Few American cities have labor policies as tense as Chicago, where the nation’s third-largest school system closed this week after members of the teachers’ union refused to work in person, arguing that classrooms were unsafe in the middle. of the rise of Omicron.
But in several other places, the tenuous labor peace that has allowed most schools to function normally this year is in danger of collapsing.
Although they have not yet threatened to leave work, the unions are back at the negotiating tables, pushing in some cases for a return to distance learning. They frequently mention staff shortages due to illness and a shortage of rapid tests and medical grade masks. Some teachers, in a rearguard action, have carried out trips due to illness.
In Milwaukee, schools are remote until January 18 due to staffing problems. But the president of the teachers’ union, Amy Mizialko, doubts that the situation will improve significantly and he is concerned that the school board will be reluctant to extend the classes online.
“I anticipate it will be a fight,” Ms. Mizialko said.
She credited the district for at least delaying in-person schooling to start the year, but criticized Democratic officials for putting unrealistic pressure on teachers and schools.
“I think Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona and the newly elected mayor of New York City and Lori Lightfoot can declare that schools will be open,” added Mizialko, referring to the US secretary of education and the mayor of Chicago. “But unless they have hundreds of thousands of people to replace educators who are sick in this runaway surge, they won’t be.”
For many parents and teachers, the pandemic has become a burden of anxiety due to the risk of infection, child care crises, school boredom through a screen and, above all, chronic instability.
And for Democrats, the revival of tensions over distance education is a clearly unpleasant development.
Because they have close ties to unions, Democrats worry that additional closures like those in Chicago could lead to a possible repeat of the party’s recent defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Polls showed school disruptions were a major issue for swing voters who broke Republicans, particularly suburban white women.
“It’s a big problem in most of the state polls we do,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at the polling firm ALG Research, whose work in Virginia indicated that school closings hurt Democrats.
“Anyone who thinks this is a political issue that stops at the Chicago city line is deluding themselves,” added Mr. Stryker, whose firm conducted a poll for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “This will resonate across Illinois, across the country.”
More than one million of the 50 million public school students in the country they were hit by district-wide closures in the first week of January, many of which were abruptly announced and triggered a wave of frustration among parents.
“The children are not the ones who are seriously ill in general, but we know that it is the children who suffer from remote learning,” said Dan Kirk, whose son attends Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, which was closed in Chicago. middle of the district’s high school. showdown this week.
Several non-union charter school networks and districts temporarily switched to remote learning after the holidays. But as has been the case throughout the pandemic, most of the temporary closures across the district, including Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, are taking place in liberal-leaning areas with powerful unions and a more cautious approach to the coronavirus.
The demands of the unions echo those they have made for almost two years, despite all that has changed. Now there are vaccines and the reassuring knowledge that transmission of the virus at school has been limited. The Omicron variant, while highly contagious, appears to cause less serious illness than previous iterations of Covid-19.
Most district leaders and many educators say it is imperative that schools remain open. They cite a wealth of research showing closures hurt children academically and emotionally, and widen income and racial disparities.
But some local union leaders are much more wary of crowded classrooms. In Newark, schools began in 2022 with an unexpected stretch of remote learning, ending on January 18. John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he was hopeful about the return to the buildings, but was not sure if all the schools would be able to function. No danger. Vaccination of students is far from universal, and most parents have not consented to regular virus testing for their children.
Abeigon said that if testing remains sparse, it could request remote learning in specific schools with low vaccination rates and high case counts. He agreed that online learning was a burden on working parents, but argued that educators shouldn’t sacrifice for the good of the economy.
“I would see the entire city of Newark unemployed before allowing a single paraprofessional to die unnecessarily,” he said.
In Los Angeles, the district has worked closely with the union to keep classrooms open after one of the longest pandemic closures in the country last school year. The vaccination rate for students 12 and older is about 90 percent, and the vaccination mandate for students will begin this fall. All students and staff are tested weekly for the virus.
Still, local union president Cecily Myart-Cruz did not rule out pushing for a district-wide return to remote learning in the coming weeks. “You know, I want to be honest, I don’t know,” she said.
Tensions are not limited to liberals state. In Kentucky, teacher unions and at least one large school district have said they need the flexibility to go to remote locations amid rising infection rates.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature has given no more than 10 days for such instruction district-wide, and unions there fear it may be inappropriate. Jeni Ward Bolander, leader of a state union, said teachers may have to leave work.
“The frustration is based on the teachers,” said Ms. Ward Bolander. “I hate to say that we would leave at that time, but it is absolutely possible.”
National teacher unions continue to demand that classrooms remain open, but local affiliates have the most power in negotiations over whether individual districts will close schools.
And over the past decade, some locals, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, have been taken over by activist leaders whose tactics may be more aggressive than those of national leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Becky Pringle of National Education. Association, both close allies of President Biden.
To complicate matters, some local unions face internal pressure from their own members. In the Bay Area, dispersed groups of teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco have planned sick leave and demanded N95 masks, more virus tests and other safety measures.
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Rori Abernethy, a high school teacher in San Francisco, organized a sick one on Thursday. He said the Chicago action had prompted some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this?”
In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color disproportionately send their children to public schools and have often supported strict security measures during the pandemic, including remote learning periods. And in New York, the nation’s largest school district, schools are operating in person with an increase in virus testing, with limited discrepancy from teachers.
But politics gets more complicated in the suburbs, where union leaders can find themselves at odds with public officials who strive to preserve face-to-face schooling.
In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest district, the superintendent has a plan to shift individual schools to remote learning in the event of many absent teachers.
Kimberly Adams, President of the local education association said his union might want stricter measures. And he said districts should plan for virus outbreaks by distributing devices for possible short bursts of online education.
But Dan Helmer, a Democratic state delegate whose swing district includes part of Fairfax County, said there was little support among his constituents for a return to online education.
Deb Andraca, a Democratic state representative in Wisconsin whose district is north of Milwaukee, where schools became remote last week, said Republicans have targeted their seat and that she hoped schools would be a line of attack.
“Everyone I know wants the schools to stay open,” he said. “But there’s a lot of talk about how the teachers’ unions don’t want the schools to stay open.”
Jim Hobart, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a polling firm that counts multiple Republican senators and governors as clients, said the school closure issue created two advantages for Republican candidates. It has helped reduce their margins among a demographic they have traditionally struggled with, white women in their 20s and 50s, and has generally undermined Democrats’ claims of competence.
“A lot of people, Biden, Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago, have said that schools should be open,” Hobart said. “If they can’t stop schools from choosing to close, that shows a weakness on their part.”
Labor officials say many of its critics are acting in bad faith, exploiting parental frustrations related to the pandemic to advance long-standing political goals, such as discrediting unions and expanding private school vouchers.
So far, neither the criticism nor the broader challenges of the pandemic appear to have significantly hampered the unions’ public position, even based on polls conducted by Skeptical researchers from teachers’ unions.
And if it turns out that Democratic candidates pay a political price for union assertiveness, local labor officials don’t see it as one of their top concerns.
If this winter’s remote learning periods hurt the Democratic Party, “that’s a question for consultants and unsuspecting brains to answer,” said Abeigon, president of the Newark union. “But what is the right thing to do? I do not have any doubt “.
Holly Secon contributed reporting from San Francisco.