Teachers Make It Tough on Biden to Revive Unions

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Earlier this week, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally affirmed something that has been blazingly obvious for months: There is no good reason to keep students out of their classrooms.

“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the U.S.,” three CDC scientists  wrote in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” The authors went on to say that precautionary measures were still required to keep infections at bay, such as wearing masks, dividing children into cohorts, and — above all — avoiding indoor sports like basketball. Still, they wrote, “The preponderance of available evidence from the fall school semester has been reassuring.”

Remember all the complaints that Donald Trump was ignoring the recommendations of government experts like Anthony Fauci? Sad to say, when it comes to getting students back to their classrooms, President Joe Biden is doing the same thing: He’s ignoring the advice of the experts. When Trump ignored them, it was usually because he thought he knew more than they did or because he thought their recommendations would make him look bad. Biden’s reason is most likely more prosaic: He is catering to an important constituency, the teachers unions. And right out of the gate, they are making his goal of revitalizing unions much more difficult with their recalcitrance in refusing to reopen schools.

The administration’s party line is that schools need to be absolutely safe before teachers and students return — and that requires federal money. As my boss, Michael R. Bloomberg, pointed out in a recent column, the federal government has already spent more than $67 billion to make schools safe, and Biden wants to devote an additional $130 billion toward that effort. He has been saying that his goal is to get children back in the classroom within 100 days of his inauguration.

In the media, this has generally been portrayed as a difficult goal. But it shouldn’t be. As this week’s CDC report makes clear — as have a multitude of previous studies — schools are already safe. In fact, in most cities where schools are open, the transmission rate is lower in schools than in the surrounding communities. New York City is as good an example as any. Between Thanksgiving and the end of 2020, the positivity rate rose from 3% to 6%. The positivity rate in the school system, which opened in late September, also rose — from 0.28% to 0.67%. As Mayor Bill de Blasio likes to say, “The safest place in New York City is, of course, our public schools.” 

Despite the clear science, some big-city teachers unions have dug in against returning as desperate mayors and school superintendents have pushed to reopen their schools. In Chicago, for instance, the Chicago Teachers Union has been in open revolt about reopening schools, contending they are unsafe. Although the school district has spent millions of dollars on classroom safety, the teachers are planning to strike on Monday, when classes for kindergarten through eighth grade are supposed to resume, if the school department doesn’t back down.

In Montclair, New Jersey, the teachers union blocked a plan to open the city’s schools on Monday. In Bellevue, Washington, the city took the teachers union to court to force them back into the classroom. The latest demand of many unions is that teachers should be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. After Fairfax County, Virginia, agreed to this demand, the teachers then said school reopenings should be delayed until March because of the vaccine shortage.

When critics like me point to the irrefutable data showing how safe schools are, the response from union supporters is to produce anecdotes about teachers who have died of Covid-19. In this, they get plenty of help from the media. Just this week, the New York Times ran a long article that focused on the deaths of a handful of teachers — with zero evidence that they had been infected while in school. This is not to say there is no risk to teachers or students, but it is minimal compared with other professions.

Meanwhile, it has been well documented that the risk to students, especially disadvantaged ones, of being locked out of classrooms is huge. Just one recent example: Las Vegas, the country’s fifth-largest school system, reopened its schools after 18 children committed suicide last year — and it had indications that at least 3,000 more were contemplating killing themselves.

Which brings me back to Biden and labor unions. On the one hand, the president talks about reviving unions as an important step to creating millions of well-paying middle-class jobs and narrowing the income gap. Theoretically, at least, that’s something I strongly favor — workers need the kind of collective power unions provide if they are going to obtain a fairer shake from management.

On the other hand, the actions of too many teachers unions are serving as a reminder of what happens when that collective power is misused — and why so many Americans turned against unions. The teachers’ actions are incredibly selfish, putting their fears, largely unfounded, ahead of the needs of their students, their communities and their country. School districts across the country have spent millions of dollars retrofitting classroom to make them safe — yet because they represent “management,” the unions instinctively oppose them. And every parent of a child who should be in a classroom isn’t going to forget about the teachers’ intransigence.

Instead of coddling teachers, Biden should be confronting them. He should be telling them they need to trust the science, just like everyone else. Most of all, he should be telling them to get back to work now — not 100 days from now. They are every bit as essential as meatpackers, grocery clerks and FedEx drivers — more, actually. He needs to tell them that, too.

I’m aware of Biden’s conundrum. He owes the teachers unions, and they know it. They are longtime allies of the Democratic Party and were important supporters of his presidential campaign. But in the end, if the teachers unions get away with this refusal to do right by the country, it will come back to haunt the labor movement that Biden hopes to rejuvenate. It has been decades since unions were universally viewed as a force for good. The harm that teachers are doing now is what people are going to remember for a long time to come.

They are Margaret A. Honein, Lisa C. Barrios and John T. Brooks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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