Teachers unions say they’re ready to come back to schools. I’ll believe it when I see it.

coronavirus uk schools
  • The politically-powerful teachers unions say they’re ready to send their members back to work, now that the COVID pandemic is effectively over.
  • And yet as a NYC public school parent, I don’t believe my kids will have full-time, in-person, five-day-a-week learning this September.
  • Because with the teachers unions there’s always a “but” – just as there is this time.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

One of the US’ major teachers’ unions has, at long last, come around to admitting its members should be back in school, full-time, this fall. It’s a huge, albeit long-delayed, development. But as a parent of three school-aged kids, count me as still skeptical.

The shift came when American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten last Thursday gave a long-anticipated speech to members of the second-largest teachers union in the country and thousands of its local affiliates.

Weingarten said plainly: “There is no doubt: Schools must be open. In person. Five days a week.”

The fog of pandemic fear, behind which the teachers’ unions have hidden for over a year, is lifting. The miracle of the COVID vaccines have made so many questionably-effective “better safe than sorry” safety measures truly obsolete.

But as a New York City public school parent whose kids haven’t been in school in any meaningful sense since March 10, 2020 – I’ve heard these sweet-sounding words about the teachers’ unions’ commitment to “fully” reopening schools before.

Their relentless goalpost-shifting for reopening, and their gaslighting of parents with repeated claims that they have wanted to reopen schools since April 2020, have lost them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ll need to see it – full-time, in-person schooling with actual teachers in the classroom – in order to believe the teachers unions truly mean what they say this time around.

There’s always a “but”

Weingarten said all the right things in her speech, asserting that her union is “all in” on fully reopening schools. She conceded that “prolonged isolation” for young people is “harmful.” And she admitted “remote learning is not on par with in-person teaching” and “equity gaps have grown wider” as a result.

But there’s always a “but.”

The union boss said schools will need to continue to vigorously enforce social distancing, which will require schools to come up with a whole lot of additional space they don’t have. Weingarten also called for schools to reduce class size, and warned of yet-unknown risks that could complicate schools reopening or staying open next year.

And as The New York Times noted, “The devil will be in the details negotiated at bargaining tables, where local union leaders may demand additional safety measures as a precondition to a full return.”

If the past year of failed negotiations to get teachers back in schools has taught us anything, it’s that the unions get what they want without having to give much in return.

Teachers prioritized for vaccination? Done. Almost $200 billion in federal spending for COVID safety measures in schools? Done. Enormous amounts of time and resources spent on hygiene theater? Done.

The unions admitting they were wrong to hype the threat of schools becoming COVID hotspots, and thus making many Black and brown families not want to send their kids to school? Never.

We’ve seen this movie over and over again for the past 15 months

I can clearly envision the anti-reopening arguments that will begin percolating when this August rolls around:

“Too many parents don’t feel safe sending their children back into school buildings!”

“We need remote teachers to teach the remote students!”

“There aren’t enough teachers, so we’re only going to have in-person school 1.5 days a week.”

With less than four months before the next school year begins, I’m not confident that any of these concerns will be effectively hashed out in time to save kids from losing part of a third year of their education.

As vaccines proliferate in the US, the AFT and other politically-powerful teachers unions can pat themselves on the back for so successfully working the system that they keep their “essential worker” membership from going into work for the entire pandemic.

But they also should be embarrassed over the damage they’ve done.

Forget about the learning loss – which some educators say we should now refer to as “learning change” – experienced during the pandemic. The psychological tolls and stunted socialization have been devastating for children kept out of schools and away from other kids for more than a year.

And by downplaying the necessity of in-person learning for so long, they’ve recklessly undermined the value of the noble profession of teaching.

Good teachers are invaluable guides through children’s development. Pretty much all teachers work hard. The pandemic has been brutal on educators.

But teachers unions have peddled the fiction that there has simply been no reasonable compromise available to fully reopen schools many months ago. That short-sighted misstep has driven people toward private schools and out of areas with politically-powerful public school teachers unions.

There are many institutions whose pandemic comportment deserves a full accounting once we’re truly out of the COVID woods.

The intransigence of the teachers unions and the feckless government officials who bent to their will at the expense of parents and students deserves a full, independent accounting.

Denying scientific evidence in the name of members “safety” was always just a front for flexing political power.

Weingarten’s seemingly-resolute declaration that it’s time for teachers to get back into school buildings was made up of nice-sounding words, but they are only words.

I’m not holding my breath that my kids will be back in school full-time in September, because I’ve seen this movie over and over again.

Teachers unions do not deserve to be trusted on their words at this point, just their deeds.

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