Going back to school after a lazy summer can be a struggle for many children, but this year the biggest challenge may be convincing the teachers to return.
With the fall semester just a few weeks away, teachers’ unions in many communities are setting up a major test for President Trump as he pushes for schools to reopen, holding anti-reopening rallies and warning that school districts that opt for in-person learning could be hit by “safety strikes.”
“Schools haven’t even opened, and yet these demonstrations are happening,” said Jonathan Butcher, senior education policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s become a call to protest, and that is what unions are built to do. They’re built to design collective action, and so that’s what they’ve opened the door for.”
Demand Safe Schools, a coalition of a dozen urban teachers’ unions and the Democratic Socialists of America, offered Monday a taste of things to come by holding multiple events across the nation in opposition to local reopening plans as part of a National Day of Resistance.
Their demands included “police-free schools,” a moratorium on vouchers, lower class sizes, greater access to online learning, and “no reopening until the scientific data supports it.”
Among the organizations participating was the Chicago Teachers Union, where organizers held a rally against Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan for a mix of remote and classroom learning, followed by a caravan of cars decorated with messages such as, “We want to teach not die.”
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“You cannot go to the beach in the city of Chicago,” said Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey. “You cannot drink indoors in the city of Chicago, but they’re going to send hundreds of thousands of students into school buildings, hundreds to a building … We’re not going to stand for it.”
Last week, the American Federation of Teachers sent a shot across the bow at its biennial convention by preapproving “safety strikes,” calling them a “last resort” against “unsafe school reopening plans.”
“Let’s be clear: Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of students and their educators,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a July 28 speech. “But if the authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”
The warning comes with Mr. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calling for schools to reopen in-person, backed by Dr. Richard Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told Congress last week that “the public health and interest of the students in the nation right now is to get a quality education and face-to-face learning.”
The AFT and National Education Association have cited concerns about rising COVID-19 infection rates as they push for the passage of the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion House bill that would deliver $90 billion for K-12 public schools as part of a “state fiscal stabilization fund.”
“We may have to pink slip, we may have to lay off massive amounts of teachers, massive amounts of school support staff,” NEA president Lily Eskelen Garcia told Fox4 in Kansas City. “Now what do you do? We can’t figure this out. Luckily, there is a cure to this, and it’s funding. What we’re asking for is the same kind of emergency funding they gave to businesses a few months ago. We need that for our public schools.”
Mr. Trump tweeted again Monday his support for reopening, tweeting, “Open the Schools,” while his foes on social media noted that his son Barron Trump will be unable to attend in-person after health officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, banned school reopenings until Oct. 1.
That includes private schools like St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac, which the president’s son attends.
“As soon as it’s safe for Barron, we’ll send our kids, too. But not until that day,” tweeted Huffington Post blogger Bryan Behar.
The risk for the teachers’ unions is that they may overplay their hand, alienating parents worried that their children are falling behind with the distancing-learning approach undertaken earlier this year by virtually all schools at the height of the epidemic.
Dr. Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Medical Center, accused the unions of “panicking,” arguing that the scientific approach would be to protect the small number of at-risk teachers while allowing students to return in-person.
“It’s outrageous what they’re saying. Contemplating a strike is outrageous,” Dr. Atlas said. “In the NEA’s mission statement, they stress how essential they are, and they are essential. Step up and open the schools.”
Richard Berman, executive director of the labor watchdog Center for Union Facts, accused the teachers’ unions of taking advantage of the crisis to push their political agenda.
“Even in these unprecedented times, we can still count on teachers’ unions to do what they do best: Put their own interests ahead of their hostages — students and parents,” Mr. Berman said in an email.
He noted that the United Teachers Los Angeles Union, an AFT affiliate, called last month for the reopening to be tied to shutting down publicly funded charter schools, Medicare for All, defunding the police, housing for the homeless and a statewide wealth tax.
“It’s just another example of how unions use the pandemic to push political agendas,” Mr. Berman said.
Ms. Weingarten, AFT president, said the Los Angeles union’s stance was “not a national position,” insisting the union wants to see schools reopened, but safely.
“We said really clearly and have said every single day, we know our kids need to be in school buildings, we need to make it safe, and there are ways of doing it,” Ms. Weingarten said on Fox News. “You have to reduce the community spread in a community, you have to have the safety guardrails including testing, masks, physical distancing, cleaning and ventilation, and you have to be able to pay for that.”
Dr. Atlas, who has championed reopening the schools, argued that the science doesn’t support the union position, pointing to CDC data showing that children face far less risk from COVID-19 than they do from the seasonal flu.
“Switzerland did a contact tracing study and they showed that of all the sources of cases, 0.3% are from schools,” said Dr. Atlas. “There is overwhelming evidence that we must open the schools, and that is the president’s policy, as he has said many times. We are the only nation in the Western world who are hysterical about reopening schools.”
As far as the risks to teachers, Dr. Atlas said that 92% of K-12 public educators are under the age of 60 — and 50% are under the age of 41 — meaning that nearly all fall well below the at-risk age range.
“I think the teachers union, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re afraid, and if they’re afraid, we can accommodate the high-risk teachers,” he said. “They can social distance, and number two, if they’re still afraid, they can teach from home. That’s not a reason to lock down the schools.”
He also pointed to harms to children from staying out of school, including child abuse cases no longer being reported by teachers.
“We have to remember closing the schools is seriously harmful to children, and we have to remember that there’s nothing more essential than opening our schools and educating our children,” Dr. Atlas said. “Nothing.”
Corrected from earlier version: Dr. Atlas was formerly the chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Medical Center, not a former chief of neurology as originally reported.