The school closure crisis has exposed the perils of an excessively individualistic and proceduralist political culture. While few dispute that public education is a fundamental right, essential to an inclusive democratic society, the politics around reopening schools reveals the United States’ feeble commitment to the public good, as decisions are instead made through competition among organizations and lobbyists. In the absence of a framework for thinking about policy in terms of the public good, false dichotomies have filled the void, leading to cross-accusations and paralysis.
At the core of our dilemma is the tension between opening schools and supporting unions. In Europe, countries with very strong labor movements reopened their public schools back in September, following strict health guidelines. The public interest was clear, and governmental actors acted accordingly, based on substantial scientific evidence that it was safe to do so. In the United States, only 39.7% K-12 students are attending “traditional” in-person/every day schools.
The current impasse is due to union contracts that allow teachers to renegotiate terms upon changing circumstances. But when these contracts were made, the assumption was that, barring a strike, negotiations would be made while schools were open. Nobody (including those of us who accompanied California teachers unions to protests in Sacramento in 2019) envisioned a situation like the present one, in which schools must remain closed for in-person instruction until agreement is reached. In normal circumstances, when unions refuse in-person instruction until their terms are met, we call it a strike.
The unions’ terms, which require conditions beyond those that medical experts and public health authorities have deemed necessary for schools to safely reopen, are based on fear rather than a realistic assessment of risk. Teachers have reasons to be mistrustful. Public education is underfunded, and teachers have long been asked to do too much with too little. In unprecedented situations in which we can’t assess risk, fear takes over, and the fear posed by COVID is very real, particularly among minoritized groups.
But today we can assess the risk of COVID transmission much better than when the decision was made to close schools. Schools can be safely reopened with masks, ventilation, and social distancing — and without vaccination. This doesn’t mean the risk is zero, of course; we can never eliminate risk. But we must make decisions based on balancing childrens’ right to in-person education against the known risk of opening schools, and not based on fear, as the unions have so far done.
In blue America, in particular, the issue has become politicized in terms of false dichotomies between labor rights and the right to education, and between minoritized groups and well-off families. Progressives are reluctant to be critical of a labor union, even as their own kids are suffering academically, socially, and emotionally. Open schools groups are charged with being against equity on the basis that demographic groups that are disproportionately hit by COVID deaths and school closure are the most reluctant to go back in person. The perception that well-off parents want schools to open while disadvantaged ones don’t further feeds a narrative that keeps schools closed in the supposed name of equity.
Unfortunately, these are false oppositions, which block a more sophisticated and efficacious analysis. They pit different social groups against one another, rather than analyzing the reasons behind critical views and distrust, and identifying a common, public good. The result is the same repetitive cross-talk, while underlying causes and structural conditions remain untouched.
The closure is causing great harm to all groups, but especially to those who were already disadvantaged. Learning loss and psychological harms will further deepen existing disparities, especially as those who can afford private school, or move to other school districts, leave. The damage is not only to children: distrust in public districts and authorities is growing, particularly among those who have been historically underserved by public education but who need it the most. This distrust should not be exploited as an excuse to keep schools closed for other motives; on the contrary, it should inspire us to live up to the promise of public education. These groups don’t want closed schools, they want schools that provide inclusive and equitable educational opportunities.
In the meantime, the union is pursuing a policy that goes against its own self-interest by weakening its public support and undermining public education in the long run. It isn’t pro-union to help the union shoot itself in the foot. The prolonged closure of in-person education has already badly exacerbated existing inequities, and every day the closure continues the gap widens. It may take years after COVID is behind us to undo the damage. It isn’t pro-equity to support keeping schools closed for in-person education. If these truths haven’t appeared obvious, it’s because we have framed the issue in terms of opposing groups and interests rather than in terms of a common public good.
We need to move beyond false oppositions and rebuild a strong vision of education as a public good. With a new administration, this crisis could be a unique opportunity to regain trust in public goods, institutions and leadership. Inaction and silence are no longer an option.
While a robust articulation of the public good may take years to achieve, a mandate to reopen schools — opposing unions’ demands based on fear as well as allegations of disregarding underserved communities — would be a great first step in this direction. While so far this hasn’t been the case, it would be an act of leadership that would restore a sense of trust and the public good that this country badly needs.