Teachers’ Unions Push for Remote Schooling, Worrying Democrats

Few American cities have labor politics as fraught as Chicago’s, 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 tenuous labor peace that has allowed most schools to operate normally this year is in danger of collapsing.

While not yet threatening to walk off the job, unions are back at negotiating tables, pushing in some cases for a return to remote learning. They frequently cite understaffing because of illness, and shortages of rapid tests and medical-grade masks. Some teachers, in a rear-guard action, have staged sick outs.

In Milwaukee, schools are remote until Jan. 18, because of staffing issues. But the teachers’ union president, Amy Mizialko, doubts that the situation will significantly improve and worries that the school board will resist extending online classes.

“I anticipate it’ll be a fight,” Ms. Mizialko said.

She credited the district for at least delaying in-person schooling to start the year but criticized Democratic officials for placing unrealistic pressure on teachers and schools.

“I think that Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona and the newly elected mayor of New York City and Lori Lightfoot — they can all declare that schools will be open,” Ms. Mizialko added, referring to the U.S. education secretary and the mayor of Chicago. “But unless they have hundreds of thousands of people to step in for educators who are sick in this uncontrolled surge, they won’t be.”

For many parents and teachers, the pandemic has become a slog of anxiety over the risk of infection, child care crises, the tedium of school-through-a-screen and, most of all, chronic instability.

And for Democrats, the revival of tensions over remote schooling is a distinctly unwelcome development.

Because they have close ties to the unions, Democrats are concerned that additional closures like those in Chicago could lead to a possible replay of the party’s recent loss in Virginia’s governor race. Polling showed that school disruptions were an important issue for swing voters who broke Republican — particularly suburban white women.

“It’s a big deal in most state polling we do,” said Brian Stryker, a partner at the polling firm ALG Research whose work in Virginia indicated that school closures hurt Democrats.

“Anyone who thinks this is a political problem that stops at the Chicago city line is kidding themselves,” added Mr. Stryker, whose firm polled for President Biden’s 2020 campaign. “This is going to resonate all across Illinois, across the country.”

More than one million of the country’s 50 million public school students were affected by districtwide shutdowns in the first week of January, many of which were announced abruptly and triggered a wave of frustration among parents.

“The kids are not the ones that are seriously ill by and large, but we know kids are the ones suffering from remote learning,” said Dan Kirk, whose son attends Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago, which was closed amid the district’s standoff this week.

Several nonunion charter-school networks and districts temporarily transitioned to remote learning after the holidays. But as has been true throughout the pandemic, most of the temporary districtwide closures — including in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee — are taking place in liberal-leaning areas with powerful unions and a more cautious approach to the coronavirus.

Complicating matters, some local unions face internal pressure from their own members. In the Bay Area, splinter groups of teachers in both Oakland and San Francisco have planned sick outs, and demanded N95 masks, more virus testing and other safety measures.

Rori Abernethy, a middle-school teacher in San Francisco, organized a sick out there on Thursday. She said the Chicago action had prompted some teachers to ask, “Why isn’t our union doing this?”

In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color disproportionately send their children to the public schools, and they have often supported strict safety measures during the pandemic, including periods of remote learning. And in New York, the nation’s largest school district, schools are operating in person with increased virus testing, with limited dissent from teachers.

But the politics become more complicated in suburbs, where union leaders may find themselves at odds with public officials at pains to preserve in-person schooling.

In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest district, the superintendent has a plan for switching individual schools to remote learning in the event of many absent teachers.

Kimberly Adams, the president of the local education association, said her union may want stricter measures. And she said that districts should be planning for virus surges by distributing devices for potential short bursts of online schooling.

But Dan Helmer, a Democratic state delegate whose swing district includes part of Fairfax County, said there was little support among his constituents for a return to online education.

And if it turns out that Democratic candidates pay a political price for unions’ assertiveness, local labor officials do not consider it to be among their top concerns.

If periods of remote learning this winter hurt the Democratic Party, “that’s a question for the consultants and the brain trusts to figure out,” said Mr. Abeigon, the Newark union president. “But that it’s the right thing to do? There’s no question in my mind.”

Holly Secon contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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