Schools Struggle with Teachers Over Return to In-Class Learning

February 9, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Carle Place High School in Long Island, New York. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Public school classes are resuming this week but some teachers in cities nationwide say they might not be there.

They are threatening sickouts or strikes because of the risk of COVID-19 infection if they return to in-class education. The United States this week is approaching a half-million deaths from the disease.

“I think it’s time to reopen schools safely,” President Joe Biden said in an interview with CBS News Sunday.

School boards, state attorneys general and parent groups are threatening to sue the teachers and their unions if they don’t return to their schools.

All of them are awaiting guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would provide this week that advises on precautions for reopening schools.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave a glimpse of the guidance during a White House briefing Monday when she said schools could safely reopen without vaccinating teachers if there are safety measures.

She added that “data suggests that very little transmission is happening within the schools, especially when masking and distancing are occurring.”

The CDC guidelines are expected to influence negotiations between school districts and teachers’ unions that sometimes have been marked by threats and accusations.

Regardless of any federal guidance, each state government must decide how to protect their teachers and students, said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki at a press conference last week.

“We work closely with governors but we leave it to them,” Psaki said.

The unions, like the California Teachers Association, are saying they want their teachers vaccinated for COVID-19 before they are required to return to their classrooms. They prefer to continue virtual learning until then.

They also want social distancing in classrooms, more testing for the disease, better ventilation and protective equipment.

“CTA believes that schools should only reopen when it’s safe for students, educators and their families,” the union said in a statement on its website. “Safe schools should not be a relative or subjective term up to regional or political interpretation.”

One of the nation’s most contentious disputes with teachers continued in Chicago this week.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot had threatened to fire any teachers who do not report to their schools for in-class education.

After a week of tense negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union reached a tentative deal with the city Sunday to reopen city schools for in-person education, narrowly avoiding a strike. A vote of approval by union members is expected within a day or two.

Under the agreement, Chicago Public Schools agreed to vaccinate 1,500 of its workers weekly, allow a staggered schedule for teachers to return to classes and agreed to a return to remote learning if the COVID-19 positivity test rate in the schools reaches 2.5%.

The Chicago Teachers Union is expressing concerns that teachers exposed to COVID-19 at school will return home to infect vulnerable family members.

In Los Angeles, teachers’ demands for vaccinations before returning to class are joined by the school superintendent.

The result has been a threat by at least one city councilman to sue the school system to force the reopening of classes.

Los Angeles schools Superintendent Austin Beutner blamed the city council and state government for the dispute by not making vaccines more available to teachers. He also lashed back at the threat of a lawsuit.

“Grandstanding political stunts like this are precisely why schools in Los Angeles remain closed,” Beutner said in a statement. “Elected leaders from Sacramento to Los Angeles City Hall need to put deeds behind their words and take the steps necessary to actually put schools and the children they serve first.”

In Washington, D.C., the attorney general filed a motion last week for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Washington Teachers’ Union from striking. The schools opened last week amid complaints from teachers about a lack of protection for them and threats to walk off the job.

The union president called the motion premature while there is no active job action by the teachers.

“We know that in-school learning is best for our kids, but we also know that COVID-19 is extremely dangerous,” Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said at a press conference.

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