Amid Tough School Reopening Battles, Americans Continue To Cheer Teachers Unions

Americans remain divided over how schools should handle the coronavirus pandemic, but parents support their local districts and teachers unions.

Most Americans continue to support the idea of teachers striking in response to school conditions they feel are unsafe, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they would strongly or somewhat support the idea, compared with 30% who said they would oppose it. The results largely mirror a September HuffPost/YouGov poll on the same issue, even as teachers unions around the country continue to engage in fraught negotiations with school districts and local governments.

Further, among survey respondents who have children in K-12 schools, far more said they approve of how teachers unions in their area are handling the coronavirus pandemic than those who said they disapprove, though a large portion said they were not sure. Forty-two percent said they approve, compared to 26% who said they disapprove and 32% who said they were unsure. Among the same group of respondents, even more said they approve of how their local school district officials were handling the past few months, at 54%.

A number of local unions are engaged in bitter negotiations with their school districts and city officials. Over the weekend, the Chicago Teachers Union narrowly avoided a strike after reaching a tentative school reopening deal with the city, following weeks of hostile back-and-forth. The Philadelphia teachers union is also battling their district and its reopening plan, arguing that district buildings remain unsafe.

President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen most K-8 schools safely within the first 100 days of his presidency, but such conflicts could threaten to jeopardize this goal.

“It is a national emergency. It genuinely is a national emergency,” Biden said of the issue over the weekend. “I think it’s time for schools to reopen safely. Safely. You have to have fewer people in the classroom, you have to have ventilation systems that have been reworked.”

Still, Americans appear to have slightly shifted in terms of whether they think the risks of reopening schools outweigh the risks of keeping them closed. In September, 47% of Americans said they thought the risks of reopening schools were greater than the consequences of keeping them closed. That number has since shifted to 41%, with more people saying they are unsure than in the past. They’re similarly divided over what should be required of teachers, with 38% saying teachers should be required to conduct in-person classes, and 41% saying they should not. Slightly more Americans now express mandatory support for in-person teaching than before.

There still appears to be little consensus about the best course of action right now. Twenty-six percent of Americans say schools should be completely reopened, 29% say they should be partially reopened, and 31% say they should be closed or online only, with the rest unsure. Among parents of K-12 children, about half are at least somewhat confident that it’s safe for their schools to hold in-person classes right now, with about a quarter very confident that’s the case.

Opinions on handling school policy continue to have strikingly partisan overtones, although neither party is entirely unified. Republicans in the latest survey say by a 43-point margin that teachers should be required to show up in person, while Democrats say by a 41-point margin that they should not. A modest 55% majority of Republicans want schools entirely reopened, while Democrats are largely divided between favoring partial reopening or none at all. Indeed, previous research found that places with weaker teachers unions and more support for Republican candidates were more likely to have reopened schools in person this autumn.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll suggests that the public remains largely supportive of these union actions. A November survey from EdNext found that parents’ views of unions have actually improved slightly since May 2020, with the percentage of those saying that unions have a positive impact on schools growing from 40 to 46 percent.

One issue that has emerged in recent weeks is whether teacher vaccinations should be a prerequisite for school reopenings. In Chicago, educators asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot to further prioritize vaccinating teachers. But last week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House briefing that she did not think teachers need to be vaccinated in order for schools to safely reopen.

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen ― and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” said Walensky, who said the CDC is working to put out official guidance on the subject.

The White House has emphasized that vaccinations are one piece of a larger puzzle to ensure safe school reopenings. “Vaccines are part of that, but so is masking,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “So is social distancing. So is ensuring that schools have the ventilation and the facilities that they need in order to do it safely.”

Studies have yielded conflicting results when it comes to the safety of schools during COVID. One from the CDC found little evidence of spread in 17 rural Wisconsin schools that maintained vigilant safety protocols, while another CDC study linked thousands of cases throughout the state to schools, per Chalkbeat. Two other earlier studies found that it’s relatively safe to reopen schools in places where community spread is low, though one found that risks increase as rates go up.

Union leaders have emphasized that there is no daylight between their positions and that of the Biden administration, and that they have been working in tandem to reopen schools quickly and safely.

So far, 18% of National Education Association members have been vaccinated, said NEA President Becky Pringle. The NEA is the nation’s largest teachers union and represents 3 million members, including teachers and support staff.

“We’re saying the same thing we have been saying for 10 months in regards to school reopening, and Biden is saying the same thing too,” Pringle said. “The media, pundits, are getting to a place where they’re portraying teachers mostly as ‘we’re to blame,’ after all teachers have done during the pandemic, which has been heroic.”

High-profile Republicans have been leading the charge against unions in recent weeks, framing them as pushing their own interests at the expense of children.

A local NEA chapter in Virginia has come under particular scrutiny in recent weeks, after appearing to demand that all teachers and students get vaccinated before returning to school full-time.

“We think all students need to be vaccinated before in-person instruction resumes full-time,” Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams said in late January, per Fox 5 DC. “For now, a hybrid learning option must continue to be available to all students and staff.”

In other places, the Fairfax chapter only appears to advocate for teacher vaccinations, making no mention of students. (Adams did not respond to a request for comment.)

Local chapters should be advocating for what they need based on the situation in their communities and infection rates in their areas, Pringle said. She denied that the Fairfax Education Association was calling for all students to be vaccinated, saying the situation may have been misreported.

“We’re following the science,” Pringle said. “We know they have yet to do so much more research around student vaccinations.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that Biden called her last week to talk about school reopenings. She said he gave her a pep talk and emphasized the importance of safety considerations. Vaccinations weren’t an initial prerequisite for school reopenings, but now that they’re a possibility, Weingarten thinks they should be a major part of the conversation.

“The vaccinations become a win-win in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s why we’re pressing so hard for them,” she said. Even though the CDC’s Walensky has said she doesn’t think teachers needed to be vaccinated, Weingarten said, “there are things that are emerging but [the CDC still doesn’t] have their guidance together. You’re seeing an administration who is not afraid of having the scientists speak.”

Instead, Weingarten took aim at specific superintendents who she said are standing in the way of safe and smooth reopening plans, pointing to figures like Philadelphia’s school superintendent William Hite, who is battling with the local union over classroom ventilation issues.

“I think if we don’t have a more contagious variant, if we get the funding, we get the guidance, we could safely reopen the majority of K-8 schools in the first 100 days,” Weingarten said. “That’s April. I think that goal is doable.”

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Feb. 3-7 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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