This week, Matt Meyer did what many parents long to do. He dropped off his kid at school. That’s unusual in Berkeley, California, where he lives, because the schools there have been closed for a year, and the teachers’ union adamantly opposes their reopening. Parents like Mr. Meyer who can afford private schools, which are mostly open, send their kids there. His child has been there since last June. So he dropped off his child and drove off to his job.
His job is head of the Berkeley teachers’ union. His main task there is to keep the public schools closed for everyone else.
Matt’s job and that of other teachers’ union bosses is getting harder — and not just because the hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s getting harder because parents and kids across the country are fed up. The national cry is Howard Beale’s from the 1976 film, Network, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. Things have got to change.’
Until now, that cry has been mostly silent, but it is growing more vocal and more urgent. Returning kids to school and returning parents to work are America’s two most important dinner-table issues. The issues are closely linked, of course, because many parents can’t leave home for their jobs if the kids can’t leave home for their schools.
But even parents who don’t have this work problem are desperate to see their kids back in school. They know all too well that kids are falling further and further behind academically and socially. That’s especially true for younger children, where remote learning has proved ineffective. The problem is most acute for poor children, who have less access to computers and less assistance from parents who can tutor them. These human costs will be felt for years.
Who opposes school reopening? Two powerful groups: teachers’ unions like Meyer’s and the politicians who rely on that union support. Unlike the parents, the unions are well organized. They fill the campaign coffers of friendly politicians and offer them in-kind assistance. So far, this tandem of public-sector unions and dependent politicians has prevailed. That won’t last much longer.
It’s not fair to say, as many parents and commentators do, that teachers don’t want to return to classrooms because they are lazy. Most work hard as teachers and find doing their jobs online at least as difficult as teaching in person, probably more so. They don’t want to go back to their classrooms for the same reasons doctors, lawyers and store clerks don’t want to return to their offices or shop at the grocery. They fear for their health.
But like it or not, we are returning to those daily tasks. Most people don’t have a choice. They would lose their jobs if they refused. That’s true for private-school teachers, too. Most of their schools have been open during the pandemic, or at least for several months now. The evidence is that there has been almost no community spread of COVID 19 as a result. This safety will only increase as more people receive vaccinations.
Meanwhile, political pressure to reopen schools is growing more intense. If they don’t open soon, they may not resume in-person learning until fall. That’s a bridge too far for most parents, who cannot afford to stay under ‘house arrest’ any longer.
Politically, it’s an easy call for Republicans to demand schools reopen now. They don’t face any additional costs because the teachers’ unions hate them anyway. The dilemma is for Democrats, who rely on strong backing from teachers’ unions. Those Democrats are caught between the dog and the hydrant. And the dog’s leg is raised.
Voters are siding with the dog.