Few American cities have labor-charged politics like Chicago, where the nation’s third-largest school system shut down this week after teachers’ union members refused to work in person, arguing that classrooms were unsafe amid the Omicron surge.
But in a number of other places, the fragile working peace that has allowed most schools to operate normally this year is in danger of unraveling.
While unions have yet to threaten to quit the job, they are back at the negotiating tables, pushing in some cases a return to distance learning. They often cite staff shortages due to illness and a lack of rapid tests and medical masks. Some teachers, in back-end work, staged sick cases.
In Milwaukee, schools are away until January 18, due to staffing problems. But the head of the teachers’ union, Aimee Mizialko, doubts that the situation will improve dramatically It is feared that the school board will resist extending lessons online.
“I expect it to be a fight,” said Mrs. Mizialco.
She credited the district with at least delaying in-person education to start the year, but criticized Democratic officials for putting unrealistic pressure on teachers and schools.
“I think Joe Biden, Miguel Cardona, the newly elected mayor of New York City and Lori Lightfoot – they can all announce the opening of schools,” Ms. Mizialco added, referring to the US Secretary of Education and the mayor of Chicago. “But unless they have hundreds of thousands of people to step in for sick teachers in this uncontrolled increase, they won’t be.”
For many parents and educators, the pandemic has become a worry of infection risks, childcare crises, school boredom through a screen, and most of all, chronic instability.
And for Democrats, the revival of tensions over distance education is a clearly unwelcome development.
Given their close ties to unions, Democrats are concerned that additional shutdowns such as those in Chicago could lead to a potential re-run of the party’s recent loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Opinion polls showed that school disruption was an important issue for swing voters who broke Republicans—particularly white suburban women.
“It’s a big deal in most of the state polls we do,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at polling firm ALG Research whose work in Virginia has indicated that school closures have hurt Democrats.
“Anyone who thinks this is a political problem that stops at the Chicago city line is joking,” added Mr. Stryker, whose company conducted a poll for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “This will resonate across Illinois, across the country.”
More than 1 million of the country’s 50 million public school students I was affected by the district-wide shutdowns in the first week of January, many of which were suddenly announced and sparked a wave of frustration among parents.
said Dan Kirk, whose son is studying at Walter Payton Prep High School in Chicago, which has been closed amid the confrontational district this week.
Many non-union charter schools and networks have temporarily moved to distance learning after the holidays. But as has been true throughout the pandemic, most temporary district-wide closures — including in Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee — are occurring in areas with liberal leanings with strong unions and a more cautious approach to the coronavirus.
The unions’ demands echo the demands they have made over nearly two years, though all that has changed. There are now vaccines and reassuring knowledge that transmission of the virus at school has been limited. The Omicron variant, while highly contagious, appears to cause less severe disease than previous iterations of Covid-19.
Most district leaders and many teachers say it is essential that schools remain open. They cite a large body of research showing that lockdowns harm children academically, emotionally, expanding incomes and racial disparities.
But some local union officials are more wary of overcrowding in classrooms. In Newark, schools kicked off 2022 with an unexpected stretch of distance learning, set to end on January 18. John Abigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said he hoped to return to the buildings, but remained unsure if every school could safely operate. Student vaccination is far from universal, and most parents would not agree to have their children undergo regular virus tests.
Mr Abigon said that if testing remains scarce, he may require distance learning at certain schools with low vaccination rates and a high case count. He agreed that online learning was a burden on working parents, but argued that teachers should not be sacrificed for the good of the economy.
“I was seeing the entire city of Newark out of work before I let a teacher’s aide die needlessly,” he said.
In Los Angeles, the county worked closely with the union to keep classes open after one of the country’s longest-running pandemic lockdowns last school year. The vaccination rate for students 12 and older is about 90 percent, and the mandate for vaccination for students is due to begin this fall. All students and staff are tested for the virus weekly.
However, the head of the local federation, Cecile Meyart Cruz, has not ruled out pushing for a return to distance learning at the district level in the coming weeks. “You know, I want to be honest – I don’t know,” she said.
Tensions are not limited to liberalism States. In Kentucky, teachers’ unions and at least one large school district said they need the flexibility to move away amid escalating infection rates.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature has given no more than 10 days for such district-wide instructions, and unions there fear it will be insufficient. Jenny Ward Bolander, a statewide union leader, said teachers may have to quit.
“Frustration is growing for teachers,” said Ms. Ward Bolander. “I hate to say we’re going to quit at that point, but it’s totally possible.”
National teachers’ unions continue to demand that classrooms remain open, but local affiliates have the most power in negotiations over whether individual districts will close schools.
And over the past decade, some locals, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, have been taken over by activist leaders whose tactics can be more aggressive than those of national leaders such as Randy Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Becky Pringle of Education the National. The Association, both of which are close ally of President Biden.
Complicating matters further, some local unions are facing internal pressure from their members. In the Bay Area, dissident groups of teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco schemed for patients, calling for N95 masks and more virus testing and other safety measures.
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Rory Abernethy, a middle school teacher in San Francisco, organized a sick campaign Thursday. She said the Chicago action has led some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this?”
In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color are disproportionately sending their children to public schools, and they have often backed strict safety measures during the pandemic, including periods of distance learning. And in New York, the nation’s largest school district, schools are working in-person as virus testing increases, with limited opposition from teachers.
But politics becomes more complex in the suburbs, where union leaders may find themselves at odds with government officials in agony. Maintain personal education.
In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest, the superintendent has a plan to convert individual schools to distance learning in the absence of many teachers.
Kimberly Adams, President The local education association, said her union may want stricter measures. She said counties should plan virus mutations by distributing devices for potentially short periods of online education.
But Dan Helmer, a Democratic state delegate whose swing district includes part of Fairfax County, said there is little support among his constituents for a return to online education.
Deep Andhraka, a representative for the Democratic state of Wisconsin whose district is north of Milwaukee, where schools became remote last week, said Republicans have targeted her seat and she expects schools to be an offensive line.
“Everyone I know wants schools to stay open,” she said. “But there is a lot of talk about how teachers’ unions don’t want schools to stay open.”
Jim Hobart, partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a polling company that counts many Republican senators and governors as clients, said the school closure case created two advantages for GOP candidates. It helped narrow their margins among a demographic with which they traditionally struggled — white women between their mid-20s and mid-50s — and generally undermined Democrats’ claims of competence.
“A lot of people – Biden, the mayor of Lightfoot in Chicago – have said that schools should be open,” Mr. Hobart said. “If they are not able to prevent schools from choosing to close, that shows weakness on their part.”
Labor officials say many of their critics are acting in bad faith, exploiting parents’ frustrations linked to the pandemic to advance long-term political goals, such as discrediting unions and expanding private school vouchers.
So far, neither the criticism nor the pandemic’s broader challenges appear to have significantly hampered the unions’ public standing, even according to its polls. Researchers are skeptical of teachers’ unions.
And if it turns out that Democratic candidates are paying a political price for union insistence, local labor officials do not consider this to be among their main concerns.
If this winter’s periods of distance learning have hurt the Democratic Party, Mr. Abigon, the president of the Newark Union, said, “it is a question that advisers and representatives of the brains need to know.” “But is this the right thing to do? There is no question in my mind.”
Holly will be Reporting contributed from San Francisco.