Today Jonathan Chait puts a name to something we’ve all observed over the last few months. Teachers unions around the country have been fighting a return to classrooms and largely ignoring statements from the CDC and other experts that reopening can be done safely even without vaccinating teachers first. The impact of distance learning on many marginal students has been shown to be a disaster but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. Teachers in many places are unwilling to return until the risk to them is effectively zero.
Teachers are hesitant to accept even small risks because they share a belief system with many other Democrats. And that belief system — or at least the purist version of it that is coming to the fore as the end of the pandemic draws within sight — could be called Zeroism.
Zeroism is an inability to conceive of public-health measures in cost-benefit terms. The pandemic becomes an enemy that must be destroyed at all costs, and any compromise could lead to death and is therefore unacceptable…
Under any sane calculation, whether school poses a small risk or an extremely small risk hardly matters, because the alternative is a social catastrophe that dwarfs any public health effect. That school districts are parsing the precise contours of the risk now is a testament to the power of Zeroism. Many unions have made demands like requiring 14 days of no community spread in order to return to school, or employed slogans (“Our health comes first”) which implicitly treat containing the virus as the only important factor in the school-opening decision.
That unwillingness to balance the small risk with the huge cost being paid by students, tens of thousands of whom have completely disappeared from school for the past year, is the mindset that is so frustrating. I don’t blame teachers for worrying about their well-being. I blame them for worrying only about their own well-being.
And, yes, I’ve seen the interviews with teachers union leaders claiming they are eager to return to classrooms and help students. If you ask teachers I’m sure they would express a lot of concern. But there’s always a but at the end of those sentence, i.e. but we can’t go back to classrooms until it’s safe. And in this case safe is some form of Zeroism.
Elsewhere today, Bari Weiss published a piece by Reason’s Robby Soave. He makes a very good point about why most private schools are open while many public schools remain closed. If you want to know why teachers unions have adopted the Zeroism approach, I think this is why:
Private schools must serve their customers in order to collect tuition, whereas public schools are funded by tax dollars, a funding source that is not dependent on the satisfaction of students or their families. Since public school teachers are protected by powerful unions — their salaries, benefits, and jobs are guaranteed, even if schools are closed — they have little incentive to take on any risk of being exposed to COVID-19, even if the risk is comparatively small. Their positions are secure, regardless.
That gives teachers unions an incredible amount of bargaining power, and they’ve put it to use. In July, Washington D.C. teachers dropped fake body bags on the doorstep of district headquarters to scare education officials into backing down on reopening. One of the body bags carried the message, “RIP FAVORITE TEACHER.” In New York City, teachers threatened not to show up for class, leaving the district scrambling. These exercises in pure emotional manipulation were wildly successful, as both cities delayed reopening plans numerous times throughout the fall.
The Chicago Teachers Union waged a lengthy war on its district’s reopening plans, attributing the drive to reopen to “racism, sexism, and misogyny.” This bewildering claim is, if anything, backward. Many of the students least served by virtual learning are underprivileged inner city kids of color. Meanwhile, more than 800,000 women have exited the workforce during the pandemic to help take care of their kids.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has worked tirelessly to thwart reopening at every turn. She recently cast doubt on whether schools could reopen even if some staff were vaccinated because “we don’t know whether a vaccine stops transmissibility.”
If teachers were paying a price for remaining out of classrooms, they would have some incentive to accept a small risk. As it is, they have no incentive to do anything but make demands and then wait for school boards, school districts, mayors and governors to try to give them what they want.