Teachers' unions across the United States are resisting a push from the Trump administration and House Republicans to reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, instead opting for remote learning that experts say presents major risks to children.
President Trump on Wednesday threatened to cut federal funding for schools that fail to reopen in the fall, echoing a recent bill proposed by Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Tom Tiffany (R., Wisc.). Multiple states have followed suit—Florida announced Wednesday that it will require schools to hold in-person classes beginning in August, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D., Va.) in June unveiled a phased reopening plan for all public and private schools.
Many powerful teachers' unions are pushing back against the drive to reopen. In Florida, Orange County Classroom Teachers Association president Wendy Doromal called the state’s reopening order "totally irresponsible" during a Wednesday CNN appearance. In Virginia, three teachers' unions representing Fairfax County schools asked their members to choose an entirely remote learning option for the upcoming school year.
The union resistance to reopening is at odds with the American Academy of Pediatrics. The organization in June released guidelines emphasizing the need for students to attend in-person classes this fall, citing the "considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality" associated with "lengthy time away from school." Many students coming from low-income families rely on the meals and support services they receive in school. In addition, according to the AAP, the lack of in-person classes leads to "social isolation" that drives "child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression, and suicidal ideation."
Banks said that while teachers he’s spoken to acknowledge the necessity of in-person classes, their unions "have a different motivation."
"We have to separate the teachers' union as a political organization versus teachers themselves," Banks told the Washington Free Beacon. "Any teacher, parent, and taxpayer that I talk to recognizes that what makes America great is a guaranteed public education for every child. When we’re not holding up our end of that deal, we're not giving this generation of kids the best opportunity to achieve the American dream."
While opponents to in-person classes have floated remote learning plans as an alternative, education activists faulted labor groups for hindering progress. Keri Rodrigues, a former union organizer and cofounder of the National Parents Union, said that teachers' unions have left educators "ill-prepared" to meet student needs through virtual lessons. She said the longtime resistance to e-learning has hindered the response to the pandemic.
"We’ve had a lot of push-back from teachers' unions who are very comfortable with the status quo, very concerned about whether their members' positions would be lost because of changes and innovations," Rodrigues told the Free Beacon. "Instead of investing in those innovations, we've invested in the status quo. So when you take a look at remote learning, of course we’re stumbling, of course we’re not prepared for this moment—that is all intentional."
A June Northwest Evaluation Association projection found that students will return to school having made just 70 percent and 50 percent of learning gains in reading and math, respectively, compared to a normal school year. Banks and Tiffany unveiled their reopening bill in June. It conditions federal funding for schools on reopening for in-person classes in the fall, citing the inadequacy of remote learning.
"Our kids are the ones who are getting the biggest raw deal in all of this," Banks told the Free Beacon. "Watching what my kids went through personally was truly the saddest experience of my life—when their schools were shut down, when they were left to endure virtual learning that failed on a consistent basis and that studies now show was a colossal failure."
One union educator also expressed concern about the effectiveness of remote learning. The educator—who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from her union—told the Free Beacon that many teachers struggle with the technological learning curve associated with virtual classes. Low-income families also often lack the technology required to participate.
"Technology cannot replace the benefit of being in person, in terms of the relationship you develop with your students, the classroom environment—it’s hard to replicate that," the educator said. "Equity is also a huge concern, in the sense of student and family access to technology as well as family aspect to time. Every family is going to have a different level of focus as far as their child’s education, and teachers have a diminished influence on the student due to virtual learning."
Following Trump’s threat to cut funding, Vice President Mike Pence said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will revise its guidance on school reopenings, which Trump has called "very tough" and "impractical." Both the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—labor giants that have endorsed presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden—attacked Trump's call to reopen. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García also criticized Trump on CNN’s New Day Wednesday, saying that public officials lack "preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely." AFT president Randi Weingarten told MSNBC on Wednesday that reopening schools in the fall was "very dangerous."
"What’s happened now—and this is very, very dangerous—is that they’ve taken the recklessness and incoherence that they’ve done with everything else in the pandemic and now they’re focusing it on schools," Weingarten said. "Nobody is going to go back full-time in a situation where you can’t protect their health."
Banks dismissed the criticism from unions, arguing that labor leaders will alienate parents by keeping schools closed.
"If the teachers' unions want to defend that position, they’re on thin ice, I believe, with the American people, who are going to get fed up with hearing that type of rhetoric pretty quickly," Banks told the Free Beacon. "This isn’t Republican or Democrat—public opinion across the board is in favor of getting our kids back in the classroom."