What's at Stake in the Fight Over Reopening Schools

Written by
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, The New Yorker
Feb. 12, 2021

As tens of thousands of Americans continue to die of covid-19, a new debate has emerged over whether public-school students, their teachers, and all of the staff necessary to make schools function should return to school buildings. In the United States, forty-two per cent of students are exclusively attending “virtual” school, thirty-five per cent are attending in-person school, and twenty-two per cent have a combination of in-person and remote learning. But there is mounting pressure from elected officials and some—mostly white—parents to jettison remote learning and fully resume in-person schooling. The move has been buttressed by recent studies, touted by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arguing that schools can safely reopen—always with the caveat that mitigation tools, such as mask wearing, proper ventilation, and regular sanitation, be put in place and community transmission be controlled.

But the rush to get back to normal, by securing the child care necessary to truly open the economy, is coming into sharp conflict with many teachers, who want vaccines and airtight mitigation protocols before agreeing to return to schools. Most parents of Black and Latinx students share their concerns. According to one recent study, only eighteen per cent of Black parents and twenty-two per cent of Latinx parents would prefer to send their children back to in-person schooling full time, compared with forty-five per cent of white parents. Over fifty per cent of Black and Latinx parents prefer to keep their children in remote learning.

Not all teachers have the legal right or political latitude to negotiate their working conditions. But where their unions are strong, teachers are standing up to unilateral directives mandating their return to school buildings. The city of San Francisco sued its school district to demand that schools reopen immediately, and Los Angeles’s city-council president has threatened to use the same tactic. In Philadelphia, the city’s school district directed teachers to show up in person on Monday, but the teachers’ union told its members to continue working remotely.

In Chicago, sharp disagreements about when and how public schools should reopen brought the city to the edge of a strike. Since schools rushed to close last March, at the onset of the pandemic, the city’s teachers have taught their classes from home. Chicago schools were slated to reopen in the fall, when the school year began, but rising rates of community spread and a lack of proper protections resulted in the continuation of remote learning. Chicago Public Schools then announced that it would plan to reopen in January—just as infection rates and deaths were rising exponentially across the country.

Chicago teachers voted with their feet. When they were asked to report to their buildings on January 4th, only forty-nine per cent did. After Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced, unilaterally, that schools would reopen on February 1st, seventy-one per cent of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to defy the order. After weeks of negotiating, the school district and the union reached a tentative agreement on Sunday. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the key items in the deal include a phased-in return to school buildings that stretches through the first week of March. With the exception of preschool teachers and special-education teachers, who have already returned to work, no union members will be required to return until they have been vaccinated. The city has also agreed to increase the number of teachers who will be allowed to continue teaching remotely because they share a residence with someone who has compromised health. The C.T.U. president, Jesse Sharkey, has said that eighteen hundred teachers have requested to work remotely for this reason, but only six hundred have received permission so far. If the C.T.U. votes to affirm the agreement, it may serve as a model for other teachers and their unions. Without bargaining, teachers would have been expected to return to schools with minimal protections in place. Just last week, Chicago Public Schools and Lightfoot were not even willing to wait for teachers to receive the vaccine.

The C.P.S. chief and Lightfoot accused the union of acting in bad faith, seeking to reframe the issue as one of equity for Black and brown students. They argued that Black students, in particular, are falling so far behind that they will never catch up if they’re left to continue remote education. Lightfoot recently said, “I have to tell you, I fear for their future.” Janice Jackson, the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, added, “We cannot sit back and allow this generation to falter because of made-up reasons around why we can’t do reopening.” Teachers’ opposition to returning to schools during the deadliest phase of the pandemic evoked vitriol from critics. In a scolding opinion piece titled,“Children Need to Be Back in School Tomorrow,” the Times columnist David Brooks compared public-school teachers who have expressed reluctance to teach in person to Republicans who denied that Joe Biden won the Presidential election. According to Brooks, “There’s a wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America. There are people across the country who deny evidence, invent their own facts and live in their own fantasyland.” In the Chicago Tribune, the columnist John Kass accused Chicago teachers of ignoring government guidance, writing, “There’s been almost no in-person learning for about a year. And remote instruction really isn’t school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it’s safe to open public schools, that children are being hurt by not being in class.” Kass, aiming his acrimony at the C.T.U., went so far as to conjure disturbing imagery of Sharkey “bullying” and “slapping” Lightfoot.

Supporters of immediate school reopenings, in Chicago and beyond, point to falling grades, test scores, and other assessments as evidence that the future of poor and working-class Black children is in danger. The dystopian imagery of a “lost generation” of Black youth is redolent of earlier moral panics: the discoveries of “crack babies” in the nineteen-eighties and “super predators” in the nineties were also rooted in anecdote-driven, pseudo-scientific evidence. Today’s evidence for the spiral of Black children is the tactically vague measurement of “learning loss.” But no one needs to invent a new metric to discover that, during the worst crisis in modern American history, students might be falling behind. It stands to reason that those students who were already victims of the maldistribution of wealth and resources that mars the entire enterprise of public education in the United States would fall behind even more, as those inequities are mapped on the new stresses created by the pandemic. Both panics were contingent on demonizing Black parents: single mothers who were negligent and fathers who, inevitably, were absent. A similar pattern has developed today, with teachers and teachers’ unions serving as proxies to question the intelligence and competence of Black families choosing to keep their kids at home. Instead of responding to the matrix of problems that are confronting the children of “essential workers,” city and school administrators have chosen to make teachers the main culprit.

Although critics may lambast reluctance to return to school buildings as foolhardy, working-class parents in Chicago have learned that they should judge public officials by what they do, not by what they promise. As a candidate for mayor, Lightfoot pledged to facilitate the creation of an elected school board in Chicago. She not only reneged on the promise; she hand-selected the board, which has deferred to her and the C.P.S. administration throughout the returning-to-school debates. But even issues that seem tangential or unrelated to that debate have damaged parents’ trust in Lightfoot, such as her claim, in December, that she did not know that members of the Chicago Police Department wrongly raided the home of a Black social worker and held her at gunpoint, naked, for several minutes, despite her pleas that they were in the wrong house. The following day, Lightfoot acknowledged that she had known about the case since 2019. These kinds of lies, combined with the quotidian hardships of poor and working-class life in the city, erode trust, which is of particularly paramount importance right now. It is not only Lightfoot’s lapses in judgment and honesty she must contend with but the stain of Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, when he led efforts to close dozens of public schools in Black communities and also, infamously, covered up the murder of Laquan McDonald.

There is a long and acrimonious history between city officials and the C.T.U. In 2012, the union, then led by the indomitable Karen Lewis, struck for “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” signalling an end to “labor peace” on terms that preserved the status quo and inaugurating a new period of what some have described as “social justice unionism” or “bargaining for the common good.” In 2012, union members struck for smaller class sizes and “wrap-around services,” including a demand for more nurses and social workers. Similar issues came to a head during a strike in 2019, when, in addition to demands for raises, the union fought for nurses and social workers in every school and greater services for the district’s sixteen thousand homeless students. By the end of the strike, Lightfoot had become deeply embittered, accusing the C.T.U. of bringing issues to the table that she believed had nothing to do with the union. Chicago teachers’ social-justice unionism is bewildering to public officials, but it has helped them build support and credibility among marginalized communities. As a result, parents tend to trust the teachers who take care of their children more than they trust city administrators, who institute budget cuts, close their schools, and generally run a city that can feel hostile to their most basic needs.

The lack of trust is not just about the character of the powerful actors involved; it also has to do with what parents and teachers understand about the conditions of the school buildings, and whether schools are likely to carry out health and safety protocols successfully. Schools can be safe “as long as the school is following a mitigation plan,” as one doctor from the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital put it. But parents’ and teachers’ trepidation about returning to school has everything to do with whether schools will consistently adhere to one.

In big cities, schools in the poorest neighborhoods consistently strain to maintain buildings that are often old and in varying states of disrepair. This past summer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its first report since 1996 on the physical condition of the nation’s public schools. It found that a majority cannot make needed major building repairs because of the expense. Among the most common problems encountered were those involving expensive H.V.A.C. systems, which deal with heating, cooling and ventilation. The study found that forty-one per cent of schools needed to repair or replace their antiquated heating and ventilation systems. It is not anti-science to question whether these same school districts are now, somehow, able to fix longstanding ventilation and cleaning issues. In 2018, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation into the “filthy conditions” of some Chicago schools found that, of the hundred and twenty-five schools it examined, ninety-one failed a quick cleanliness inspection.

These are the conditions that underlie the concerns of public-school teachers and Black and brown parents. Once they overlap with deteriorating efforts to gain control over the coronavirus, fears are heightened, not assuaged. Black and brown parents are not derelict in their responsibilities as parents by opting for remote learning; they are trying to keep their kids safe. In a perfect world, almost no one would choose remote learning over being in person with teachers. It is an imperfect solution during an unprecedented and devastating crisis. I spoke with the vice-president of the C.T.U., Stacy Davis Gates, and she expressed dismay that the experiences of Black and Latinx families are being marginalized in the debate over reopening. “Why are Black people dying? Because they’re going to work. Why are brown people infected? Because they’re going to work. They are working in service-related industries. And they have children, right? Well, they’re not sending them to school, because they already know how institutions treat them,” Gates said. “See, if we dig in and ask a Black person, a Black family, if we dig in and ask a brown person and a brown family, then we would have answers. But everyone drives right past those families.”

Chicago public schools are only eleven per cent white; Black and Latinx students make up eighty-one per cent of the student body. Unsurprisingly, white students are overrepresented among those opting for in-person learning, and also those who are actually showing up to school. Since early January, there has been a phased-in return to public-school buildings, beginning with preschool and special-education students, with the next phase bringing back kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. Among C.P.S. elementary-school students, only thirty-one per cent of Latinx students, thirty-three per cent of Asian students, and thirty-four per cent of Black students were opted to return to school buildings by their parents. In contrast, the parents of more than sixty-seven per cent of white children opted them in.

But, as schools began to open in early January, the numbers of students who actually showed up were even smaller. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that most of the news at the time was predicting a wave of post-holiday infections, and public officials were continuing to encourage people to stay home if they were able. Indeed, on January 10th, Lightfoot announced a stay-at-home advisory; city residents were “strongly advised” to comply. The week of January 11th, Chicago Public Schools expected fifty-five hundred students to return to school buildings; only fifty-nine per cent showed up. Among those who did, there was less than fifty per cent attendance among Black students; sixty-two per cent of Latinx students were present, along with sixty-six per cent of Asian students. White students were by far the most responsive, with three-quarters of those who opted in arriving for in-person school.

This is why the argument—from Lightfoot, Jackson (the C.P.S. chief), and others—that the return to school is about equity rings so hollow. Pushing for schools to reopen even as the overwhelming majority of Black and Latinx parents opt for remote learning will only undermine remote instruction, all while catering to the disproportionate number of white students who show up in person. Jackson has gone so far as to lock out elementary and middle-school teachers from their remote accounts if they refuse to show up for in-person lessons, cutting off the thousands of Black and Latinx students who have chosen to remain at home for remote learning.

I spoke with a preschool teacher named Kirstin Roberts, whom C.P.S. locked out of her remote-teaching account when she refused to appear for in-person classes. Roberts has been a teacher for fourteen years, and is married to a C.P.S. nurse. They are parents to a seventh-grade C.P.S. student, and share a residence with Roberts’s seventy-six-year-old mother and seventy-eight-year-old father. “The day that I was locked out, they sent a substitute, who was teaching remotely. So it was clear that it was retribution punishment. But it was the kind of punishment that hurt the children that I teach,” Roberts told me. Roberts was able to return to teaching, on a technicality. “We still have dozens of educators in Chicago who have taken the same exact action I did,” she said. “They’ve had a substitute some days, no substitute—you know, a principal might pop in, to take attendance, and then pop back out. It’s just completely unacceptable.”

Lightfoot is making overtures to white families because she is fearful that they may pack up their tax dollars and leave, just as the city is straining from the pandemic’s attendant economic crisis. In a January press conference, she said, “Here’s what I’m hearing from residents all around the city, and from parents in particular: If we don’t have stability in the public-school system, why should we stay in Chicago? If we have to worry about lockouts and strikes, particularly after a historic contract, where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years. People vote with their feet.” She continued, “And what I worry about is with young families—one of the first questions they ask is ‘How is the school system?’ And if the answer is ‘completely rife with strife and uncertainty,’ that sends a real message: don’t stay in Chicago.” She added that the city should be “growing our population, not shrinking it.”

As federal expenditures have shrunk in recent decades, cities have aimed to transform into growth machines, seeking out investment and higher-income residents to help make up the difference. They have also looked to minimize the expense of lower-income residents, who are more likely to absorb tax dollars than contribute them. As a result, places like Chicago have become increasingly hostile to poor and working-class Black and Latinx families, as evidenced by a dearth of affordable housing and public services, under-resourced public schools, brutal police, and punitive criminal-justice systems. The impact of starving the public sector and trying to attract and maintain whiter, richer residents has been devastating to ordinary Black and brown families. Over the past two decades, two hundred thousand African-Americans have left Chicago, fifty thousand of them just since 2015. Public officials don’t have press conferences to lament the flight of Black Chicagoans when the increased presence of upwardly mobile white residents is what is desired.

This longing for stability on terms that preserve the underlying racism and inequity of the status quo is part of the larger context for the conflict with the Chicago Teachers Union. The C.P.S. threat to lock out grade-school teachers for not appearing in person, even if there are few students for them to teach in the building, is also a flex by school management to exercise power over its labor force. Along with the threat of a lockout, C.P.S. has promised to axe the pay of workers who do not report in person. It’s a big consequence in the midst of the worst financial crisis in more than a generation. But labor peace on the terms set by city officials is about creating the kind of environment where business can thrive.

In a press conference held in January, Lightfoot compared teachers to “essential workers.” She said that she understood their fears about returning to school buildings, but “just as I understand the concerns and fears of the day-care workers, the factory workers, the health-care workers, the grocery-store and construction and transit and sanitation and other workers whose jobs do not allow them to work remotely and stay at home.” Of course, there are some jobs that cannot be done remotely, but teaching is not one of them. The recently invented moniker “essential worker” has been wielded to force workers to labor in an environment about which they have very little say. Consider how, throughout the pandemic, meatpacking workers have been forced to endure brutal workplace conditions—which have produced regular outbreaks of the virus—after the Trump Administration declared meat production essential. Meatpackers are not teachers, but if given the choice to bargain over the terms of their labor, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, they would probably take it.

Jackson and Lightfoot have acted similarly in invoking day-care centers and private schools, including Catholic schools, as examples of educators and child-care providers returning to work without rancor. They have also argued that the absence of outbreaks within private education is further evidence that returning to school is safe. But in-person attendance at Catholic schools in Chicago is forty-four per cent white, and only twenty per cent Black and twenty-nine per cent Latinx—hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. But, even more consequentially, Catholic-school teachers had no say over the protocols that determined when a return to schools would be safe; they were mandated to return under threat of losing their jobs.

These comparisons paint teachers as entitled and selfish, while valorizing workers who have had virtually no input about the conditions under which they have had to labor during the pandemic. When I spoke with Jesse Sharkey, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, he described how teachers experience the questioning of their character. “No one wants your humanity challenged during a profoundly traumatic period of time,” he told me. “You know, teachers I know are profoundly depressed. And this whole thing is troubling and deeply felt. Teaching is really difficult work when you are actively focussing on what young people are thinking and saying and doing and trying to engage and get them to learn stuff.” He added that an important benefit of that work is “the emotional reward of being close to and around young people who are actually quite great. If you’re a teacher, you probably don’t get that experience now. Instead, we get to look at them in a computer screen. So you’ve done all the work and get none of the rewards. And then, on top of that, to be scared of a pandemic, and to be threatened with loss of job and to be called selfish for doing what we think is right. It’s all really quite traumatizing.”

As Kirstin Roberts, the C.P.S. preschool teacher, explained, “I’m a teacher, and I’m going to give a lot of myself to my job. I think anybody who’s been in a caring profession does make that choice. But I’m not going to give my life, and I’m not going to just take whatever you hand me. I think that’s just the price you pay. You’re going to be demonized. There are people who want workers, all workers, to shut up and take it.” Demands for labor peace are often thinly veiled demands for labor quiescence.

All workers, including low-wage child-care workers, should have a say about the conditions under which they work. They should all be able to bargain over workplace safety issues, pay, and anything else they deem essential to their well-being. Their lack of power should not be lauded as an example of labor peace but as a reminder of the work that the labor movement has yet to do. Meanwhile, the method of governance that caters to élite residents, refuses to raise taxes on the wealthiest, and offers a bevy of public goods to solicit business investments is running headlong into growing demands for greater public expenditure. From housing to health care, low-income people and others ravaged by debt and inequality are beginning to demand a better life subsidized by public money.

The implications of this showdown over workplace standards in the age of covid extend well beyond Chicago Public Schools. The third-largest city in the United States, helmed by a leading figure in the Democratic Party, Lori Lightfoot, is threatening the nuclear option of locking out members of its teachers’ union, who endorsed Joe Biden for President. Biden offered support for Chicago teachers during their last strike, in 2019. Just last week, in one of his first press conferences as President, he expressed sympathy and support for them again. (More recently, his press secretary has tried to thread the needle of praising both the union and Lightfoot.) Concerns about budget constraints, lack of child care and its impact on the economy, and the need to sell labor peace as part of a larger package to encourage investment will put leading Democratic officials in sharp conflict with important segments of its base—especially teachers. Every labor struggle produces two sides, one organized around labor and one around management. In this battle, in which teachers in Chicago and around the country are in what they believe to be a fight for their and their students’ lives, the stakes have never been higher. Much maligned teachers and much ignored Black parents deserve support and solidarity as they chart a path through this dangerous, unmarked territory.

[Originally published on February 9, 2021 via The New Yorker