As many Maryland school districts prepare to return to classrooms for the first time in nearly a year, local teachers unions are staring down a deadline with a decision: How hard should they push back against reopening plans they believe put their health and lives in danger?
Since the summer, the unions have demanded a list of safety and health conditions are met before they return to in-person teaching. Their demands went largely unchallenged until last month when Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, urged school boards and superintendents to open up by March 1 and threatened actions if they didn’t comply.
Teachers were angry at what they called “bullying” in a letter written to the governor. But Hogan’s threats have now given superintendents and school boards a political push to send students back into classrooms, even as coronavirus rates of infection have remained higher than when the school year began. The unions have demonstrated their resolve with regular actions, including car rallies through downtown Baltimore, donning full protective gear one day to teach Baltimore County students online, and working to the letter of their contract in Howard County.
It’s a debate that has taken place in cities across the country. In Chicago, the city averted a teacher strike, but gave teachers concessions. In San Francisco, the city sued the school district to reopen after the district was unable to reach an agreement with the union.
Baltimore-area unions say they will continue to press their case for continuing with online lessons until teachers have received both doses of the vaccine and schools have better air filtration systems in place.
But already a change in White House leadership and the arrival of the vaccines has weakened their position.
“The teachers unions are in a tough spot here,” said Philip Dine, a labor expert and author of a book called “State of the Unions.”
“This is such an emotional issue for their members. This is their safety and health they are talking about. This is not how many days they get off.”
Having carved out a firm position, they don’t want to look like they are walking back their stance, he said.
Teachers unions have said from the beginning they want to return — but only when it is safe to do so, said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association.
Union leaders have been working all fall and winter with their school district leaders on reopening plans, Bost said, and will continue to do so.
“We are saying health and safety have to come first. Work to get everyone vaccinated,” Bost said.
But the political ground has shifted on teachers since the fall, when district surveys showed about half of parents weren’t willing to send their children to in-person classes.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, would like more kindergarten through eighth grade students back to in-person classes during the first 100 days of his administration and supports giving schools more money for protective equipment, upgrading ventilation systems, ramping up vaccinations and other changes to make schools safer. And unlike his predecessor, former GOP President Donald Trump, national teachers unions are supporting Biden’s call to reopen schools.
Biden’s administration is also offering school districts the most specific guidance yet on reopening.
On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said children are less likely to spread the virus within schools than adults. When there is low-level spread within the community — a positivity rate of less than 5% and not more than nine new cases per 100,000 in a week — schools can fully reopen without social distancing, but with everyone wearing masks. In areas of high community spread, the CDC said schools should use social distancing, masking and other mitigation factors. The CDC said schools can open safely without vaccinating teachers.
Maryland’s state education leaders issued reopening guidance and recommended health metrics last year, but largely left the decisions around how to reopen schools to leaders of the 24 school systems. That gave well-funded unions more leverage to determine the outcome.
“Teacher unions hold a lot more sway over school boards or mayors than the governors or the Centers for Disease Control,” said Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center for Reinventing Public Education in Seattle.
The political action committee of the Maryland State Education Association, the largest union in the state, gave more than $2 million to support candidates and causes during the 2018 election cycle, the most recent in which races were held for statewide and General Assembly offices. The endorsement of the teachers union is also valuable for candidates.
But Hogan has started using his leverage. While the governor has no ability to force local school boards and superintendents to reopen for in-person instruction, he suggested the state could make it uncomfortable for districts that ignore his order. He noted that some states have threatened to revoke teachers’ licenses or stop paychecks if they refuse to return.
Within hours after the governor’s announcement on Jan. 21, three county school systems — Baltimore, Harford and Howard — indicated they would follow the governor’s demands or review their positions. Now, nearly all of the state’s schools are planning to reopen.
“It was a political football before, but now almost no one disagrees, except some union bosses,” Hogan said the next day on WBAL-AM.
But perhaps most significant is that after nearly a year of having their children learning at home, parental anger has exploded into political and legal action in Maryland and some of it is aimed at the unions they hold responsible for keeping schools online. Many parents aren’t willing to risk sending their child back, but others see children suffering from disengagement, depression and a lack of internet access, and want them back in the classrooms.
In January, Howard County parents filed a lawsuit to force an end to a school board reopening stalemate by stripping the student member’s vote on the issue. Last month, “Reopen” Facebook groups from about a dozen counties formed a statewide coalition representing tens of thousands to lobby the governor, and got a meeting with his aides.
Amy Adams, the mother of three Baltimore County Public School students, said her family is well off enough that she quit her job, hired a tutor and joined learning pods when school started. But she said it hasn’t been enough. Her children are tired of sitting in front of a computer all day and are losing interest in school, despite the herculean efforts her children’s teachers have made.
She is tired of the union and the school leaders pointing fingers at each other. “The unions here in Maryland are very strong and they have influenced our local leaders and have been the ones holding us out of school,” Adams said.
The school reopening battle has been as much about politics as it has been about health and safety, said Michael Hartley, a political science professor at Boston College. Conservative areas of the country more often opened schools for in-person classes, Hartley said, while most of Maryland’s larger school systems stayed closed or opened only for small groups of students — even when the case rates were lowest.
So far, each time superintendents in those districts that have remained mostly online have proposed a plan to bring even a limited number of students back into school, the unions have objected.
The fight between the district and the unions is particularly heated in Baltimore City, where some teachers say the Baltimore Teachers Union has used aggressive tactics to keep teachers out of schools.
This fall, a prekindergarten teacher decided to go back to her East Baltimore classroom, where she had faster internet and all the materials she needed at her fingertips to teach her students online. The reaction from other teachers was swift. She got phone calls from colleagues telling her to stay home and another staff member confronted her at school to deliver the same message.
“It made me feel like I was a bad person for going against the union,” the teacher said. “This was just for working in the building without students.” She asked not to be identified, saying she feared repercussions.
The Baltimore Teachers Union denies it has put pressure on teachers not to go back. A recent decision by city schools CEO Sonja Santelises to reopen schools March 1 has angered BTU members, who are holding protests and speaking out against it.
Maryland teachers can apply political pressure and hold protests, but cannot legally strike. They can apply for an accommodation to teach remotely or for an extended unpaid leave. If teachers don’t want to do either, they will have to return to the classroom if called back.
BTU leader Corey Gaber said teachers hope the district will slow down, allow teachers to volunteer to go back after they have been vaccinated, and offer spots first only to the neediest children. The ventilation in the city’s old, neglected schools isn’t up to par, he said.
Santelises said she cannot slow down because remote learning isn’t working for some children.
“I categorically reject the notion of abandoning our most vulnerable students. There are no expendable kids,” she said last week.