Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, was the subject of my last month’s article. I argued that while many people blamed her for school closures, she’d actually labored to keep schools open. Weingarten, who was trying to save her reputation by pointing out the dangers of school closings, was a common criticism of the article.
Republican senator Tom Cotton tweeted that Weingarten was on a “rehabilitation tour.” Fox News’ website ran a story headlined, “New York Times column blasted for portraying Randi Weingarten as champion of keeping schools open.” This month, when some schools closed in response to Omicron and the Chicago Teachers Union staged a walkout, one open schools advocate tweeted sarcastically that my Weingarten piece “has aged beautifully, I think we can all agree.”
Maybe I’m just defensive, but I think it’s aged OK. It seems clear to me, as I’ve watched how public schools are responding to Omicron, that Weingarten, along with some other union leaders, are trying to avoid shutdowns, even at the risk of infuriating some of their members. The vast majority of the country’s schools, after all, are open, even though there’s probably a better case for shutting down now than there has been at any point since the spring of 2020. Where schools have closed, it’s mostly been for logistical reasons — there are simply too many staffers out sick.
“Last year at this time, you had 40 percent of the schools opened during that surge,” Weingarten told me on Sunday. “This year at this time you have 96 percent.”
Weingarten insists that Chicago is an exception. The city “looms very large, as it always does, but it is one district in which there was a teacher-union-called job action,” she said. “There are plenty of places where teachers are concerned and where there’s groups within school districts that are calling for sickouts. But in terms of my union, there’s no organized effort to do that. In fact it’s quite the opposite.”
A number of teachers aren’t happy about this; some feel unsafe in classrooms and abandoned by their leadership. Monday evening saw Weingarten’s former New York City union, the United Federation of Teachers (left-wing caucus) take over. planning to protestOutside the union headquarters to demand that schools be closed until January 18.
Weingarten, who has recently had Covid, is aware of the anxiety among her family members. If you asked them, she said, whether they’d like to “be remote for a few days as this passed,” she thinks “overwhelmingly they would say yes.”
So why won’t she demand remote school on their behalf? “Kids, our society, our communities need very much to do whatever we can to create normalcy,” she said, adding, “Whether it’s kids learning, whether it’s isolation issues, whether it’s the economy,” too much depends on functioning schools.
My guess is that if we hadn’t had extended school closures last year, there might be more appetite for a brief closure now, especially given hope that Omicron could soon peak. Even though most schools are open, many are struggling to function due to illness.
The education website Chalkbeat reported on disruptions in New York City, including a high school in Brooklyn where hundreds of students had to sit in the auditorium because around 50 teachers were out sick and there’s a substitute shortage. The Washington Post reported that coaches and administrative staff in Miami have filled in for teachers who are ill. Although there are many parents who oppose school closings, some parents are afraid their children will be sent to school. In Rochester, N.Y. last Monday, 40% of students were absent.
Yet given how damaging last year’s shutdowns were — to learning, to mental health and to the future of public education itself — there’s enormous resistance to returning to virtual classes. Democrats fear that it could spark a political backlash. And a vocal group of parents won’t stand for it, because they don’t trust that short-term closures wouldn’t drag on indefinitely.
Weingarten predicts that there will be additional closures in the weeks ahead, but they will not affect Chicago schools. Weingarten compares the situation to the airline industry. Flights are being canceled when there are not enough people to staff them, not because of disputes over whether it’s safe to fly at all.
“Assume for a second there was not this toxic environment,” said Weingarten. “I think what you’d actually see is a lot of people feeling pretty good that schools are being opened, and that the communities are coming together to do what we used to say we should do, which is: schools should be first priority.”
This is the hardest situation that she’s ever faced as a union leader, Weingarten told me. Many teachers are exhausted and scared. For now, the story is that most teachers who are able to teach are still showing up.
Source: NY Times