Teachers Are Wary of Returning to Class, and Online Instruction Too

By Dana Goldstein and 


July 29, 2020

Angela Andrus, who teaches junior high, at a protest in Salt Lake City last week. Utah’s largest teachers' union has called for starting the school year online because of safety concerns.Credit...


As the nation heads toward a chaotic back-to-school season, with officials struggling over when to reopen classrooms and how to engage children online, teachers’ unions are playing a powerful role in determining the shape of public education as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

Teachers in many districts are fighting for longer school closures, stronger safety requirements and limits on what they are required to do in virtual classrooms, while flooding social media and state capitols with their concerns and threatening to walk off their jobs if key demands are not met.

On Tuesday, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union raised the stakes dramatically by authorizing its local and state chapters to strike if their districts do not take sufficient precautions — such as requiring masks and updating ventilation systems — before reopening classrooms. Already, teachers’ unions have sued Florida’s governor over that state’s efforts to require schools to offer in-person instruction.

But even as unions exert their influence, they face enormous public and political pressure because of widespread acknowledgment that getting parents back to work requires functioning school systems, and that remote learning failed many children this spring, deepening achievement gaps by race and income.

With the academic year set to begin next month in much of the country, parents are desperate for teachers to provide more interactive, face-to-face instruction this fall, both online and, where safe, in person. But many unions, while concerned about the safety of classrooms, are also fighting to limit the amount of time that teachers are required to be on video over the course of a day.

The unions are “really on the backs of their heels on this,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy group that sometimes takes positions contrary to unions. She is concerned that the urgent needs of children who have not physically attended school for many months are getting lost. “I feel like we are treating kids as pawns in this game.”

Pressure from President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who are distrusted by many educators, has hardened the opposition of many teachers to returning to classrooms, even in places where the virus is under control. They contend that political leaders are putting the needs of the economy above their safety and pushing schools to reopen without adequate guidance or financial support.

“It’s been a terrible disservice to parents, to kids, to educators, who basically are left holding the bag and trying to figure this out,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which voted to support its members who choose to strike while stressing that such actions should be a “last resort.”

About 70 percent of American teachers were union members in 2016. Educators have enjoyed significant parental support in recent years during a series of walkouts, including in Republican-led states, in favor of higher wages and more school funding.

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