Teachers Unions Look Like the Last Line of Defense in Trump’s “Reckless” School Reopening Crusade

Hamilton Nolan

"The concept that this is just a teachers' fight is a misnomer. This fight is collective." (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As Amer­i­can fam­i­lies fret over a patch­work set of stan­dards for reopen­ing schools that vary wide­ly by city and state, teach­ers unions across the coun­try are denounc­ing the Trump administration’s approach to the issue as ill-advised, life-threat­en­ing and unjust. And they’re vow­ing to do some­thing about it.

Pres­i­dent Trump has demand­ed that schools reopen in the fall, and his edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Bet­sy Devos, has adopt­ed his posi­tion. But there has been lit­tle effort by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­vide any of the gar­gan­tu­an resources that would be nec­es­sary to reopen schools in accor­dance with pub­lic health guidelines. 

In April, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) issued a lengthy plan for safe school reopen­ing, with stan­dards based on mea­sur­able declines in the preva­lence of Covid-19; test­ing, trac­ing, PPE, and pro­ce­dures for phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing in schools; and com­mu­ni­ty invest­ments to enable schools to work in con­cert with pub­lic health measures. 

Three months lat­er, the coun­try is expe­ri­enc­ing boom­ing infec­tion rates and meet­ing none of the union’s sug­gest­ed stan­dards, but the admin­is­tra­tion seems deter­mined to reopen schools regard­less. If Don­ald Trump and Bet­sy Devos actu­al­ly lis­tened to what we were say­ing — we were try­ing to reopen schools so we could meet the needs of kids,” said AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten. Instead, they decide to be all reckless.” 

Now, local and region­al teach­ers unions are engaged in fevered nego­ti­a­tions with school dis­tricts over reopen­ing plans. Results, pre­dictably, vary depend­ing on the local­i­ty. In Los Ange­les, the school dis­trict announced that it will begin the year with vir­tu­al instruc­tion only — a deci­sion made in con­sul­ta­tion with the Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les (UTLA) union, which famous­ly went on strike in 2019 not just for bet­ter pay, but also for small­er class sizes and nurs­es in schools. In a poll released last week, 84% of UTLA mem­bers said they did not think schools should reopen for phys­i­cal class­es next month, con­sid­er­ing the ongo­ing coro­n­avirus surge in California.

It is clear that the L.A. school dis­trict respects the teach­ers union’s pow­er. Ceci­ly Myart-Cruz, the pres­i­dent of UTLA, notes that the union called for a pro­tec­tive shut­down of schools on March 12, and the school dis­trict announced a shut­down the next day. Now, the union is call­ing for a broad set of social jus­tice issues — struc­tur­al racism in health­care, men­tal health­care, defund­ing the police, and paid sick leave poli­cies, among oth­er things — to be addressed in con­cert with the basic safe­ty issues of reopen­ing schools. It is a bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good” approach for the coro­n­avirus cri­sis era. 

Can we do more? Can we ask for more? Can we demand more?” asked Myart-Cruz. With Covid lay­ing bare every sin­gle inequal­i­ty in the book around BIPOC folks, if we sole­ly want­ed to work on edu­ca­tion issues, how would we ever bring the com­mu­ni­ty to the table.” 

Instead, she said, now is a time for teach­ers unions to lever­age their posi­tion as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of vital work­ers to demand that the gov­ern­ment tack­le the big­ger, under­ly­ing issues that man­i­fest them­selves in schools. We have to stop being scared. We have to stop being nice,” she said. There has to be a more mil­i­tant stance, espe­cial­ly when it’s on behalf of our mem­bers. I can sleep at night know­ing that we called for the health and safe­ty” of stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty members. 

In Chica­go, where intense nego­ti­a­tions over reopen­ing plans are still ongo­ing, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (which, like UTLA, went on strike last year to fight for a social jus­tice agen­da far broad­er than just wages and work­ing con­di­tions) is tak­ing the same stance, and mak­ing the same set of demands as their coun­ter­parts in Los Ange­les. The union is ask­ing for school to start in the fall with vir­tu­al class­es only, as a safe­ty issue. But mem­bers are also pur­su­ing the same agen­da of com­mu­ni­ty invest­ment that has been dri­ving them for years. 

Sta­cy Davis Gates, the CTU’s vice pres­i­dent, empha­sized that the bur­dens of unem­ploy­ment, evic­tions and sick­ness fall dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on the same com­mu­ni­ties that Chicago’s pub­lic schools over­whelm­ing­ly serve. In Chica­go, the vast major­i­ty of stu­dents are Black and Lat­inx. There is no way we can levy an argu­ment about our class­rooms and not also levy an argu­ment about our com­mu­ni­ty,” she said. Many of our par­ents are front line work­ers. Many of our stu­dents are front line work­ers. The con­cept that this is just a teach­ers’ fight is a mis­nomer. This fight is collective.” 

In Chica­go, as in L.A., elect­ed offi­cials know that there is a cred­i­ble threat of labor action if they push the teach­ers unions too far. (“CTU has a rep­u­ta­tion for a rea­son,” Gates said wry­ly.) That is less true in states that are more hos­tile to unions, where Repub­li­cans and Trump allies are in con­trol. The poster child for that sit­u­a­tion right now is Flori­da, where Repub­li­can Gov. Ron DeSan­tis announced that he expects schools to reopen for in-per­son atten­dance five days a week, even as the state sets new coro­n­avirus infec­tion records. Fig­ur­ing out how to deal with this damn-the-tor­pe­does approach to safe­ty is the job of Fedrick Ingram, head of the 150,000-member Flori­da Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (FEA).

It’s an insult to edu­ca­tors to give us a slo­gan with­out giv­ing us a strate­gic plan behind that,” Ingram said. You can’t be reck­less with pub­lic schools. These are chil­dren we’re talk­ing about. And for teach­ers, their lives are in the balance.” 

Ingram said that the FEA reached out to the governor’s office ear­li­er this sum­mer to dis­cuss devel­op­ing a safe reopen­ing plan, but did not get a response. Instead, DeSan­tis made his uni­lat­er­al pro­nounce­ment, soon after Trump him­self made it clear he want­ed schools open. Now, Ingram said, some long­time teach­ers are retir­ing, and oth­ers are lit­er­al­ly going to lawyers cre­at­ing wills because they need to work.” 

The words reck­less” and irre­spon­si­ble” echoed through every teach­ers union leader’s descrip­tion of the government’s reopen­ing plans. All crit­i­cized the fact that there is no ratio­nal, sci­ence-based nation­al stan­dard. The safe­ty of teach­ers and stu­dents from a dead­ly pan­dem­ic is being deter­mined large­ly by the qual­i­ty of local polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, which varies widely. 

Like­wise, the response of teach­ers unions is, to a large degree, local. While Wein­garten says that noth­ing is off the table” in terms of a response from the AFT — and the union has com­mis­sioned a long legal memo, pub­lished by Pay­day Report, advis­ing on how mem­bers con­cerned about their safe­ty at work can use the law to pro­tect them­selves — she also is not throw­ing the full sup­port of the nation­al union behind the calls of her more rad­i­cal locals to tie social jus­tice issues direct­ly to school reopen­ing decisions. 

I don’t think par­ents would for­give us if we end­ed up say­ing it’s not just safe­ty we’re focused on,” Wein­garten said. I don’t think any­one should use safe­ty as a bar­gain­ing chip.” 

One thing that every­one seems to agree on is the incom­pe­tence and fla­grant dis­re­gard for safe­ty of the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion. Would [Bet­sy Devos] send her kids to that pub­lic school? That’s the ques­tion I want to ask,” said UTLA’s Myart-Cruz. It makes me pissed!” 

Davis Gates was even more blunt. If Don­ald Trump is telling peo­ple to go back to school, that should mean every­one with a brain knows not to go back to school,” she said. That’s a no-brainer.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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