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Do Unions Speak for Teachers on School Closures?

The voices of actual teachers are hard to hear in the otherwise very loud debate about whether or not schools should reopen in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. When the media wants to know what teachers think, they go to teachers unions. But can the unions speak authoritatively on what teachers think? Do they speak for all teachers? And are they asking teachers for their opinions on the subject?

We spoke to several teachers to ask them this question, and the answer was no, the unions are not regularly surveying teachers to ask them what they think. While just anecdotal, this complicates the current union narrative that they speak for all teachers, and that teachers are afraid to return to school.

“I don’t think teachers have a voice in any of this,” said one teacher in upstate New York, speaking about the response to the pandemic. “It’s very isolating.”

We asked the teachers we spoke with what measures were taken by the unions, principals, and school districts in their areas to assess what they were thinking about teaching during covid. The answers varied by location, but it appears that unions are not reaching out to teachers in a systematic way to gauge their thoughts on schools reopening.  

Some of the teachers we spoke with did not feel comfortable sharing their names publicly. They were concerned about possible backlash from their districts or unions. Others felt safe to use their names.   

  • Wendy Wiedemeier, an elementary school teacher in the Souderton Area School District in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, said she gave up her union membership in the fall of 2020 because of growing frustration with her union’s response to reopening schools.

The local union president went to the school board and told them teachers did not want in-school learning, but at no point did the local union survey the teachers to get their opinions on returning to the classroom, she said. The local union did hold online meetings where teachers were given instructions on what to do if they didn’t feel safe.

“We were never asked, ” said Wiedemeier.

She was left with the impression that the union was hearing from many teachers who did not want to go back.

“But when they went to reopen schools, they had to beg teachers to teach virtually because teachers wanted to be back in the classroom,” she said.  The state and national unions, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and National Education Association, likely put pressure on the local union to push back on reopening schools.

Wiedemeier was concerned about the impression the union’s public statements left with parents. She had parents who emailed her asking if schools were safe. She said yes.

  • A teacher in New York City who wants schools to reopen said she has had very little opportunity to voice her opinion to her union. She is a member of her local union. In June, she received a survey about schools reopening, with questions like what adjustments she would need to feel safe to go back, and whether or not she personally needed a medical accommodation. This was the first and only time she received a survey asking her for her thoughts.

The union has had internal conversations, she said, particularly among its caucuses, about what to do. The union has also asked teachers to contact them if their schools are in violation of rules regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) or ventilation.

She said the teachers who want schools to reopen don’t speak up.

She hasn’t heard from the city chancellor or her district to ask her what she thinks, but she has heard from her principal.

  • Rochelle Porto, a special education teacher in Philadelphia, has not returned to in-person school so far this school year, which has been especially difficult for the parents of the children she teaches.

“Public education was not designed for a pandemic – that’s especially true for special education,” she said. “Among special needs parents, the frustration is tremendous.”

The Philadelphia teachers union has used the state and city health departments as cover for their opposition to schools reopening, said Porto. While she is not a member of her union, she has not heard of any teacher who received a survey from the union asking them for their opinion on schools reopening. They have held meetings, and the union representative in her building holds conversations, but she has not heard of a widespread survey.

“They’re ignoring the science on schools reopening, and how this affects children,” she said, speaking about all parties involved. “Are they following the science? Everyone has said they should reopen schools.”

Porto has found a silver lining in the midst of the chaos – the pandemic has helped teachers see how they can continue a child’s education if they are out long-term for an illness or for other reasons, she said.

  • A teacher in upstate New York, who is not a union member, said she has not heard of the local union asking the teachers in her district about whether or not they want schools to reopen.

Her school was partially open in the fall, but students are now fully remote. She said many teachers she has spoken to are frustrated with the union because they feel like union leaders are taking direction from their state or national affiliates, and are not listening to local teachers about their needs.

The union is having more meetings than usual, she said, but there has been “a lot of talk and not a lot of action.”

She has had some communication with her principal, but has not been asked about schools reopening by her district. Her building union representative has worked remotely for the entire year, so it’s “hard for her to understand” the experience of teachers who are in the school, she said.

“I don’t think teachers have a voice in any of this,” she said. But teachers are just putting their heads down and doing the work they need to do, she explained, because if they speak up there are repercussions.

Recently, a group of teachers created a website, teachers4openschools.com, to give voice to teachers who aren’t represented in the current national debate. Other teachers have taken a quieter route, by communicating directly with their principals or the parents of their students in an attempt to stay clear of what has become a politically charged conversation.

As frustration among teachers and parents about school closures grows, union rhetoric has continued to heat up, with some union leaders threatening strikes and sick-outs if teachers are asked to return to the classroom. Unions have also used this as an opportunity to make demands for more than just safety measures. State and local unions are pressuring districts and states to spend more money, and the National Education Association has asked the federal government for an additional $175 billion in education spending to address covid.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of students have failed classes or are not showing up for online school, which disproportionately affects poor or otherwise disadvantaged students.

Parents have taken to social media to air their complaints, and polls show many parents don’t want to return to traditional schooling or classrooms when the pandemic ends. Whether the pandemic will change the teaching profession in the long-term is still anyone’s guess. What is clear is that many teachers have become increasingly frustrated with how their union presents teachers’ voices to the public.

Elisabeth Messenger

Elisabeth Messenger is CEO of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Elisabeth was in the publicity department at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, CA. From there, she learned how to build organizations that would impact culture through positions in operations and business development at Universal Music Group, VEVO, and Beats Music.