A progressive parent’s rant about the politics surrounding school reopening

I think we’re at a crucial point in this debate on school reopening right now. Case rates are dropping quickly, the surge is over, and people are starting to get vaccinated — though way too slowly of course. The public health community, including the CDC, have reached consensus that reopening schools is an urgent priority (instead of citing all my sources, I’m going to do more of a free-write here, so feel free to reach out if you want me to cite a source for anything I write here).

This is because the harms of prolonged school closure vastly outnumber the risk of COVID. It’s not only learning loss among public school kids (mostly in urban areas), though that will of course have long-term implications, especially for teenagers who really need to get decent grades to be able to get into college but who are flunking classes at astronomical rates. Remember also that they’ll have to compete against private school kids, who are having a much more normal school year.

More importantly, it’s our our kids’ mental health that’s the real emergency. A few weeks ago the New York Times published a devastating piece about the rise in student suicides in Las Vegas and how that got the superintendent to open schools. All over the country, mental health emergencies and hospital visits by kids are skyrocketing. The prolonged isolation, depression and anxiety that stem from learning by yourself on a computer all day are taking a massive toll on kids who haven’t seen the inside of a school for almost a year!

I just don’t know how anyone can sit by and think this is an acceptable state of affairs for a developed country — it just makes my blood boil to see how little this country cares about kids. All of Europe has done the right thing — schools are last to close, first to open. It’s simply not a political stance in Europe (as it is here) to say we need to reopen schools for the sake of kids wellbeing and emotional and academic development.

The politicization of this issue is what’s really fucked up. Schools are largely open in red states and closed in blue ones (see below for a devastating graphic). It’s very difficult for me to understand the simplistic thinking that says: Trump said open schools, so we must keep them closed at all costs. I have never felt so alienated from the people I usually align myself with politically. I will never understand how the left in this country has decided that advocating for putting kids first is somehow right-wing. I’m hearing from progressive parents all the time who are so infuriated about the Democratic apathy around school reopening — from politicians like Gavin Newsom, who are willing to allow their stances to be dictated by teachers’ unions — that they’re considering supporting the recall effort, maybe even switching parties.

Because here’s the thing: parents are not willing to sacrifice their kids’ wellbeing for the sake of ideology or being a good leftist. And they shouldn’t. It’s our most important job to do what’s best for our kids. And if that means calling out teachers’ unions, so be it. I won’t stay silent while unions ignore the science and the entire public health community, and all the research telling us schools aren’t drivers of transmission, that spread is much lower in schools than in the surrounding community. Last March we didn’t know any better. But now we know — and we’ve known for months. Europe opened up in the fall. Florida, Texas, all the red states opened up. Rhode Island was one of the few blue states that was committed to putting kids first. Can you remember even one major outbreak that was tied to school transmission (not a handful of cases, but an outbreak)? I can’t. And teachers aren’t at greater risk either.

Many of the parents I’m working with on this issue see themselves as progressive and have until now supported organized labor and unions (I myself went to the picket line for Oakland teachers 2 years ago), but it’s so clear to us that teachers’ unions are dead wrong on this issue and that their interests are diametrically opposed to what’s best for our kids. Your own kid might be doing ok in remote learning, but by and large, kids aren’t doing well. Mine sure isn’t. Just remember: the principles of child development haven’t just vanished because we’re in a pandemic. It’s still not good to have our kids in front of the screen for hours upon hours every day. Kids still need to learn alongside other kids and still need to play with other kids. What I’m saying is, there’s no amount of improvement of distance learning you can do that will make it be a good platform for learning.

Now, here’s where I’m gonna go in hard on the unions. NOT the teachers, but the unions. I know there are many teachers who don’t feel the union represents them on this. And to that point, here are some amazing examples of brave teachers who have spoken out to say that blocking reopening is morally wrong.

Fantastic op-ed by NYC teacher

This YouTube video of a CA teacher calling out her union at a school board meeting is a must-watch

Another op-ed by Baltimore teacher

Great recent piece in SF Chronicle about SF teachers who have been afraid to speak up until now

I’ve seen a culture of shaming here in Oakland that surrounds any critique of the union, so it’s very hard for teachers to take this public stance and say the union is wrong, but more and more simply can’t in good conscience pretend this isn’t harming kids. I know distance learning is very hard on teachers as well as kids, which is why I can’t understand why so many are allowing their unfounded fear to blind them to the data and research that says schools can reopen safely.

I’ve seen the most absurd justifications from unions and their allies for why we shouldn’t reopen schools, like denying there’s any learning loss associated with distance learning or suggesting parents can be adequate substitutes for teachers (SF school board president Gabriela Lopez). I mean, it’s so incredibly tone-deaf and ridiculous: they are devaluing their own profession just so as not to go back to the classroom! If parents or anyone else could fill in so easily, why should we pay teachers more? Why should we value them as professionals? Real valuing of your profession means admitting remote learning is a poor substitute for face-to-face, interpersonal contact and that parents can’t do teachers’ jobs, and trying to get back to that as soon as possible.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the SF school board and the way they just pushed through renaming of 44 schools (which will cost a ton of money) and (just last night) made a rash, unpopular decision to change Lowell’s admission process, all while even the youngest kids haven’t gone back to the classroom! They’re so incredibly out of touch with the reality of public school families right now that it took a lawsuit to light a fire under their asses! And no, the agreed upon deal with SF teacher’s union isn’t good enough because there’s no reopening date.

California says schools can reopen once cases are less than 25 per 100K people (ie, in the purple tier), but the deal says either SF has to be in red tier with all school staff vaccinated or in the orange tier (unlikely for this school year, which is exactly what unions want). And if you think fall 2021 is safe for full reopening, think again. They will likely argue for hybrid/2 days a week even when all adults are vaccinated. These demands, which SFUSD should never have agreed to, are completely out of touch with the state and county public health guidelines — that we can open K-6th grade in places like SF right now (SF is currently at about 11.5 cases per 100K). As for older kids, we have no idea if teachers will even agree to go back to middle/high school in the fall at all.

I just want you all to understand that reaching a deal doesn’t mean reopening will be happening soon. In contrast, NYC elementary schools have been open since November and they’re now planning for reopening middle schools, Chicago’s union (which had an incredibly bitter fight with the district) just reached a deal to go back later this month, Miami has been open this whole damn time! The Bay Area/California isn’t special — the only difference is that our unions are incredibly powerful and have been able to hold our kids’ education hostage.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this graphic that someone shared on Twitter a few days ago. I can’t explain how depressed and enraged it made me feel to see in these stark visual terms how my home state (and the entire west coast) is failing its kids so miserably. I’ve never felt ashamed of California until now, that its leaders care more about appeasing unions (one of the most powerful lobbies in the state) than about the wellbeing of kids.

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Other things that have made me flip my lid about this situation: teachers unions are demanding vaccinations before going back to school — last month, some here in SF and Oakland were even saying vaccinations wouldn’t be enough to get them back to the classroom! No other essential worker has had the privilege to demand this — and this has been a real slap in the face to all the essential workers (like my spouse) who have been going to their workplace for 11 months with no vaccine and who aren’t being prioritized like teachers are.

It is this particular stance that has really alienated many other essential workers, particularly those who work on the front lines — the fact that teachers in blue states have been so incredibly protected during this pandemic, while all others have not had the privilege to demand this. So I don’t ever wanna hear again about teachers being “underdogs” or having no power — unions contribute millions to Dem politicians and that’s why people like Newsom and Biden have been so damn weak on this issue and put kids last (all while Newsom’s own kids attend private school in-person). Unions are a behemoth in California and parents are the only group of people advocating for our kids needs. No one else is gonna do it.

I also want to bring up an ugly aspect of this whole debate: the ways unions have played the race card and presumed to speak for Black and Brown families. As an advocate for reopening schools I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen union reps and supporters say it’s only white, wealthy parents who want to reopen and that we are racist to want this. First, it is false that only white parents want to reopen. White parents do tend to trust the school districts more than Black and Latino families do, with good reason — white kids get treated better and go to better funded schools. So naturally, we tend to favor reopening, as we trust it can be done safely.

However, we can’t just ignore the role of white teachers in this dynamic. In this country, teachers are around 80% white — something people don’t talk about. So why is it that when white parents support reopening it’s racist and we don’t care about Black and Brown kids (which, PS, my own kid isn’t white!), but when mostly white teachers unions advocate for their interests, they’re representing what Black and brown families want? The reality is, neither white parents nor white teachers can speak for Black and Latino families, many of whom have their own reasons for not wanting to send their kids back (like having experienced COVID close-up or not trusting school system to put into place adequate safety measures). And yet, they’re not a monolith either — many want and need their kids back in school. Our family survey here in Oakland indicated that Black and Latino families were evenly split between three choices: 1/3 wanted to send kids back, 1/3 didn’t, and 1/3 wasn’t sure. The unions interpret this as “a majority of Black and Latino families don’t want to go back,” but as should be clear, that’s a distortion. Their voices are drowned out by unions insisting they speak for marginalized families.

But don’t take it from me. Watch this incredible statement by a Chicago-based Latina sociologist and mom about the ways unions have cynically played the race card:
https://twitter.com/karenvaites/status/1355947764027420680?s=20

Lastly, I just want to say: many parents feel absolutely betrayed by teachers unions. I think they’re making a massive miscalculation with these rigid, stances not backed up by any data and demands that go way beyond what their public health officials are suggesting. What they’re doing right now is incredibly myopic. They are handing thousands and thousands of parents over to private/parochial schools or charter schools, and are paving the way for a major decimation of public education. Parents will never choose ideological loyalty over their kids and the more unions dig in their heels, the angrier parents get. Many have already fled public ed. Some who could never have fathomed sending their kids to private school are considering it now. Families with means (and even those who don’t but will take out loans) will leave in droves. I don’t understand how unions don’t see this — the only explanation I can find is that they’re so ensconced in their ideological bubble that they’re blind to the reality of what’s going on.

Friends, I’ve never spent so much unpaid labor and time advocating for an issue and I’ve never been so convinced that I was doing the right thing — not just for my own kid, but for all kids. Nothing has made me want to leave this country more than this issue, especially as I’ve seen all of Europe put kids first. How can we possibly accept that most kids in private schools are back in their classrooms while public school kids suffer from depression and fall behind? How can we think it’s ok for urban districts with majority Brown and Black kids to abandon their duty to these kids for going on a year and possibly much longer, all because teachers unions refuse to do what all other essential workers have done for 11 months? There is no such thing as zero risk (what they’re demanding), and a harm reduction approach means we must do what’s best for the most people, which is to open schools.

Lastly, for those of you parents who don’t want to send your kids back yet for whatever reason: we have no desire to force you to go back. We honestly don’t care if you decide to stay remote — that’s your decision. But to side with the unions and advocate for keeping schools closed until the teachers “feel” it’s safe (which is a constantly moving goal post), and NOT when public health officials decide it’s safe (as they already have) is actively harmful to kids, and frankly selfish. You will continue to have a choice — so give us the choice as well to send our kids back to school.

If you found any of this informative, please do pass it along to your various networks.

Here are a few links related to the advocacy I’ve been doing:

Oakland parents group (of which I’m a part):
www.ousdparents.com

California coalition of 80+ local groups (this is an all volunteer, parent-led, grassroots effort):
http://www.openschoolsca.com

Petition to Gavin Newsom — please sign and share:
https://www.change.org/p/gavin-newsom-gov-newsom-put-kids-first-get-them-back-into-the-classroom?recruiter=8017878&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=psf_combo_share_message&utm_term=petition_dashboard&recruited_by_id=20fb6620-4894-0130-1199-3c764e044346&share_bandit_exp=message-27099973-en-US

Follow us on social media:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/OpenSchoolsCA
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OpenSchoolsCA
Oakland parents group twitter account: https://twitter.com/OUSD_Parents

Writer. Editor. Independent scholar. I write about pop culture (music/TV/film), Cuba, higher education, and identity. https://rebeccabodenheimer.contently.com/

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