Let’s get the goals out of the way right up front: 1. Everybody wants public schools to be open to everyone for regular school hours as soon as possible; and 2. Nobody wants going to school to be unsafe for anyone. Okay? Good.
Making those objectives a reality won’t be easy given how fragmented the various approaches, plans, and procedures now floating around thousands of school districts throughout the country are; you can find published plans for districts in the same geographic area that bear little resemblance to each other. Many have yet to get specific about the ways they will adjust their classrooms to accommodate needed distancing, how regular testing with immediate results will be accomplished, or the system they will use which will provide for a continuum of schedules and practices varying as conditions change and we understand better how this virus behaves. Every district should spell out just what the best ways are to prevent infection, to root out any who are infected, and to protect everybody from infecting anybody else in concrete, replicable terms. Plus, don’t forget that all these procedures might have to be modified as we learn more. The obstacle to achieving this so far, of course, is the complete failure of the Trump administration to do its job, which means we must find others to take on the responsibility of leading in our time of crisis.
Back in the day (and let us all hope, beginning again in the aftermath of the November 3rd presidential election), we could count on all the facts and procedures necessary for situations like this to be provided in excruciating detail from the federal government: The CDC would lead, with an alphabet soup of other bureaucratic agencies supporting and publicizing best scientific practices, headed up by our propagandist-in-chief, the president. But with 64% of America distrusting anything our Cheeto-dusted Pinocchio dishes up—You mean we shouldn’t inject ourselves with bleach?—it’s become obvious that we need others to step forward to show how to navigate this pandemic. No, as we saw recently, the Education Secretary, Betsy SoLost, hasn’t a clue either.
Many governors have tried to lead, but fifty different strategies are hardly an organized way to go, and that’s leaving out how politics has become a factor as evidenced by Georgia’s governor suing the mayor of Atlanta over masking. And as we all recall from our own educations, having the states cooperate on this particular group project will mirror how all those groups we endured in school ended up—a couple of nerdy, motivated states will do the majority of the work, while slacker states try to ride in on their coattails, hefting very little of the drudgery of things like social distancing and masking. The problem with this method when you’ve been assigned coronavirus as your project is that unless each and every participant pulls his/her weight, those now-heavily-infected goof-off group members (Can you say, “Florida”?) will proceed to infect all the over-achieving, low-rate states as interstate travel continues.
Yeah, it’s looking pretty grim as we get closer to schools’ first days, with the Idiot-in-Chief insisting that he’ll withhold funding from any district that doesn’t open with the traditional schedule in place, with future field trips to the hospital as an exciting (if your kids survive) diversion. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more confusing, the CDC releases “revised” guidelines for opening schools, which are much more biased in favor of going ahead with in-person contact, unlike its previous iteration which had earned the ire of that clown in the Oval Office for being “too tough.” Because of all this chaos and uncertainty, how to go about something as complicated as trying to have in-person class has become (through their refusal to accept responsibility and the incompetence of those who should be leading) an individual decision each school district has to figure out on its own.
As a result of that and since they have as much at stake as anyone else caught up in this mess, teachers need to assert themselves into this discussion forcefully as equal partners in how this ultimately gets resolved. If teachers are not convinced returning to in-person school is safe, schools should not open with in-person classes. Fortunately for many teachers, the methodology for making this all happen is already in place: Teacher Unions.
Naturally, many—especially school administrators and boards—will resist this idea, but I don’t believe they really have a choice, so let’s get to the legal basis for my proposal first: Based on various statutes in place throughout the country, teacher unions can influence how this school year proceeds because of collective bargaining laws enacted by individual states which regulate how public employees (primarily firefighters, police officers, and teachers) interact with their governmental bosses. In Illinois, for example (with which I am most familiar since it’s the state in which my teaching career took place), we have the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (5 ILCS 315/) which in the second paragraph of its second section states its purpose, which is to “regulate labor relations between public employers and employees, including the designation of employee representatives, negotiation of wages, hours and other conditions of employment, and resolution of disputes arising under collective bargaining agreements.”
You should take note of that vague but vital phrase right in the middle of all that verbiage on the things that employees have the right to negotiate: “other conditions of employment.” This catchall means that anything which has an impact on working conditions is the subject of bargaining and inclusion in a mutually agreed upon contract between the teachers (as typically represented by their union) and the community’s representatives (the school board). And as we have witnessed, coronavirus has had a huge impact on teachers’ working conditions. In March, there was no time for teacher unions to insist that the radical changes in working conditions be negotiated as public schools had to close down rapidly due to the public health emergency. We’ve been aware of the problems opening schools this fall presented for several months, however, so one would hope all affected parties would be better prepared this time. Now is the time for teachers to file a demand to bargain to negotiate contractual language on methodology and criteria to be used in order to ensure safety for the 2020-21 school year, if they haven’t already done so.
It will seem crazy to some that a local teacher union might be able to deal with this crisis better than our governmental agencies, but keep in mind that local unions do have broader affiliations in most cases; and you get to the national level in two quick steps. I know this because I was active at all levels in my union, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA), during my 25 years at Hinsdale South High School (I retired in 2012 after 33 years teaching). The HHSTA is affiliated with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) which is the state branch of the US-wide National Education Association (NEA). The other major teacher union is the American Federation of Teachers with its Illinois chapter, the IFT, which is affiliated with Chicago public schools, for example. So when the national organizations put out notices, they move rapidly to thousands of classroom teachers, who can put that information to good use in making sure we have the same standard of safety everywhere. While I have always been insistent on schools and teachers being treated as unique entities, when it comes to safety measures, we all want to be able to know that the seat belt in the car from Maine works exactly the same as the one you might use in Oregon. All schools should be equally and fully protected from becoming coronavirus vectors since this damn bug is completely egalitarian in its willingness to infect anyone. To defeat it, we have to present a unified front.
Following that demand to bargain and as negotiations proceeded, local unions would look to their state organizations for assistance on the best methodology and relevant criteria which could be included in the new agreement. State unions, the IEA in the HHSTA’s case, would then seek guidelines from the national organization; ultimately, the NEA could have a significant effect on how schools open this fall in many local districts.
Naturally, with the right to insist the district negotiate pandemic protocols comes the responsibility to be as safe as possible; insisting that teachers have an equal say in which health procedures will be used will require that local and national teacher leaders take the initiative and accept a measure of responsibility for the safety of the community’s children. Um, yeah, that does kind of sound like how teachers operate every day for the entirety of their careers, so this isn’t really all that much of a stretch for teachers—it’s what they do.
Plus, let’s not overlook the primary motive for the teacher unions: Teachers! Suddenly, having a bunch of teenagers in five different groups of 25 per class makes you a high-risk, front-line worker. If anything, given some of the ventilation systems in place in many of our schools, teachers’ risks could be many-multiples higher than most workers for catching the virus. Yes, nurses are much more at risk and brave as hell, but at least they have been trained about this stuff and have access (um, most of the time?) to supplies of safe-guarding equipment. Trust me, many of those in front of your kids each day, especially in high schools, have only the most rudimentary knowledge and training on health issues—my English background didn’t really contain much on any pandemics, save the Black Plague’s significance in Romeo and Juliet.
But safe practices could be clearly spelled out through directives from the national organizations who would be compelled to seek out the best science available—leading us right back to the typical governmental sources, except, the unions would be able to use only the scientists’ work, without its having to be run through the corrupting filter of politics. This whole thing is a convoluted process, I will readily admit, to expect local teacher union leaders to demand bargaining sessions to enact the procedures which should already be in place and which have been generated by federal government agencies, but that twisted route to safety is clearly better than what’s currently going on.
Of course, this approach is far from fail-safe. For starters, it requires local unions to step up and insist on being included in the task of figuring out what to do, which some may be reluctant to do. Unfortunately, I have a recent personal experience with the problems of a teacher union ignoring a risk to its (past) members: Last November, I tried to persuade the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 board to alert past employees of an environmental health hazard which has negatively impacted many teachers who worked at Hinsdale South (including my wife and me) due to air pollution which filled Hinsdale South for over 30 years from two Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook. When I approached the union I had served in many capacities over my teaching career (the HHSTA), seeking their support for a district-wide effort to make sure all past employees of South got notified of their health risks, South HHSTA leaders wouldn’t even let me come to their meeting to discuss the issue, stating it would not be “appropriate” for me to attend their “sanctioned” meeting to lobby the union for help in notifying past union members of something which had already taken the lives of several South teachers. Such indifference and dereliction of duty in the corona age would certainly undermine making schools safe for anyone—yes, we need to mention again that leadership on this should have come from our federal government, the group most responsible for the mess we’re in. To help weak locals, the national unions would need to provide clear, straightforward help with their push for participation in decisions which will impact teachers’ health.
This method would also be problematic in states without any collective bargaining laws, but we could hope that the once some standard procedures had been hammered out, every district would leap on board. That would be more likely once it became clear that national groups were articulating state-of-the-art advice to keep everybody well.
Nor am I trying to ignore/minimize all the work various groups have done to create detailed re-opening plans. Downers Grove District #99 (Downers South and North High Schools), for one, has published what appears to be a carefully thought out, reasonable plan. But for every district like that, you will find others with much less detailed plans, which require significant fleshing out in a very short time frame (like this one, which was shared on July 15 from Center Cass #66). Regardless of how good current plans are, however, in most of them, final decisions are left to school officials. Even though teachers have participated in creating these plans (many of them union leaders), the ultimate authority to make final decisions rests with school boards and administrators. In collective bargaining lingo, when your bosses have total say so over your working life, that’s known as being “at will,” not a comfortable place for teachers to be, especially when poor decisions could cost them their lives.
Teachers have a different set of priorities and a huge stake in those decisions, so they should have the power to impact them directly. Until significant improvements in our ability to treat people infected with COVID-19 and an effective vaccine are available, working in large buildings with hundreds of people puts your health/life at much greater risk than if you did comparable activities remotely. I don’t know about you, but under those conditions, I would expect to be able to have a say in how to proceed. In more concrete terms, the details of how and to what degree schools will open should be reduced to an agreement between school boards and teacher unions which both groups then vote to accept or reject. (And these agreements should all contain, for example, language which would allow teachers in high-risk categories to have totally remote assignments or to opt-out of teaching this school year with no loss of seniority rights, to give one example of how a union negotiator might look out after their members differently from district administrators.) At the very least, teachers should be able to vote on the plans which have already been created in their district, with the written version (upon approval) becoming a part of the negotiated contract, subject to the grievance procedure (which culminates in binding arbitration when disputes reach impasse) every collective bargaining agreement is required to have. Without unions sharing in the responsibility for monitoring conditions and insisting on districts strictly following agreed upon standards for in-person classes, it is not difficult to imagine a district’s bending to pressure from distraught, overworked parents to keep schools open, despite conditions being only a “little” worse. And that kind of lapse or vacillation could lead to deaths—we need a plan which has multiple parties scrutinizing daily data to guarantee no possibility of erring on the side of convenience rather than safety.
Teacher union resistance to in-person schooling is building with several state organizations speaking out about how inadequate some of the back-to-school plans are. In Pennsylvania, New York City, Florida, and Wisconsin (to name a few), teacher unions have begun to agitate or file lawsuits to prevent school districts from recklessly opening before science would dictate. While I do support this legal confrontation as in the best interests of teachers, I’ve always felt that a more cooperative approach serves everyone better; collective bargaining—while certainly not easy or a panacea for every situation—offers a more reasoned approach, to say nothing about promoting a more unified front on standardizing procedures which protect our communities.
Obviously, teacher unions trying to save public education from stupid politicians is not the best approach to a deadly pandemic, but the alternatives right now are all fraught with self-serving posturing and vague, unscientific assurances. Unions could ensure that the health conditions locally are the driving force behind any school re-opening plan. Unions could demand comprehensive testing to keep schools virus free. Unions could make sure objective criteria, like focusing on the number of cases and positivity rates, would be the basis for all decisions. And ultimately, unions could—in protecting teachers—protect our kids. Our current situation is rife with danger, clearly, but the combination of national leadership which has direct access to local stakeholders that unions can provide seems like the best mix available to confront it, patchwork as it may be.
A look at where we are in late July, however—with significant numbers of newly infected week after week, hospitalizations and deaths increasing, shortages of supplies, delays in testing, and a paucity of effective treatments—makes it clear that schools should not be reopening with any in-person contact for at least a few months. Local unions should use that time to require that the conditions under which union member teachers go back to classrooms with kids are safe, period. That will necessitate their filing demands to bargain (the aforementioned Illinois Federation of Teachers is advising locals to do just that in a July 20 press release); the alternative of teachers getting sick because of union inaction (to say nothing of students and every other adult working in our schools) is unacceptable, or at least it should be. Teachers are dedicated to their mission of educating young people, but they shouldn’t have to risk death in order to fulfill it.
For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.