushaar called on President Joe Biden to break the CTU like Ronald Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981.
FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver went further, declaring that virtual school has been a bigger disaster than the Iraq War, which killed as many as 1 million people. While Silver’s comment triggered widespread criticism for its absurdity, it wasn’t far from what many elite opponents of virtual learning have said for months. For example, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a longtime critic of teachers’ unions, wrote in March — when COVID had already killed half a million Americans — that virtual school was the “gravest catastrophe” of the pandemic.
Every piece of the pundits’ narrative has been flawed from the start — especially the blame placed on teachers’ unions. Because while many of these anti-union voices claim they’re speaking for poor families and families of color, both polling and actual enrollment decisions directly rebut their claims.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, preference for distance versus in-person schooling has been strongly correlated with race and income. Last October, a YouGov poll found that both African Americans and Latinos supported schools going remote by nearly two to one. Only white people, by a small margin, opposed the shift. Income was similarly correlated, with lower-income respondents more supportive of virtual learning than upper-income ones.
Anti-union pundits have also claimed they’re trying to save Democrats from electoral disaster. Yet polling throughout the pandemic has revealed that most families are happy with how their local schools have handled COVID. A March Chalkbeat poll revealed that 75 percent of parents were getting the type of instruction they wanted, with 15 percent wanting more in-person and 10 percent wanting more virtual. More recently, a November Ipsos poll found that 71 percent of overall respondents and 75 percent of parents thought their local schools were doing a “very good” or “somewhat good” job of balancing health and safety with other priorities.