NY Times: Oregon teacher's refusal to return to classrooms is about union power

NY Times: Oregon teacher's refusal to return to classrooms is about union power

The Times doesn’t put it as bluntly as my headline does but that’s basically where this piece lands. Earlier this month I wrote about the situation in Oregon where, in a bid to reopen schools sooner, Governor Kate Brown moved teachers ahead of 65-year-olds in the vaccine line. But despite most teachers having received at least one shot by now, their unions continue to resist a return to classrooms. Even after the CDC announced guidelines for reopening schools without vaccinated teachers, the unions are still balking. That’s true not only in Oregon but in Washington and California as well. According to the Times there’s no clear reason for this except for the power of unions in deep blue states:


Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance expert based in Seattle, points out that Washington, Oregon and California “all have more left-leaning leadership that is cozier with the unions.” But Boston, Chicago and New York also have strong public employee unions.

Those Eastern cities also have mayoral control of the school systems. Elected school boards govern the districts on the West Coast, and in most, teachers’ unions are strong political players, particularly in major cities such as Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Also, Ms. Roza noted, anxiety can be habit-forming.

“Once you haven’t opened for this long, it gets harder and harder,” she said. “The surge may be over and the case counts may have dropped. But we’re not at a lower level of fear.”

Gov. Kate Brown, to her credit, is looking at what is happening to the kids stuck in this situation: “Eleven- and 12-year-olds were attempting suicide. And these were kids who had resources. What about the kids who don’t?” That’s the sort of thing that prompted her to move teachers toward the front of the line for the vaccine. But Portland union president Elizabeth Thiel is still complaining about ventilation, even though CDC guidelines said little more than open the windows.

Ms. Thiel said that the city’s aging school buildings had profoundly inadequate ventilation and that the city’s rate of infection was high by the new C.D.C. guidelines.

Though air circulation is an important safeguard in preventing the spread of the virus, the C.D.C. guidelines did not offer detailed recommendations other than suggesting schools open doors and windows — an omission noted by a number of urban labor leaders.


And now that we’re most of the way through the school year, Thiel is pushing to just give up on the rest of the year rather than try to do something.

“We hear concerns about teenagers’ mental health,” said Ms. Thiel, the Portland labor leader. “We hear kids need live interaction, and I agree. But does opening school with students in masks six feet apart, and the teacher behind a screen, and no lunch or recess — does that improve anything?”

She agrees kids are struggling at home but her response is that maybe reopening schools won’t matter? Does she have any basis for saying this? Is there any evidence at all that suggests reopening schools won’t be a positive for kids? Because everything I’ve seen points in the opposite direction, i.e. remote learning has been a disaster, especially for marginal students.

Thiel is quite literally throwing up her hands and suggesting it’s just better to give up than ask teachers to resume classes in person. Most people would be fired for this level of commitment to their career. Unfortunately, teacher’s unions that provide a lot of money to Democrats can get away with saying this stuff in public. Even NY Times readers (some of them teachers themselves) find this infuriating. From the comments left on this story:

  • As a teacher who has been in person the whole time with high schoolers and is not eligible for the vaccine this is fairly frustrating. I do believe teachers should be eligible. I also believe if they receive the vaccine they must be in person after the second dose. This situation is ridiculous.
  • I completely understand why teachers didn’t want to come in to teach during times of high infection rates and no vaccine, not to mention shortages of PPE. However, once they get the vaccine – especially ahead of the elderly population – teachers need to go back to work. Refusing to do so is not going to help them; it is only going to hurt them in the long run. Teachers really do need more respect, and their schools need a LOT more funding. But this will turn the public against them, because yes, it is pretty selfish when parents can’t go back to work, kids’ learning and emotional health are taking massive blows, and the staff is now protected against infection.
  • Teachers and school staff, like medical workers and hospital staff, should be required to be vaccinated. They should be very near the front of the line, get vaccinated, and go back to work. A lot of other people can’t go back to work until their kids can go back to school. And any teacher who doesn’t want to get vaccinated should be immediately terminated without their cushy benefits and replaced. End of story.
  • The reality is everyone else has to work who is essential (including me) and to think grocery store workers and doctors and nurses and the list goes on even in March and April. And to think now they they’re getting vaccines and STILL refusing. This isn’t about anything other than teachers unions and public sector unions having way too much power and control. This is a crime. These children are being harmed.
  • If inoculation does not make teachers feel safe to return to the classroom, what in God’s name will? What’s the point of the vaccine then?
  • I worry very much that this issue will be a catastrophe for Democrats in 2022, as it is obvious to anyone paying attention that public schools will not open in any meaningful way for the 2021-2022 school year. Meanwhile all of Europe and private schools in the US have been open since September with no material contribution to transmission. We put our kids in Catholic school last fall. It is absolutely infuriating to see neighbors who have kids in the local public schools with little hope – trust me, they are close to a boiling point, and it is going to be very nasty when it boils over.
  • I have watched on Facebook as my former teachers in Oregon gladly get vaccinated while my parents with pre-existing conditions wait their turn. I have been working in person since June and do not know when I will get vaccinated either. Yet teachers have the audacity to take vaccination slots from seniors and then refuse to pitch in and do their essential jobs during a pandemic, as so many professions have done *without a vaccine*. It’s not going to perfect when school does resume in-person, and they need to stop acting like it needs to be perfect. No essential worker has had that luxury for the past year –and they weren’t vaccinated either.

All well said. If you took a vaccine before an elderly person, stop your whining and get back to the classroom.

The piece closes with one Portland parent who gets it: “No one can go back until everyone feels safe in the classroom. That’s not a way to make policy decisions that affect thousands of kids.” She’s right but unfortunately that’s exactly how these decisions are being made thanks to unions.

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David Strom 6:31 PM on November 27, 2023