After a year of failing to provide comprehensive federal guidance on school reopenings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally laid out a path for safe in-person learning earlier this month. But some union leaders up and down the West Coast are skeptical.
Arlene Inouye, secretary of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, said the recommendations should be taken “with a grain of salt.”
“It has to look at the specific community factors involved in the situation ― it was general and broad,” Inouye said of the CDC guidance. “For us, it didn’t work. It didn’t take into account the specific issues we’re facing in LA.”
Teachers unions in California and other Western states have been facing an increasing amount of heat from politicians and the media in recent weeks, as they continue to lag behind other places in reaching school reopening agreements. In San Francisco, the city sued the school district to force in-person instruction; in Los Angeles, a council member has threatened to do the same. Lawmakers in California continue to work to hammer out a deal that would provide financial incentives for schools to reopen in person in April.
Just about 11% of schools in California are offering some form of in-person instruction, compared to about 49% in New York, a state that was once the epicenter of U.S. coronavirus cases, according to an analysis from Burbio, a company that has been tracking school calendars.
Union leaders say they’re responding to specific conditions in their communities that might not apply to other areas. Districts in major cities in these states are accountable to democratically elected school boards, not under mayoral control like in some East Coast hubs, and leaders say this gives them a better understanding of the communities they serve.
They point to lower levels of per-pupil state funding in their schools compared to Northeast states like New York, although their funding levels are comparable to most of the country overall. In California, they also note that communities have faced staggeringly high rates of COVID-19 in recent months, which are just starting to trend downward. Such numbers were never seen in Washington and Oregon, however.
“I don’t think the voices of our Black and brown parents have been heard enough.”
Most significantly, union leaders say they’re following the lead of their city’s most vulnerable families, who they say have expressed skepticism about the viability of in-person learning and seem to want them to prioritize safety over speed.
“Two-thirds of families in October, November said they did not want to send their children back into school even if we open up the doors. I don’t know how many would want to come in at this point. They might just say, ‘Why don’t we just sit it out until August,’” Inouye said. “I don’t think the voices of our Black and brown parents have been heard enough.”
David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, said he has heard the same in his area.
“There’s a lot of media whenever there’s a call or parent group that says doors should open now,” Fisher said. “We know based on data our own district did that families that live in our neighborhoods are much more supportive of going cautiously and not ready to go back without these factors in place without family safety.”
Union leaders in these cities are asking for a higher bar to open than what has been implemented in most of the country. Indeed, if all schools strictly followed CDC recommendations, more than 90% of institutions nationwide wouldn’t be able to fully reopen based on the transmission rates in their areas.
“We are very concerned about the transmission in our poor LAUSD communities,” Inouye said.
CDC guidance encourages teachers to be vaccinated before reopening a school, but it doesn’t consider vaccination a prerequisite for moving to in-person instruction.
Even after teachers are vaccinated in California ― the state is now setting aside 10% of its doses specifically for school employees ― unions say rates of community transmission will have to drop before they can endorse in-person teaching.
Fisher said he has found some CDC messaging — particularly about the importance of vaccinations — hard to parse. And while one CDC study found that schools can be safe when certain measures are put in place, another released this week found that educators in one Georgia county played a key role in contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in schools (although key mitigation strategies there were often ignored).
“I think there is some skepticism [of the CDC]. They seem to contradict sometimes,” said Fisher, who added that the union was more focused on talking with their local health and science community rather than listening to national messaging.
“We’re focused on the conditions on the ground,” he said. Union leaders in Sacramento are now fighting to get adequate ventilation systems in classrooms after the district spent millions of dollars on air filtration units that experts deemed ineffective.
Three educators have died from COVID-19 in Fisher’s district.
Educators in Portland, Oregon, say their union’s energy and resources should go toward improving distance learning and increasing limited in-person schooling for especially vulnerable students who are already back in the classroom, according to surveys of union members.
The Oregon governor has prioritized educators for vaccinations, and teachers started getting their shots weeks ago.
After resolving most safety issues — in August, when the union first started negotiating, it was a struggle to even get soap in bathrooms — they’re focusing on issues of equity. As the district pushes to reopen schools in April with a hybrid model, the union is fighting to make sure quality services are provided to families who choose to stay remote.
Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said her union is fighting for changes that are in line with the CDC’s guidance.
“We have been putting our energy into serving the needs of our kids in the safest way possible, and that has been distance learning,” she said.
Thiel and other union leaders say that their members’ best interests and the needs of their most vulnerable students have provided a guiding light throughout negotiations.
“Many of our schools are located in zip codes with the highest infection rates, so we want to make sure there’s equity involved,” Fisher said.
In Sacramento, white families were the most likely to want to return to full-time in-person learning, according to a school district poll of parents conducted in October. National polling bears out what West Coast union leaders say they’re hearing from people in their communities.
A new Pew Research survey found that more Americans see the possibility of students falling behind as a more pressing issue than that of teachers or students spreading the virus, but views on these issues vary vastly by race and class. Only 19% of Black Americans said schools should reopen as soon as possible, even if many teachers who want the coronavirus vaccine haven’t received it, compared to 48% of white Americans. Among lower-income individuals, 32% supported schools reopening quickly, compared to 48% of upper-income individuals.
Black and brown families, whose communities have often been hardest hit by COVID-19, have also historically been underserved by the schools in their cities — and they have been the most reluctant to return to in-person classes. In Chicago, white families have been choosing in-person learning at far greater rates than their Black counterparts. And in New York City, white families were overrepresented among families who decided to return to school in-person as of December.
Derell Bradford, executive vice president of 50CAN, an education reform group that pushes school choice, has been critical of the role teachers unions are playing in school reopenings, although he says he understands their concerns. Still, he argues that anyone who wants their kids attend school in person should be provided directly with funds to help them do so, noting that the groups who need an in-person option the most are also the ones who are most frightened of in-person learning.
“All parties involved have concerns that are meritorious, but that’s also the most important thing: all parties involved,” Bradford said. “Right now, teacher health concerns are the concerns that dominate everything regardless of what everybody says. They’re legitimate concerns, but they aren’t the only ones.”
Bradford speculates that the conversation around these issues might look different if families were made aware of how much their children had fallen behind or had an objective measure of learning.
Preliminary research shows that many students are slightly lagging academically, but less is known about how more vulnerable groups are faring. Rates of suicidal ideation and attempts were also up among youths during some months in 2020, compared to 2019, according to research in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“I think what has been missing from the conversation is a consensus or outcry about the cost of this academically, socially, emotionally for kids,” Bradford said. “If that had been presented earlier, I think we might be seeing a very different response from families right now.”
Bradford, who was supportive of school closures when COVID-19 first took hold, has since written that “many American cities and towns are now in what amounts to a rolling national teacher strike.”
Polling shows that teachers unions have the broad support of the American public. More than 50% of respondents in a February HuffPost/YouGov poll said they would support the idea of teacher strikes in response to unsafe learning conditions, compared to 30% who said they would oppose it.
National teachers union leaders say they’re working to get teachers and kids back in the classroom as safely and as quickly as possible. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, said she is working around the clock to address the fears of union members. An overwhelming majority of teachers support in-person learning, but only with strict safety precautions, including vaccine prioritization, PPE and the option to work from home in certain cases, according to a recent internal AFT survey.
Inouye concedes there might be some daylight between UTLA ― which is an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association ― and the national teachers unions’ positions.
“I think there’s a slightly different position in terms of the vaccinations, and the infection rates,” she said. “But in California, we’re all very much on the same page.”