Too little, too late: Teachers union president finally says kids need to back in class this fall

“What a joke,” tweeted Rory Cooper, reacting to the news. “At the end of the school year, she sees the light after intentionally causing harm to millions of children. She gets no credit. None at all. Her legacy will always be the pain she and her comrades caused.”

Randi Weingarten’s about to storm the beach long after the war ended.

I’m going to guess that she got a heads-up from the Biden administration that the CDC would be formally relaxing rules for vaccinated people today, making the unions’ reluctance to let teachers go back to class that much more absurd. Let history reflect that, on May 13, 2021, the day the federal government finally told Americans to get back to normal, the American Federation of Teachers only managed to beat them to the punch by a matter of hours — despite schools famously having been a low-risk environment for COVID for many months.

“Everyone realizes this is about making demands that can’t or won’t be met to justify not going back, right?” my pal Karl said of the AFT’s shift after the news broke this morning. Is he right? Bear in mind that just two states, Florida and Iowa, had all kids back in class as of earlier this month according to Fox.

“Conditions have changed. We can and we must reopen schools in the fall for in-person teaching, learning and support. And we must keep them open fully and safely five days a week,” Weingarten said in a speech…

“Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open. Of course, it’s not risk-free,” she added. “We can manage the threat by encouraging people to get vaccines and following guidance from the CDC that prevents the spread of the disease.”…

The head of the union said 89% of its 1.7 million members are fully vaccinated or want to be.

“The United States will not be fully back until we are fully back in school. And my union is all in,” she said.

There’s a catch — several, actually. Weingarten told the NYT that mitigation measures will need to continue this fall, a demand that’s by no means justified scientifically. Every American aged 12 and up will have had many months to get vaccinated by the time school reopens this September. And as I say, the CDC dropped nearly all restrictions for people who’ve been immunized just hours ago. Whether a school is well ventilated or poor ventilated, crowded or spaced out (Weingarten wants smaller class sizes, which will require hiring more teachers, of course), of what concern is it to the union and its members health-wise? The only people who should worry about school this fall are the parents of kids under 12, who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated yet. Everyone else in the building is capable of protecting themselves.

The success of the vaccine has destroyed Weingarten’s leverage. Or at least it would have in a more rational world.

Another catch is that Weingarten doesn’t rule her affiliates by diktat. She pledged today that the national union will launch a $5 million campaign aimed at convincing reluctant parents that it’s safe to send their kids back to class this fall, but whether big-city local unions go along is a separate question. They do have an incentive to do so, as Josh Barro notes:

The more comfortable parents get with remote learning, the fewer teachers schools will need since class sizes will no longer be limited by physical space. Not good for the unions. And of course, really, really not good for kids:

Teenagers from low-income families have taken on heavy loads of paid work, especially because so many parents lost jobs. Parents made new child care arrangements to get through the long months of school closures and part-time hours, and are now loath to disrupt established routines. Some families do not know that local public schools have reopened, because of language barriers or lack of effective communication from districts.

Experts have coined the term “school hesitancy” to describe the remarkably durable resistance to a return to traditional learning. Some wonder whether the pandemic has simply upended people’s choices about how to live, with the location of schooling — like the location of office work — now up for grabs. But others see the phenomenon as a social and educational crisis for children that must be combated — a challenge akin to vaccine hesitancy.

“There are so many stories, and they are all stories that break your heart,” said Pedro Martinez, the San Antonio schools superintendent, who said it was most challenging to draw teenagers back to classrooms in his overwhelmingly Hispanic, low-income district. Half of high school students are eligible to return to school five days a week, but only 30 percent have opted in. Concerned about flagging grades and the risk of students dropping out, he plans to greatly restrict access to remote learning next school year.

“Vaccine hesitancy” is a problem. “School hesitancy” is a national emergency. Some meaningful number of American schoolkids seem to be treating education now as essentially optional, a shift made possible by the rise of virtual classes which they may or may not attend regularly. Remote learning can’t continue this fall. And if Barro’s right that Weingarten has begun to worry about that, if only due to her and her group’s narrow financial interests, that’s a good thing. Full-time classroom instruction has to be Biden’s and Democratic governors’ — and the unions’ — highest priority this fall. If it isn’t, they’ll deserve the beating the GOP gives them next November.

I’ll leave you with this. Glad everyone’s on the same page, at long last.