Teachers' unions aren't the problem — federal inaction is

Teachers' unions aren't the problem — federal inaction is

Listening to some conservative commentators, one might think that teachers’ unions – not COVID-19 – are the threat we need to combat.

As a public-school teacher and union member, I am accustomed to the criticism directed at us. My union – United Teachers of Los Angeles – has often taken a lot of condemnation, as it is right now. But even for anti-union partisans, blaming us for not wanting to put their children in a place where they might catch coronavirus is rather ungracious.

In reality, teachers’ unions are simply acting to protect students. The start of school in California is less than a month away, yet California just hit a record 11,000 new daily cases, and Los Angeles County just set a one-day record with more than 4,200 new cases. Moreover, Los Angeles’s spike has now crashed over into several nearby suburban counties, giving them higher infection rates than Los Angeles.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, reopening generally, including in schools, should occur only if a community is improving in six areas: 

  • The number of newly-diagnosed COVID-19 cases
  • The number of hospital visits with “COVID-like illness”
  • Visits with “influenza-like illness”
  • The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests
  • The capacity of hospitals to treat patients without crisis care
  • The robustness of diagnostic testing programs

According to a recent National Education Association report, 43 states currently fail to meet the first condition alone.

Advocates of reopening point to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement in favor of reopening schools. However, a new AAP statement clarifies that AAP does not support reopening where local health advisories go against it.

Some union critics say that our demands on school safety are excessive and make reopening difficult or impossible. (Widespread reports in conservative media outlets also erroneously claim that we are somehow tying reopening to long-term union issues such as charter schools and school police.)

In reality, what we want is what the CDC has urged schools to put in place — the “four Ds” (distancing, deterrence, disinfection and detection). Deterrence (frequent hand washing, hand sanitizing), disinfection and detection are very doable, provided that schools receive the money to deploy the resources and manpower needed. Social distancing in schools will likely take the most effort to implement.

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A research study by Mathematica for the Pennsylvania Department of Education predicts that without such precautions, the average Pennsylvania school would have five infections within five days of opening. The study found that if all precautions were put in place, the length of time the average school would stay open could be increased exponentially.

Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, says a second wave of the virus could come this winter, just as the flu season hits. Every winter a significant number of our students are out with the flu. Some of my students have had the coronavirus, and some have even seen family members die from it. This is with warm weather — if we don't act now to flatten the curve, how bad might it be in December?

Instead of recognizing that teachers’ unions are acting in good faith to protect children, some conservatives suggest that we’re motivated by politics. Commentator and business analyst Liz Peek has written for The Hill:

“[O]bjections from our teachers’ unions look politically-driven, yet another great speed bump thrown up by Democrats eager to block President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE’s reelection. If they keep schools closed, millions cannot go back to work, the economy remains hamstrung and voters will blame the president. Very neat. What an appalling insight into the priorities of the biggest unions in the country…”

Teachers’ unions oppose President Trump and the Republican Party in general, and my union is no exception. To be fair to Trump's supporters, it is true that sometimes the left criticizes Trump for silly reasons.

Nonetheless, teachers’ unions’ opposition to inappropriate reopening is not a political ploy. The political ploy instead is the federal government’s refusal to properly finance the states’ educational safety needs, then scapegoating teachers’ unions because federal inaction has left schools unable to reopen safely. Teachers’ unions are not demanding an unrealistic, ideal environment without risks. We’re fighting to reduce and remove unnecessary risks.

Time will tell whether we are overreacting, as many conservatives contend, or whether our current actions will be credited with saving many lives. I hope that conservatives will be shown to be correct. Like my colleagues, I very much want to be back in school. Until then, safety must come first.  

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies and is co-chairman of United Teachers of Los Angeles at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Follow him on Twitter @Glenn Sacks