Few American cities have labor politics as fraught as Chicago’s, where the nation’s third-largest school system shut down this week after the teachers’ union members refused to work in person, arguing that classrooms were unsafe amid the Omicron surge.
However, in many other places, the fragile labor order that has allowed schools to operate normally this school year is at risk.
Although they are not yet threatening to quit their job, unions are back at the negotiating table, pushing for remote learning in some cases. They often cite understaffing due to illness and a shortage of medical-grade masks and rapid tests. In a back-guard action, some teachers stage sick outs.
Due to staffing issues, Milwaukee schools remain remote until Jan. 18 because they are too busy. But the teachers’ union president, Amy Mizialko, doubted that the situation would significantly improve They were concerned that the school board would not allow online classes.
“I anticipate it’ll be a fight,” Ms. Mizialko said.
She gave credit to the district for at most delaying in-person education to begin the year, but criticised Democratic officials for putting unrealistic pressure on teachers.
“I think that Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona and the newly elected mayor of New York City and Lori Lightfoot — they can all declare that schools will be open,” Ms. Mizialko added, referring to the U.S. education secretary and the mayor of Chicago. “But unless they have hundreds of thousands of people to step in for educators who are sick in this uncontrolled surge, they won’t be.”
For many parents and teachers, the pandemic has become a slog of anxiety over the risk of infection, child care crises, the tedium of school-through-a-screen and, most of all, chronic instability.
Democrats are not happy with the resurgence of tensions over remote schooling.
Because they have close ties to the unions, Democrats are concerned that additional closures like those in Chicago could lead to a possible replay of the party’s recent loss in Virginia’s governor race. Polling showed that school disruptions were an important issue for swing voters who broke Republican — particularly suburban white women.
“It’s a big deal in most state polling we do,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at the polling firm ALG Research whose work in Virginia indicated that school closures hurt Democrats.
“Anyone who thinks this is a political problem that stops at the Chicago city line is kidding themselves,” added Mr. Stryker, whose firm polled for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “This is going to resonate all across Illinois, across the country.”
More than one million of the country’s 50 million public school students Districtwide Shutdowns in January’s First Week affected many families. Many of these were announced abruptly, triggering a wave of frustration among parents.
“The kids are not the ones that are seriously ill by and large, but we know kids are the ones suffering from remote learning,” said Dan Kirk, whose son attends Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, which was closed amid the district’s standoff this week.
Many charter-school networks and districts that are not union temporarily moved to remote learning following the holidays. But as has been true throughout the pandemic, most of the temporary districtwide closures — including Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee — are taking place in liberal-leaning areas with powerful unions and a more cautious approach to the coronavirus.
The unions’ demands echo the ones they have made for nearly two years, despite all that has changed. There are vaccines now and the reassuring news that the virus is not transmitted to schoolchildren. Although highly contagious the Omicron variant of Covid-19 appears to cause fewer severe illnesses than previous iterations.
Many educators and district leaders agree that schools must remain open. A large amount of research has shown that school closures can have a detrimental effect on children’s academic and emotional development, as well as increasing income and racial disparities.
Some local union officials are less concerned about packed classrooms. Newark schools began 2022 with an unexpected period of remote learning. This was to end on January 18. John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, stated that he was optimistic about the return to buildings, but that he was unsure if every school can operate safely. Student vaccination is not universal and most parents aren’t comfortable with their children having regular virus tests.
Mr. Abeigon suggested that if the tests are not available, he might request remote learning at specific schools with low vaccine rates and high case numbers. Although he agreed that online education was burdensome for working parents, he said that it should not be sacrificed in the interest of the economy.
“I’d see the entire city of Newark unemployed before I allowed one single teacher’s aide to die needlessly,” he said.
The union and the district of Los Angeles have worked together to keep schools open after the worst pandemic in American history. Students aged 12 and over are vaccinated at about 90 percent. The mandate for students to get vaccinated will take effect in the fall. All students and staff are tested weekly for the disease.
Cecily Myarts-Cruz is the president of the local Union and will not rule out a districtwide return for remote learning in the next weeks. “You know, I want to be honest — I don’t know,” she said.
Liberalization is not the only source of tension states. In Kentucky, teachers’ unions and at least one large school district have said they need the flexibility to go remote amid escalating infection rates.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature has granted no more than 10 days for such instruction districtwide, and unions there worry that may be inadequate. Jeni Ward Bolander, leader of a statewide union said that teachers might have to quit their jobs.
“Frustration is building on teachers,” Ms. Ward Bolander said. “I hate to say we’d walk out at that point, but it’s absolutely possible.”
National teachers’ unions continue to call for classrooms to remain open, but local affiliates hold the most power in negotiations over whether individual districts will close schools.
Over the past decade, some local leaders, including those in Los Angeles or Chicago, have taken over local leaders. Their tactics are often more aggressive than those of national leaders such as Randi Weingarten of American Federation of Teachers and Becky Pringle of National Education Association, both close ally of President Biden.
Some local unions are subject to internal pressure from their members, which can complicate matters. Splinter groups of teachers from both Oakland and San Francisco planned sick outs and demanded N95 masks, additional virus testing, and other safety measures.
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Rori Abernethy was a middle-school teacher from San Francisco who organized a sick day there on Thursday. She said the Chicago action had prompted some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this?”
Working-class parents of color in Chicago and San Francisco send their children to public schools in a large proportion. They have also supported strict safety measures during the pandemic. This includes remote learning. And in New York, the nation’s largest school district, schools are operating in person with increased virus testing, with limited dissent from teachers.
However, politics in suburbs can be more complicated as union leaders may have to deal with public officials. preserve in-person schooling.
In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest district, the superintendent has a plan for switching individual schools to remote learning in the event of many absent teachers.
Kimberly Adams, president of the Local education association, she said that her union may be seeking stricter measures. She said that districts should plan for possible virus surges by distributing devices to allow for short bursts online schooling.
Dan Helmer (a Democratic state delegate, whose swing district covers Fairfax County) said that there was little support among his constituents to return to online education.
Deb Andraca, a Democratic State Representative in Wisconsin, said that Republicans targeted her seat. Schools were remoted this week.
“Everyone I know wants schools to stay open,” she said. “But there’s a lot of talk about how teachers’ unions don’t want schools to stay open.”
Jim Hobart is a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. This polling firm has many Republican senators and governors among its clients. Jim Hobart said that the school closure issue brought two benefits to G.O.P. candidates. It has helped narrow their margins among a demographic they’ve traditionally struggled with — white women between their mid-20s and mid-50s — and it has generally undermined Democrats’ claims to competence.
“A lot of people — Biden, Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago — have said schools should be open,” Mr. Hobart said. “If they’re not able to prevent schools from choosing to close, that shows a weakness on their part.”
Labor officials say that many of their critics are acting in bad faith, exploiting parents’ pandemic-related frustrations to advance longstanding political goals, like discrediting unions and expanding private-school vouchers.
Thus far, neither the critiques nor the broader pandemic challenges appear to have significantly hampered unions’ public standing, even according to polls conducted by researchers skeptical of teachers’ unions.
And if it turns out that Democratic candidates pay a political price for unions’ assertiveness, local labor officials do not consider it to be among their top concerns.
If periods of remote learning this winter hurt the Democratic Party, “that’s a question for the consultants and the brain trusts to figure out,” said Mr. Abeigon, the Newark union president. “But that it’s the right thing to do? There’s no question in my mind.”
Holly SeconContributed reporting from San Francisco
Source: NY Times