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In-person school won’t be safe, and it won’t be a return to the old normal, teachers say

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A new poll of teachers shows just how much of the burden is being pushed off on them. More than four out of five of the teachers said they were worried about in-person teaching, with 77% fearful for their own health. In that context, it’s kind of amazing that just two out of three said they thought schools should be primarily remote—some number of people afraid for their safety are still ready to go back to in-person teaching.

But the teachers’ responses to the NPR/Ipsos poll, and interviews they gave to accompany it, show how much more complicated the issue is for them. Large majorities of teachers were concerned about the education experience students would have in school, with 73% concerned about their ability to effectively teach and connect with students while wearing a mask and 84% saying it would be difficult to enforce social distancing. In other words, in-person learning would not be anything like a return to normal, in ways that worry these teachers.

To be sure, 55% of the teachers said they can’t teach effectively enough online, and 84% cited inequities associated with online learning. But one Philadelphia teacher pointed out that in-person teaching under these circumstances could also contribute to racial inequities.

“As a white teacher who works with predominantly Black students,” Charlie McGeehan wrote to NPR in an email, “I think a lot about the ways that I exert control in my classroom—and how that manifests white supremacy and racism. … [I’m] considering going back to a school environment where I’m asked to constantly police how far away students are from each other, whether or not they are wearing masks, where they’re allowed to go during the day, etc. If this is the type of classroom I’m going to have to facilitate, is in-person learning worth all the risks?”

Teachers in other areas will be coping with Trump’s politicization of mask-wearing as they try to get their students to comply.

The poll was conducted July 21-24, and since then there’s been plenty of news to confirm the teachers’ worries about the safety of in-person classes at this time. Some districts have moved recently to all-remote learning at least for the beginning of the school year, with teachers helping to push that in Chicago by threatening to strike over the issue. But in other areas, state and local education officials continue to push in-person learning despite the fact that not just teachers but a majority of parents are opposed.

And this didn’t need to happen.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Gwinnett County, Georgia, joins the list of early school reopening COVID-19 messes

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Gwinnett County, Georgia, didn’t even make it to the beginning of the school year before it had serious coronavirus problems amid Gov. Brian Kemp’s push to reopen schools in person. Teachers started in-person planning for the school year on Wednesday. By Thursday, 260 school district employees were out because of positive coronavirus tests or contact with a case.

The school district’s position is that hey, it’s all community spread, not exposure in the schools themselves. But that’s not a great sign, either, and “In-person training and meetings are taking place without areas being wiped down or disinfected in between and masks aren’t being worn at all times, said several teachers who didn’t disclose their names when contacting the AJC. Others added that their school still hadn’t received any hand sanitizer,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. In other words, the conditions are there for in-school spread. It just hasn’t had time to fully develop. Yet.

Gwinnett County isn’t the only place to encounter problems immediately upon reopening or moving toward reopening. “We knew it was a when, not if,” one Indiana superintendent said after a student tested positive on the first day of school. That positive test began the process of tracing which other students that student had come into contact with and quarantining them.

The same story played out in Mississippi, where 12 to 14 students were in quarantine after coming into contact with an infected classmate.

And a Georgia summer camp had 260 infections. Not just people in quarantine after possible exposure, but 260 infections. Out of 600 campers and counselors.

Teachers and parents have warned against turning the schools into a giant COVID-19 experiment by forcing in-person reopening. The thing is, the experiment has already happened and we can see the results here. In-person school requires a massive reduction in community spread of the virus—which means closing bars and gyms and more—and a massive investment in schools, not just in longtime priorities like class size but in things we now know are important to slow the spread of the coronavirus like improvements in ventilation and air quality. And at this point, those things are not even on the horizon, so we have our answer on schools: It’s not safe to reopen in person. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Teachers union weighs in on reopening schools safely

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Schools are a huge part of the economy—not just a place teachers and support staff and clerical workers and custodians work, but a place parents rely on to care for their kids so they can go to work. That means, as National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement, “The American economy cannot recover if schools can’t reopen.” But reopening schools has to be done right, and without sacrificing students’ education, she continued, saying “we cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed and students don’t have what they need to be safe, learn and succeed.”

The NEA has offered its own guidance for reopening schools, calling for decisions rooted in science, with educators included in decision-making (they know their classrooms best, after all), access to personal protective equipment for students and school staff alike, and attention to equity in a pandemic that has hit Black and Latino communities especially hard. The union also calls for school systems to learn from the inequities exposed by the sudden move to remote learning, in which some students had computers and internet access and quiet places to learn while other students had none of those things. The NEA guidance is long, detailed, and thoughtful—and if you have many teacher friends, you may have heard that state reopening plans are … not necessarily those things. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Trump attacks public education and pushes school privatization in State of the Union

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Donald Trump continued the campaign against public education as a public good in his State of the Union address, with a reference to “failing government schools” and a push for a federal education privatization plan in the form of “Education Freedom Scholarships.” That’s a giant voucher program that would give tax credits to people who give money for scholarships at private and religious schools—schools that may discriminate against LGBTQ kids or exclude kids with disabilities and special needs, for starters.

“Tonight, Donald Trump once again put the agenda of Betsy DeVos, the least qualified Secretary of Education in U.S. history, front and center in his State of the Union by renewing his push to divert scarce funding from the public schools that 90 percent of students attend into private school voucher programs,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on February 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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Teacher strikes close schools across Oklahoma and Kentucky

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The red-state teachers rebellion that started in West Virginia continues to grow, with teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma walking out on Monday after the Kentucky teachers shut down schools in nearly two dozen counties on Friday. In Oklahoma, dozens of school districts have announced closures for Monday, and many Kentucky schools are closed as well.

The Kentucky teachers are protesting a sudden retirement overhaul, while Oklahoma teachers are fighting for increased investment in their schools even after lawmakers voted them a substantial pay increase.

This package does not overcome a shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a video posted on Facebook. “We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.”

Arizona teachers, too, are calling both for pay raises and for increased education funding—and planning to take action if they don’t see improvements. Music teacher Noah Karvelis told NPR that he often has 40 students in a classroom with just seven pianos, and “The math just doesn’t add up. There’s no way to reach those kids. Every day you’re going home and you’re just feeling like, I failed. I failed these students. And that’s honestly the worst possible feeling any teacher could ever have.”

There’s a simple explanation for the education underfunding:

  • Arizona cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.
  • Oklahoma cut personal income tax rates starting in 2004. The top income tax rate fell from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, with the latest drop taking effect in 2016 even as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall. Oklahoma also substantially reduced its severance tax on oil and gas, increased tax exemptions for retirement and military income, exempted capital gains income from taxation, and abolished the estate tax.

Disrespect for teachers is certainly at play in Republican-controlled states that pay salaries that leave teachers working second, third, and even sixth jobs, but it’s not just that. It’s also disrespect for students combined with short-term thinking that will harm people and economies. But hey, rich people will have really low taxes.

And that’s why teachers are fighting.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Unions’ Partnership With Oregon’s Cool Schools Means Green Schools and Jobs

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Image: Mike HallThe labor movement, the union-owned financial services company Ullico and the state of Oregon are partnering in a $15 million “Cool Schools” initiative that includes repairs, rebuilding and energy retrofits.  Says AFT President Randi Weingarten:

We’re gratified that in working together, we can ensure that our children have access to facilities which help them reach their potential.

The partnership of government, unions and businesses will work with to identify appropriate investments in Oregon public schools and infrastructure of up to $15 million.

Already the Cool Schools initiative—launched by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)—has:

  • Performed state-of-the-art audits of nearly 400 schools
  • Negotiated with 12 school districts on up to $11 million in low-cost energy retrofit financing
  • Made commitments to lend $4.7 million to eight school districts, improving 28 individual schools.

The investment will create an estimated 225 building trades jobs in Oregon, and will support projects in schools located in communities statewide. Says AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) President Mark Ayers:

These types of investments are invaluable to the members of the building trades who are truly grateful for the opportunity to return to work and help strengthen the communities in which they work and live.

Unions’ participation in Cool Schools is part of a broad commitment to action made by unions and investors through the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this year. The first step will involve providing financing for energy retrofits through labor-affiliated financial institutions. Construction of these retrofits will create thousands of good jobs, develop new industries in the United States, enhance the nation’s global competitiveness and reduce the threat of climate change.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on November 14, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.


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Central Falls Superintendent Agrees to Resume Talks with Teachers

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Image: James ParksThe school superintendent who last week fired all teachers at Central Falls (R.I.) High School has agreed to resume bargaining and include the union in all discussions on a comprehensive education plan that will help students and teachers succeed. The move followed a nationwide public outcry, with thousands signing an online petition to tell school officials the students deserve better and they should work with teachers to build on improvements at the high school. (Keep the pressure on the Central Falls school administration. Sign a petition here.)

AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that she was pleased the superintendent has agreed to resume talks:

The dedicated teachers and staff [of Central Falls High] want nothing more than to continue and improve upon the progress they have made. Real, sustainable change will only happen when all stakeholders work together.

The AFT is committed to supporting Central Falls Teachers Union President Jane Sessums, the students of Central Falls High School and our members, the educators of Central Falls, throughout the negotiations and process of transforming the school.

On Feb. 23, the Central Falls school trustees fired the entire teaching staff of the high school, which is located in Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city.

In all, 93 got pink slips—74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals. Negotiations over strategies to improve the school between teachers and the school superintendent broke down when the superintendent walked away from the table and fired the teachers.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on February 24, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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