Second, for many educators, returning to work is less appealing than the status quo. Right now, teachers working from home are earning the same salary and benefits as they would if schools were to reopen. Meanwhile, districts have shortened their workday, created asynchronous learning days that give teachers extra hours to plan and get things done, reduced formal supervision, eliminated commutes, and supplied technology, training, and troubleshooting to support teachers at home. Moreover, returning to in-person instruction may well entail teaching both students in the classroom and those viewing from home—a headache that no sane educator would relish. Practically speaking, from a teacher’s perspective, the status quo has a lot to recommend it, and gives teachers cause to support the unions even as they keep moving the goalposts for what constitutes a “safe” reopening.

Third, education officials have an appealing way to finesse this; they can stay closed while insisting they want to reopen by pleading poverty. That’s hardly out of character. (Heck, last May, New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza lamented his budget, telling city council members, “We are cutting the bone. There is no fat to cut, no meat to cut.” Carranza’s is one of the highest-spending school systems in the country — at $28,900 per student in 2019—and had added 340 positions to its bureaucracy the prior year.) Indeed, school leaders have an unlovely habit of suggesting that funding is in perpetual crisis. So, it’s no trick at all to explain that the $60-odd billion in 2020 federal COVID-19 aid wasn’t enough and that it’ll take much more to reopen safely. (As The Dispatch reported last week, much of this money has yet to be spent.) Here, superintendents stand shoulder-to-shoulder with NEA President Pringle, who’s said, “What we are trying to do is to make sure that the blame gets placed where it should be placed, and that is Congress that has failed to act.” For school district leaders, the choice between pressuring staff to return to work and explaining that they’d really, really like to reopen, but can’t do so safely until they get more money, is a no-brainer.