Democrats, Under Union Pressure on Reopening Schools, Must Choose Teachers or Parents

Democrats are facing increasing pressure from parents to reintroduce in-person teaching while education unions resist party leaders' efforts to get pupils back in the classroom.

California and Chicago have emerged as flashpoints in the debate about schools reopening as unions in both locations refuse to resume in-person teaching amid concerns about COVID-19.

Unions in Chicago say they'll continue remote teaching until the coronavirus safety measures they are seeking are introduced. In California, the conflict is focused on vaccinations for teachers.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, appeared to blame the administration of former President Donald Trump for the problems facing the city's schools.

"I think it's important for both sides to come to the table in good faith, recognize that we're both trying to work through a very challenging situation, but we must get a deal done," Lightfoot told CNN's New Day on Tuesday.

"These are really difficult times in a pandemic, exacerbated by the incompetence of the previous administration that didn't leave us with enough vaccine to really quickly get to the entire population in our city that needs it. But we're going to keep working hard recognizing the concern that, really, all of our residents have regarding COVID-19," she added.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement on Monday that members wanted to "make real progress at the bargaining table today on a number of the most difficult issues of this negotiation."

"We don't want a lock-out," Sharkey said. "We want to keep working remotely as we bargain an agreement to return to our classrooms safely. And we're one step closer to that goal today, because management has agreed to stay at the table rather than escalating conflict or locking out educators."

Lightfoot agreed to a two-day cooling-off period in the negotiations.

California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom told the Association of California School Administrators on January 27 that waiting until teachers had received vaccines was unrealistic.

The California Teachers Association has asked that teachers be vaccinated before returning to K-12 campuses.

"If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth: there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California. Just tell them the truth. Don't mislead people," Newsom said.

"If vaccinations is the absolute, then maybe we should be having a different conversation with the people of the state of California and parents," added the governor, who is facing threats of a recall.

Newsom and Lightfoot are also coming under pressure from parents determined to see their children back in the classroom. They cite studies showing that indoor teaching is safe and say a lack of proper education will harm their children.

"Children attending private schools across California, including Governor Newsom's children, returned to the classroom months ago," states the parents' group Open Schools CA on its website.

"This is an issue of educational equity. We cannot allow California's public school children, our children, to be left behind academically and lose out on the social-emotional benefits of learning in-person."

"We urge Governor Newsom, our state and local elected officials, and educational leaders to prioritize the needs of children. It is time for California schools to open."

A change.org petition on behalf of parents in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) echoes this sentiment, saying: "We have watched communities and schools around the country successfully return, and we have faith in the public health guidance and CPS plan to bring our kids back to school and get our communities functioning again."

"What is truly sad, although not surprising, is the fear-based campaign that the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union has been spearheading since the summer," says the petition, which has almost 2,200 signatures of the 2,500 it's seeking.

"We have learned over the past year that the leadership of the CTU has no interest in advocating for the city's children, yet it is no less disturbing that CTU leadership seems determined to undermine literally any effort put forth by CPS to return to in-person learning, regardless of how well thought out and researched it is."

A private Facebook group dedicated to school reopenings, Chicago Parents Collective, has 750 members.

Parents' concerns appear to be borne out in polling. A Reuters survey in November found that 70 percent of parents would choose "a learning model that includes some classroom instruction" in 217 districts across 30 states.

"As of late November, 53 percent of American students were receiving fully remote instruction; just 28 percent were in the classroom full time. Black and Hispanic children were even less likely to be learning in person full time, at 18 percent and 22 percent, respectively," wrote Professor Martin R. West, editor-in-chief of the journal Education Next.

"The parents of 60 percent of all students report that their son or daughter is learning less than the child would have if the pandemic had not occurred, and parents express even greater concern about how COVID mitigation measures have affected their children's social relationships and physical fitness," he said.

"Yet reports of learning loss and other adverse effects are far less frequent for students attending school in person."

While parents and teachers' unions are at odds on in-person learning, Republicans are also pressuring Democrats to reopen schools, with many taking to social media to suggest a lack of in-person learning will be harmful to children.

"I voted for allowing the consideration of @RepAshleyHinson's bill to ensure that education funds are being used to help schools safely reopen for in-person learning," tweeted Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko on Tuesday. "Dems BLOCKED this bill to help families and kids and give them an in-person education option."

"It's time for Democrats to decide. Are they going to put our kids first or are they going to continue to put the teachers' unions ahead of our kids?" Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming said in the chamber on Tuesday. "Senate Republicans have done our part to reopen our schools with incredible amounts of funding and support."

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Visits with Children
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits with schoolchildren on October 17, 2019. Lightfoot has blamed the Trump administration for the current conflict with the Chicago Teachers' Union. Scott Olson/Getty Images