How Biden is empowering teachers unions on school reopenings — and what could trip them up

By Eleanor Mueller , Juan Perez Jr. 04/08/2021 12:58 PM EDT

Teachers unions at the national and local levels are playing an outsize role in determining when, and how, schools bring students back into classrooms — but differences between them threaten to complicate President Joe Biden’s goal of having the majority of elementary students back full-time by May 1.

The American Federation of Teachers has been more bullish than its counterpart, the National Education Association, about reopenings.

And both unions have objected to looser school social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Biden administration’s orders to push standardized testing despite Covid-related learning disruptions.

Nearly three months into Biden’s term, millions of children are still learning from home. Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s public schools offered at least some in-person classroom instruction by February, according to the latest results from an Education Department survey of thousands of schools enrolling fourth- and eighth-grade students.

But the data shows 20 percent of students were only offered full-time remote instruction — and signals serious disparities among minority and disabled students, and between students living in cities or rural communities.

AFT, which represents teachers in one of the first metropolitan school districts to reopen — New York City — has been pushing to get students back in chairs for nearly a year. Its NYC chapter, United Federation of Teachers, was on board when the district began opening some doors in September and has since paved the way for many other districts to return to the classroom, including by releasing and disseminating a 50-point checklist that covered issues such as ventilation, social distancing, PPE, cleaning, testing and tracing.

“Since last April, we put out our first documents and plans about not whether to reopen, but how to reopen,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “We always understood that in-school learning was better for children than remote education.”

NEA, on the other hand, has taken a more cautious approach. Its California affiliate, the California Teachers Association, for instance, has actively lobbied against bringing teachers back without careful consideration of teacher vaccinations and other safety protocols. In February, the union launched a series of campaign-style ads warning that Covid-19 is “still a threat;” in March, its Los Angeles chapter slammed the state’s newly released reopening plan as “a recipe for propagating structural racism.”

The slower pace of action in some places has left many teachers and parents frustrated as they look to get students back in classrooms amid increased vaccinations and planning for the next school year.

“Everywhere where there’s resistance, there’s going to continue to be resistance,” said Elizabeth Harrison, a teacher at Menlo Park City School District represented by NEA local Menlo Park Education Association. “It has made me sick to my stomach how powerful the unions were” in reopening schools.

The Biden administration — headed by a self-described “union man” who’s married to lifelong educator and NEA member Jill Biden — has indeed been solicitous to unions when it comes to its school reopening strategy.

The White House directed state leaders to prioritize educators for Covid-19 vaccines and moved them up in line under a government pharmacy inoculation program. It also deployed the first lady to lobby for its school reopening campaign, and announced plans to spend $10 billion on virus screening programs for K-12 students.

Now, the government is pushing out approximately $122 billion in new stimulus money dedicated to K-12 schools to help them reopen.page1image38611072page1image38605696page1image38603008

“We brought to bear 3 million educators, and that’s significant power and voice and experience,” NEA President Becky Pringle said of her labor group’s influence on the White House. “They listen to that.”

Weingarten said: “The old administration spat in our face … [when we] asked for the resources to [reopen schools] and the guidance to do it. The new administration has said: ‘Yes, we agree with you that reopening schools needs to be done safely, and we agree with you that there needs to be resources.'”

“And they walk their walk.”

The administration has made clear it will continue heeding the advice of teachers unions, which overwhelmingly supported Biden’s campaign against former President Donald Trump. NEA donated half a million dollars to a super PAC backing Biden; AFT gave $2 million to another similar organization. The day after Miguel Cardona was confirmed as Education secretary, Weingarten and Pringle joined him on visits to schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

The chumminess has fed criticism from conservatives and union skeptics who argue the labor groups have undue influence in White House decisions about school reopening and education policy. Two leading congressional Republicans, Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr, both of North Carolina, have demanded answers from the Education Department about the role of a senior adviser for labor relations in the department.

The unions and the administration haven’t marched in lockstep on everything, though.

Weingarten has criticized the CDC’s March announcement that students attending in-person classes only need to stay 3 feet apart as long as mask-wearing is universal, writing in a letter to the agency that she is “not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time.”

Pringle said the change would be particularly challenging for large, urban school systems that didn’t have resources to implement other health protections.

“We are concerned that the CDC has changed one of the basic rules for how to ensure school safety without demonstrating certainty that the change is justified by the science and can be implemented in a manner that does not detract from the larger long-term needs of students,” Pringle said in a statement after the health agency’s change.

Standardized testing is offering an additional source of tension between the unions and the administration.

The White House surprised some schools earlier this year by resuming federal standardized testing requirements after a one- year, pandemic-prompted pause.

Biden was a sharp critic of such exams during his presidential campaign, even telling a crowd of educators that he’d end the use of standardized tests in public schools. But his administration’s ensuing decision to press ahead with testing amid its school reopening campaign irked the unions, which have long opposed high-stakes exams and reignited a debate about the value of student scores during a disrupted school year.

The NEA has sided with the AFT, and launched a #CancelTheTests campaign. “We will continue to fight against that,” Pringle said. “Our goal is that no student is subjected to flawed, useless standardized tests.”

But so far, differences over testing don’t look like irreparable fractures in the union-administration relationship. Weingarten and Cardona had a high-energy exchange over the issue at an AFT event last month.

“At its core, people are asking why this year didn’t we actually just ask teachers and districts to try and assess what is going on with students this year and use that as opposed to having a set of standardized tests?” Weingarten asked Cardona.

Cardona promised to continue engaging with the unions on the issue.

“I understand the frustrations,” he replied. “And this may be one of those things where across the country you’re never going to get everyone to agree on one way because there are some that feel very strongly the opposite.”

He added: “… I know there’s an appetite for conversation about this; there has been for years. So I’m interested in engaging you and others to talk about what does quality assessments look like in a manner that we can make sure that we’re doing what’s right for kids.”

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