Summary List Placement
It’s been 13 months since my school-aged kids stopped going to school.
Save for a handful days of “in-person remote learning” — where students stare at laptops just as they would at home, only in teacher-less classrooms — they haven’t been to school since the pandemic crippled New York City in March 2020.
Mass vaccinations and a greater understanding of how the virus spreads have now brought us to the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
But I’d be a fool to believe my kids will be back in school full-time, five days a week by the time the next school year is supposed to start in September 2021. I fully expect my brood, like millions of American public school students, to remain indefinitely trapped in the soul-destroying cosplay that is “remote learning.”
As is the case in most deep-blue Democratic-governed big cities, the teachers union is the indomitable force most responsible for keeping schools closed.
Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said the unions have been “trying to reopen schools since last April.”
If words mean anything, that’s true. But it flies in the face of every action taken by the big teachers unions at both the local and national level.
Let’s just call this what it is: gaslighting.
The gaslighting comes from the top
Health experts very early in the pandemic assumed COVID was widely spread on surfaces.
Though such guidance was jettisoned within a few months, an obsession with relentless sanitation, which the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has dubbed “hygiene theater,” still drives many of the arguments against schools reopening.
The teachers unions’ endless goalpost-moving has given false hope to the students and parents who have agonized through indefinite school closures. First it was having enough hand sanitizer, then it was sufficient ventilation, and then it was access to vaccines.
For the most part, schools now have what they need to reopen in accordance with CDC guidelines. But little has changed.
In a January column, I pleaded with teachers union bosses to simply come clean and admit they would rather not fully reopen schools until COVID-19 is fully eradicated, which, according to some scientists, might be never.
Obviously, to admit such a position would invite massive public outrage, and Weingarten has acknowledged that semi-permanent school closures are bad for business, as they will inevitably drive many parents out of public schools towards private or charter options, or even out of shuttered districts altogether. But despite these stated desires, it doesn’t seem that the unions are getting any closer to “yes” on reopening.
In November Weingarten published a “blueprint” for reopening, and in an Atlantic interview last month she described politicians critical of teachers unions’ opposition to reopening schools as “duplicitous” and “hypocritical,” arguing “they don’t want working people to have real power in democracy.”
In a highly-credulous February profile in The New York Times, Weingarten insisted she just needs a little more time to convince the rank and file that schools are safe to reopen.
“But it’s not going to happen in two-and-a-half nanoseconds,” Weingarten added.
That’s a metaphorical slap in the face to public school parents, painted as impatient and unappreciative, who just want to see a glimmer of hope from a powerful labor union with whom they are not invited to negotiate.
“Take me at my word,” was Weingarten’s plea to be believed that the union will do everything in its power to make things “as normal as possible” by the fall.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Weingarten said she wanted to “debunk this myth” that the teachers unions were against schools reopening, despite the fact that most schools would be reopened today were it not for the unions’ opposition.
In an astounding display of cognitive dissonance, Weingarten told Chuck Todd: “New York City has done a pretty good job in terms of showing the way” for reopening. As a first person witness, I can tell you very few NYC public schools are fully open by any meaningful metric.
The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked Weingarten if a long-anticipated speech she was reported to have been “considering making” — that would tell teachers “it can be safe to return to work and crucial to do so” — was, in fact, planned to take place.
Weingarten replied: “That speech is planned, but that speech is probably going to be for the first week of May. But we decided that the speech we were going to make is about next year.”
How’s that for confidence that schools will be fully reopened in the fall?
All we can get out of the most powerful teachers union boss in the country is that “probably” in May, she’ll give some kind of speech “about next year.”
Is it any wonder so many AFT-affiliated unions have vehemently opposed reopening schools?
The union of science-skeptical educators
As early as last fall, scientific evidence showed that schools with basic COVID safety protocols (masks, social distancing, open windows) were among the safest public places to be during the pandemic. The nation’s top health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, recommended schools be reopened as soon as possible.
Today, about half of US schools are open full-time, and the data-drawn conclusion remains the same: schools using basic COVID safety protocols are not high-risk spreaders. This includes private schools in districts with fully-shuttered public schools.
But despite the infusion of billions in new education-directed federal funding, in most big cities, parents struggle to pull down barriers to reopening that shouldn’t have been implemented in the first place.
Faced with a teachers union strike last August, feckless New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio demonstrated his negotiating impotence when he allowed the union to simply pull numbers out of thin air that would trigger school closings.
One of these mandates triggered immediate school closures if the weekly citywide COVID positive-test rate reached 3%.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University and a De Blasio emergency response adviser, admitted the 3% threshold was “pretty arbitrary” and “not based on any science.” The 3% trigger has since been done away with, but not before it shut down NYC public schools for months beginning last November.
And when science and public health experts revise their safety guidelines in a way that makes it harder to argue that schools should be closed, the unions resist hard.
This week De Blasio said he would end the city’s draconian rule that closed schools when two or more unrelated cases of COVID are detected, prompting predictable howls from, Michael Mulgrew, head of NYC”s United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which is affiliated with the AFT.
Weingarten also told The New York Times “people are not going to trust” new scientific studies that seriously undermine the argument to keep schools closed so much harder to make.
But trust is a two-way street.
The AFT released a survey this week that showed 81% of its membership is already vaccinated, largely eliminating the greatest safety hazard. Sounds like good news!
This is the time to say: “It’s safe. Go back to school.”
That would be a show of good faith, and a gesture toward earning parents’ trust.
If you insist that schools are potential death traps, a lot of parents will believe you
Hardline opponents of reopening schools often cite polls indicating a substantial amount of powers preferring to keep their kids in remote learning.
But scratch the surface and parents’ preferences aren’t nearly as straightforward..
Some parents have not been polled nor given the option to sign their kids up for in-person learning since last September.
Students who have experienced the absurdity of “in-person remote learning” have told their parents of its Kafkaesque misery, and have subsequently opted to just do remote learning at home (but the school district still gets to claim it has “reopened.”)
And crucially, months of dubious scaremongering by teachers unions has had an effect on many parents’ decisions!
Now parents are being conditioned to accept the premise that there’s been no “learning loss” during these lost school years. Rather, it’s the opportunity of “learning change” we should embrace.
I can’t hold it against politically-powerful labor unions flexing their muscles on behalf of members. It’s this clout that affords teachers the privilege of vaccine and prioritization and the designation of “essential workers,” even if many of them essentially don’t have to show up for work.
And now some teachers’ unions are demanding government-subsidized child care before they’ll go back to work.
More power to them, I guess.
But if workers in every industry operated like this during the pandemic — rejecting inconvenient science guidelines and demanding zero risk — society would have shut down entirely.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, shutting down schools out of an abundance of caution was a reasonable response given the paucity of information about the coronavirus and general chaos of the government response.
That was a long time ago.
There is no longer a reasonable argument for continuing to keep schools closed. The lack of urgency about the effects of this tragedy on an entire generation is grotesque. And the unwillingness for the big teachers unions to commit to a full reopening by the start of the next school year gives the game away.
It might be asking too much to stop the teachers unions’ gaslighting, but if we stop believing in empty words, parents can choose to no longer be gaslit.
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