While parents, teachers, administrators and health officials agree the goal of the moment is to bring as many students back for in-person learning as possible, exactly how to do that safely and equitably during the pandemic is spurring conflicts between teachers unions and district leaders across the country.
In some systems like in Chicago; the District of Columbia; Montclair, New Jersey; and Bellevue, Washington, disagreements with teacher representatives are being blamed for slowing or halting plans to return to campuses.
“Teachers didn’t sign up to be on the front lines of a health crisis,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “The more time that goes by, more battle lines are drawn.”
A winter surge in COVID-19 cases also slowed school reopening progress, according to a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. A December sampling of 477 school districts showed 31% were operating in fully remote learning mode — a larger percentage than at any other point during the fall semester, according to the report.
In many communities, however, teachers and school districts have successfully negotiated certain conditions for the reopening of campuses. Some of those conditions include cleaning protocols, teacher flexibility or accommodations for remote teaching roles, personal protective equipment, in-person and online instructional requirements and more, according to a district and state COVID-19 teacher policy tracker created by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, which has teacher union affiliates in 14,000 communities, said two broad categories of needs and disputes have emerged related to the reopening of school campuses. One includes processes like how to ensure school districts develop effective reopening plans that include all school employees at the table, the workforce implications of COVID-19 response strategies, and ways to ensure COVID-19 plans and actions integrate attention to racial and social equity.
“The other broad area involves technical concerns, like ventilation strategies to mitigate COVID-19, how to ensure that disinfection plans are tailored to the needs of the situation without over reliance on dangerous chemicals, and how to integrate COVID-19 issues like testing, contact tracing, leave, and vaccination into plans for safe, equitable in-person learning,” Pringle said in an email.
"I think the public may have a misunderstanding of what a modern classroom looks like, what modern face-to-face teaching is about. We're not talking about a lecturer at the front of the classroom."
Education professor, Brooklyn College
While the NEA provides guidance on educating during a pandemic from a national viewpoint, informal and formal agreements and decisions are made at local levels. One strategy that NEA shares with the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers union with 3,000 local affiliates — along with school administration organizations such as AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the National School Boards Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — is the need to collaborate on mutual goals to support students.
The groups issued a framework to help school communities collaborate on reopening challenges. For example, the coalition recommends school communities form working groups consisting of representatives for parents, administrators, teachers, school board members and community members to address: health and safety; teaching and learning; operations; equity; and social-emotional supports.
Having an organized system for discussing these topics and having transparency around decision-making can help move the needle toward agreement, school labor experts said.
“Everyone wants to keep teachers safe, and everyone knows a long-term positive relationship with good morale is important too, and so no one wants to make these decisions without collaboration,” said Jason Clagg, an attorney at Barnes & Thornburg, a firm that represents school systems.
Here are the most common areas of contention, the challenges and how teachers and administrators are working through their differences:
One of the most common areas of debate include details regarding PPE, social distance measures, health checks and other safety precautions for in-person teaching and learning.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided guidance on these protocols, but many school communities across the country are also looking to area experts to help provide recommendations based on local circumstances. The struggle is when the government experts and teachers’ experts disagree, Clagg said.
“Both sides can find experts who may have different opinions, and maybe that doesn't resolve things, but at least it legitimizes things to some extent,” Clagg said.
In District of Columbia Public Schools, each school building was allowed to create its own reopening plan based on in-person learning demands. The district estimates at least 30% of a school’s student body would be accommodated for face-to-face instruction depending on staffing and classroom space.
Principals are leading safety walkthroughs with invited members of their communities to show how buildings are ready to welcome back students and staff. Those taking tours have detailed checklists to note areas of progress or concern.
How many students in a classroom? How many hours will the in-person school day last? Will teachers need to lead in-person and remote classes simultaneously? These are among the many questions educators and administrators are working through, and the details matter, said Bloomfield.
“It's very hard to teach … in a socially distant manner. You know, you’re wandering around the classroom, having small group study. I think the public may have a misunderstanding of what a modern classroom looks like, what modern face-to-face teaching is about. We're not talking about a lecturer at the front of the classroom,” Bloomfield said.
New York City, for example, developed specific expectations for blended learning and remote instruction situations, including the allowance that livestreaming is the choice of on-campus teachers who are leading in-person classes, according to an agreement between the district and union.
COVID-19 vaccine availability
Vaccine accessibility is one point of contention in Bellevue School District In Washington, which halted plans to bring 2nd-graders back to campuses last week after the Bellevue Education Association voted to pause in-person teaching until full COVID-19 vaccination is available for all educators.
According to a statement from the district, progress on an agreement is being made, including plans for 2nd-graders to be in buildings this week and for in-person learning to be phased in for several other grades. Part of the agreement includes forming a planning team to help school staffs access the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are currently pursuing partnerships with local agencies, pharmacies, and Public Health to hold vaccine clinics in our district for all our staff, who will be able to sign up to be vaccinated,” the district said in a statement, adding it is also advocating with state and regional agencies to prioritize school district staff in Washington’s vaccination distribution framework.
In New York City, the UFT developed its own vaccination distribution network and had provided shots to 8,000 members by the sixth day of the program, which matched volunteer members with healthcare providers that had vaccines available.
Clagg said it’s difficult for many school districts to promise not to fully reopen school buildings until all school staff are vaccinated because vaccine distribution is not widespread yet and may not be until the spring. Instead, administrators and teachers can work together to advocate to state and regional vaccination authorities on the importance of innoculations for educators, he said.
While many districts are giving families the option of whether their children learn remotely or in-person, that option has been difficult to offer to teachers at a districtwide level. That’s because school systems need to make sure teachers are in buildings if children are there for face-to-face learning, Clagg said.
“What's challenging is if you make an accommodation, or bend the rules for one, you know, then you may be greeted with many, many more requests that can't be met,” he said. “What's challenging is that an exception for one person might be feasible, but when it's made the rule, there isn't enough staff to keep the building open.”
Districts are accepting medical exemptions from in-person teaching for some educators. Some are extending family leave benefits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to allow teachers more time to work from home. Additionally, employees who are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 may qualify for an Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation.
Naaz Modan contributed to reporting on this story.