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OPINION

In-person learning tests the teachers unions and Democrats’ longtime alliance

In Chicago on Monday, as more than 340,000 students went into their fourth day of no classes, the union and the mayor were trying to reach a deal to reopen. But tensions remain high.

Teffany Akins with her daughter, Layla, at their home in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, on Jan. 6. Most public schools in Chicago were closed for a third day on Jan. 7 with no resolution in sight due to a standoff between the teachers’ union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration over coronavirus precautions and testing.JAMIE KELTER DAVIS/NYT

It’s complicated.

That’s the current status of the relationship between Democrats and teachers unions. The Omicron surge has soured their longtime alliance as unions across the nation fight to return to remote learning and demand stronger COVID-19 protocols in the classroom, while the Biden administration and some local Democratic elected officials push to keep schools open.

The tension is playing out in an ugly way in Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest district in the country. After members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted last-minute to go remote over their concerns around classroom safety surrounding COVID, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot shut down the schools last week.

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A similarly strained dynamic is occurring in other Democratic strongholds. In Milwaukee, the teachers union president told The New York Times that Biden, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and other elected officials are being unrealistic about their push to keep schools open, because there are staffing shortages caused by educators who are sick with COVID.

The nature of the Omicron variant, and the availability of vaccines and boosters for some children, requires different considerations and policy approaches. And school districts, in the last year or so, have received an influx of federal pandemic-related aid to safely open schools for in-person education, as the White House put it recently. Some public health experts who argue that schools should remain open point to data that show schools can be a safe environment as it pertains to COVID transmission.

It’s true that staffing shortages have plagued many industries, and it’s also true that danger has not disappeared. But the risks are different, and the view of the tradeoffs of remote learning has shifted. It might have made sense to close schools in the early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 when the data and science around COVID transmission was limited. But we now have studies that show virtual learning caused significant learning loss for students while the lack of social interaction and in-person supports affected their emotional well-being.

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All the same, some teachers unions seem to have jumped into a COVID time machine, making demands as if it were April 2020.

In Chicago, as more than 340,000 students had their fourth day of no classes on Monday, the union and Lightfoot were trying to reach a deal to reopen. But tensions remain high. The president of the union said Lightfoot is being “relentlessly stupid, relentlessly stubborn” in her negotiations. Lightfoot claimed Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the union’s vote to go remote amounts to an illegal walkout. “They abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families,” the mayor said.

It’s a showdown between deep-blue Democratic leaders and the unions that helped them get elected — and an inconvenient political development for Democrats to be sparring with teachers unions ahead of the midterm elections. Some parents are deeply frustrated at the sudden and widespread school closures, and Democrats fear a variation of the theme that cost them the Virginia governorship. There it was trumped-up concern over who gets to decide school curriculums, but more subtly it was also the caution over COVID in the schools.

In Boston, tensions may emerge after the city’s announcement Monday that the Boston Public Schools would be canceled Tuesday due to single-digit, frigid temperatures — not exactly an unexpected weather event in Boston in January. Mayor Michelle Wu later said that “staffing issues,” particularly those impacting bus drivers, played a role in the decision to close the schools. “We want to make sure there’s no risk of students being . . . out in the cold on the way to school,” Wu said. There were roughly 1,200 absences in BPS — teachers and staff — district-wide on Monday. According to the Boston Herald, the last time Boston schools closed due to extreme weather was in 2015.

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Meanwhile, in Michigan, governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, is addressing the teacher shortage in a controversial manner. She signed a bill late last month, which she characterized as a temporary stopgap, that allows non-teaching school staff, such as secretaries, paraprofessionals, and library aides, to step in as substitute teachers.

Michigan’s policy may very well prove to be a disaster. Naturally, teachers strongly opposed it because the quality of instruction will suffer. That’s undeniable. But a Democrat’s willingness to launch an experiment on education and sidestep a teachers union is worth noting.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.