In the ongoing effort to isolate people from the COVID-19 virus, students arguably have suffered the greatest consequences. Teacher unions have had much to do with this situation. Across the nation, especially in and around cities, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have been aggressively resisting back-to-work orders. To the extent that schools are reopening, taxpayers are paying a premium. Tucked away in the new $1.9 trillion “stimulus” bill passed by Congress on March 10 and signed the next day by President Biden, the third such legislation in a little under a year, is more than $125 billion for reopening K-12 schools and colleges to full capacity. In light of a recent sharp drop in new cases, not to mention the relative immunity among youth, these subsidies more than anything else seem to be reciprocation for union political donations.
COVID-19, or coronavirus, originated in mainland China in December 2019, and over the next few months spread to the United States and the rest of the world. That the Chinese government covered up this epidemic in its early stages by stonewalling investigations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization is almost indisputable. It is a scandal unto itself. But governments here, especially at the state and local levels, have compounded the problem by overreacting. Rather than attempting to strike a balance between protecting the most vulnerable populations and keeping the economy going, governors and mayors a year ago ordered bans on indoor and even outdoor public gatherings on the implicit premise that everyone is “equally at risk.” These orders shut down “non-essential” employment and established strict occupancy ceilings. While the most onerous of these restrictions have been loosened (due to public pressure), many others remain. The photos of empty streets in midtown Manhattan this past year should serve notice as to the real meaning of that euphemism, “social distancing.”
As of March 18, the U.S. had experienced 30.3 million coronavirus cases resulting in 551,000 deaths. The latter figure, the more crucial of the two, is misleading because it does not account for co-morbidity – that is, cases in which a coronavirus death was accompanied by at least one other life-threatening condition. Dying with COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily mean dying from it. A database assembled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University revealed that 94 percent of all U.S. deaths from coronavirus were associated with other medical conditions. Put another way, coronavirus was the sole cause of death in only 6 percent of all cases. Moreover, where co-morbidity was involved, an average of 2.6 additional medical events occurred for each death. Granted, isolating cause and effect is not easy. While the coronavirus may trigger another adverse medical event, it also may be that another adverse event triggered the coronavirus. Either way, it is fair to say that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are associated with other medical issues. And while people of all ages are susceptible to some degree, the elderly by far are most likely to die. That’s another way of saying that children, teens and young adults are the least likely to die.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control affirms as much. Fully 58.9 percent of all COVID-19 deaths occurring during 2020-21 (as of March 18) were to persons ages 75 and over. By contrast, less than 0.0002 percent of the deaths occurred among persons ages 5-14. Defenders of school closings logically would retort that the low death rates for youth show that school closures save lives. But do they? The elderly, more than the rest of the population, are housebound. So why are their death rates so much higher? Why have deaths among persons in the 15-24, 25-34 and 35-44 age brackets, for example – people far less isolated and not retired from the workforce – accounted for a combined 3.9 percent of COVID-19 deaths?
Such questions don’t seem to be relevant to the large segment of the American public who reverentially hang on every pronouncement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Trump and now President Biden. Among the most prominent advocates of mandatory social distancing are teachers and other school personnel – more specifically, members and fee payers of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These two unions, with respective memberships of roughly 3.0 million and 1.7 million, are a powerful force in elementary and secondary education. Thanks to their hard-nosed contract negotiations with local school districts, they exercise enormous leverage over hiring, promotion, tenure and work rules. School officials generally avoid bargaining over issues that could trigger a strike.
Leaders of the NEA and the AFT, each of which represents auxiliary personnel as well as teachers, insist that they do want to reopen the schools, but safely. Achieving their standard of safety, however, requires government money – lots of it. In testimony last July before the House Committee on Financial Services, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia called upon Congress to provide an extra $175 billion to the Education Stabilization Fund to counteract nearly 900,000 school job layoffs. “These losses would hamper our ability to reopen schools safely,” she remarked. “But the safety of students and educators cannot be compromised.” Garcia castigated what she termed the “wait-and-see approach” of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as if displaying concern over the necessity of $175 billion in new federal spending were some act of inhumanity. AFT President Randi Weingarten, for whom no amount of federal funds is enough, likewise expressed a desire to reopen schools in a recent interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I do want to debunk this myth that teacher unions, at least our union, doesn’t want to reopen schools,” she said. “Teachers know that in-person education is really important and we would have said that, pre-pandemic. We knew that remote learning is not a good substitute.”
The word “safely,” however, is fungible. Toward this end, teacher unions have employed a clever Catch-22 logic: Schools could be safe if the more money were made available. This stance enables the unions to disingenuously profess a desire for reopening schools and at the same time gives carte blanche to members who refuse to return to work. Yet money isn’t likely to issue. The Reason Foundation’s Corey DeAngelis and Arizona State University’s Christos Makridis, examining more than 12,000 school districts nationwide, found no significant association between higher per-student revenues or expenditures on one hand and the reopening schools for in-person learning on the other. Teacher unions, locked into their “safety first” mentality, are not impressed. They want maximum financial support before showing up for work.
In Chicago, this attitude has led to a dangerous stalemate. Most of the city’s 340,000 public school students haven’t been in a classroom for the last 12 months. And they might remain absent for a good long while. On January 31, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, attempting to resolve the impasse between the AFT-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools, ordered teachers back to work. “All teachers, pre-K through eight and cluster teachers must report,” the mayor said at a press conference following the union’s no-show at scheduled negotiations. “If you don’t have an approved accommodation, we expect to see you back in class. Those who do not report to work…we will have to take action.” The union counters that it is bargaining in good faith. “If there is a choice to end negotiations, cause a crisis, or cut off 80 percent of students in the city who have chosen remote learning,” said a union spokesperson, “that choice won’t be ours.”
The union isn’t budging. A CTU spokesperson recently declared, “Let me be clear: We have no agreement on returning to in-person learning in high schools on any date, nor will there be an agreement until we know our school buildings can reopen safely.” A strike isn’t out of the question. Illinois, unlike its adjacent states, allows public employees to go on strike, so long as there is no contract in force. And Chicago teacher strikes have a long tradition. They went on strike in 2012, triggering the closure of 50 schools and the layoffs of thousands of teachers. More recently, in 2019, teachers conducted a 15-day strike that kept students out of class for 11 of those days and added $80 to the average single-family homeowner property tax bill. Such events have been occurring for at least a half-century. Prior to strike restrictions enacted in 1995 by the Illinois legislature, CTU members had walked off their jobs nine times – in 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987. And even those restrictions may be gone soon. Early this year, the Illinois State Senate voted to repeal them (the State Assembly already had done so in 2019). The measure, known as HB 2275, awaits the signature of Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker.
If teacher union members are worried that states and school districts lack the money to reopen, they shouldn’t. The three coronavirus-related stimulus bills passed by Congress and signed into law each have contained enormous education subsidies. The first such legislation, the CARES Act, signed nearly a year ago, authorized $30.75 billion for educational purposes, with most of the money evenly divided between K-12 and higher education, plus another $3 billion for a Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund. The second round, enacted last December, devoted $82 billion for education, $54.3 billion of which would go for an Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief Fund and another $22.7 billion of which would go for a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The tab just got a lot higher. Contained in the new $1.9 trillion stimulus behemoth is school funding over $125 billion.
President Biden has assured the public that he will make every effort to reopen schools for in-person class instruction within his first 100 days in office. As the deadline is only several weeks away, he has ordered the Department of Education and the Department of Health & Human Services to issue clear guidelines for reopening. The president also has authorized states to draw funds from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. The money spigot appears to have no end.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers may not be directly getting any of this money, but rest assured they are benefiting. With large influxes of federal funds, unionized school districts will be able to hire staff at full capacity, and raise wages, salaries and benefits. This invites the question of why Congress and the Biden administration are so attuned to the interests of the teacher unions. Maybe it’s because the unions are so attuned to the interests of the politicians who make the money available. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, teacher unions spent a combined $43.7 million on political campaigns during the 2020 election cycle, a little more than tenfold increase from the $4.3 million spent in the 2004 cycle. The funds aren’t exactly evenly spread out. In the 2020 cycle, about 98 percent of all contributions went toward Democratic Party candidates, organizations or political action committees. Especially prominent was a pro-Biden Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, which pulled in around $2 million in AFT contributions. At the national, state and local levels, teacher unions are virtual appendages of the Democrats.
The biggest losers in this struggle for power and money have been students unable to return to school. Computer distance learning is no substitute for real-time classes. When schools close, students are deprived of instruction, meals, exercise and peer interactions. Their emotional and physical health may suffer as a result. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports: “Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning defects, as well as child and adolescent or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality.” A Brookings Institution study concluded that coronavirus-related school closings are leading to a perfect storm of factors that will sharply increase the incidence of child abuse and neglect, especially given that the means of detection are being inhibited. An international study by the McKinsey consulting firm concluded that partially reopening schools through January 2021, as opposed to fully reopening them in the fall semester 2020, will set students back a few months with average-quality distance learning, far more months with low-quality distance learning, and more months still with an absence of distance learning. The study also concluded that the quality of instruction with distance learning is lower than in a classroom.
Aside from the harmful impact of school closings on youth, coronavirus is not likely to run amok in full classrooms, whether here or in other countries. A 191-nation study sponsored by the nonprofit group, Insights for Education, “COVID-19 and Schools: What We Can Learn from Six Months of Closure and Reopening,” showed no significant association between school status and COVID-19 infection rates in the larger community. Moreover, the report found that nearly all of countries that closed their doors, typically in lower-income nations, still were mired in the first wave of the pandemic. “There is no consistent pattern,” asserted Randa Grob-Zakhary, Insights for Education’s founding partner and CEO. “It’s not that closing schools leads to a decrease in cases, or that opening schools leads to a surge in cases.” The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) came to a similar conclusion. In an IDSA briefing last October 14, Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious diseases specialist at University of Michigan Medical School and a fellow of the society, stated, “The data so far are not indicating that schools are a super-spreader site.” She also defended in-person instruction, including college campuses, as essential to student achievement.
The evidence doesn’t end there. A study in Spain, where contact tracing is extensive, concluded that schools are not a factor in the spread of the coronavirus. Among students and staff testing positive, noted principal investigator Enric Alvarez of the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, 87 percent did not infect anyone else at their school. The decision to close or open a school, he said, “makes absolutely no difference” in the incidence of COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, a survey of more than 57,000 day-care workers, conducted by researchers at Yale University during May and June of 2020, showed that only 427 care providers – less than 1 percent – tested positive for COVID-19. Matching those workers to a control group sample who hadn’t contracted the virus, the researchers also found no association between contracting the virus and exposing children to it. Of particular interest to combative Chicago public school teachers, the Chicago Archdiocese has reported no significant outbreaks among its roughly 20,000 students in more than 90 schools, all of which have maintained in-person classes.
Fully opening schools, with proper mitigation protocols in place, makes more sense than partially closing schools and way more sense than closing them outright. In its “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools” guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics, mindful of variations by locality, recommended: “(T)he AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Chief of Education, takes a similar view. “Evidence shows that schools are not the main drivers of this pandemic,” he said. “Yet we are seeing an alarming trend whereby governments are once again closing down schools as a first recourse rather than a last resort. In some cases, this being done nationwide, rather than community by community, and children are continuing to suffer the devastating impacts on their learning, mental and physical well-being and safety.”
The coronavirus has taxed our nation’s emotions as well as fiscal capacity. While people should take commonsense precautions, shutting down schools is not the appropriate response. Unfortunately, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers seem to believe that the risks of opening the schools far outweigh the rewards. They are perpetually angling for more federal money, never mind that our national debt is fast approaching $30 trillion. There are much better and cheaper ways of handling this issue. These teacher unions, even assuming they are possessed of good intentions, are not doing America’s elementary and secondary students any favors by urging their members to stay at home.