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Role Of Teachers Unions In The Push To Reopen Classrooms

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How to get students back in the classroom and keep them safe is a question that has divided communities, especially as the pandemic worsens. The unions that represent teachers are voicing their opinions and drawing some heat. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team has been following this story, and she joins us now. Anya, what have teachers unions been saying and, more specifically, doing in the push to reopen classrooms?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: So back in July, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, got a lot of attention when she said that her national union would support local affiliates in calling safety strikes if they didn't think that schools should open where they are. There haven't been any strikes called, but there have been actions like mass sickouts, lawsuits in several states and protests, including one in October in Prince William County in Virginia that the union ultimately apologized for because it involved some representations of child-sized coffins.

CORNISH: Basically, teachers are saying that this is an issue of safety.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. I mean, teachers have raised a variety of concerns. There have been calls, of course, just to follow what scientific authorities recommend - sanitization, ventilation, personal protective equipment. And in many cases, they've asked that older teachers and those with chronic conditions be allowed to work from home.

CORNISH: So these demands relate to keeping everyone in and around the classroom healthy.

KAMENETZ: That's right. In the face of, you know, changing science. But then again, some demands have also raised eyebrows. For example, in Los Angeles, the teachers union put out a policy paper in August that laid out conditions for reopening that were really broad. They included defunding police and passing Medicare for All. And this is a large union in a large district that was on strike as recently as 2019. And there is no in-person school in Los Angeles right now.

CORNISH: Can you describe the response to some of the union demands?

KAMENETZ: I mean, there's been a range of responses. You know, sometimes parent groups have been at odds with teachers over the need to, you know, go back to work. And then there are longtime critics of unions who say that they're sort of seizing the moment here to push a broader political agenda. I talked to Mike McShane of EdChoice, which promotes alternatives to unionized public schools like private and charter schools.

MIKE MCSHANE: I think in a lot of those cases, you really saw the teachers unions flexing their muscles to try and push, I think, a hard-line stance on reopening.

CORNISH: What do the unions say to that?

KAMENETZ: I mean, first of all, teachers unions very much do have a political agenda. It's not a secret, right? They endorsed Joe Biden. They worked very hard nationally and locally to get him elected. First Lady Jill Biden is actually a member of one of these unions. And Biden has spoken strongly in favor of safe school reopening. He's called it a national emergency. He's pledged to put resources in the hands of schools to the extent that Congress allows. And at the same time, I got the perspective of both of the presidents of the two big national educator unions, and they said, remember, you know, remote learning is no picnic for them either.

Becky Pringle is the president of the National Education Association.

BECKY PRINGLE: People are weary. They are bone weary. And they're crying every day.

KAMENETZ: You know, she says they really want to do better by their students, and they feel like they're being vilified. So - and on the other hand, the unions also say that they have been changing as the science has been changing. And one example of that here in New York City, you know, the mayor kind of reversed course recently and the unions backed him in the idea of opening up and staying open five days a week, even with cases rising to levels that we haven't seen here since May.

CORNISH: NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story says there is no in-person school in Los Angeles right now. In fact, some schools are able to operate in person.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "WANT SOMETHING DONE (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 5, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio of this story says there is no in-person school in Los Angeles right now. In fact, some schools are able to operate in person.

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