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Del. Kathy Szeliga: Open the schools, shutter the teachers’ unions | COMMENTARY

One of a series of weekly commentaries from Harford County state legislators regarding the 2021 Maryland General Assembly session.

Until March 1, Maryland ranked dead last. No, the Old Line State isn’t bottom of the barrel in achievement (Maryland’s 4th best) nor in per pupil spending (Maryland spends the 10th most) but in the number of its students receiving full-time in-person instruction (9.8%). Gov. Larry Hogan’s order to resume in-person schooling should help but too many students will remain locked out of the classroom.

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Parents want the schools opened. Students need to be in the classroom. Even most teachers and school staff (64%) want in-person instruction back.

Then why are they shuttered? Two words: teachers’ unions.

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Del. Kathy Szeliga
Del. Kathy Szeliga (Heather Crowder)

The state’s teachers’ union, the Maryland State Education Association, is far and away the most powerful special interest group in Annapolis and at the local level. Its power comes from its enormous purse strings and political muscle with annual revenues of $24 million (taken from the paychecks of your local teacher) and a 75,000-person strong membership. The MSEA and its local affiliates can make and break politicians’ ambitions and strong-arm those who dare stray from their party line.

In the fall, one Baltimore pre-K teacher committed the egregious offense of simply using her empty classroom to access resources and conduct virtual learning. Baltimore Teachers’ Union members harassed her on the phone and showed up at the school to intimidate her to stay away.

In contrast, Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CDC say to open the schools now. Back in December, Fauci said, “our default position should be to try to keep the schools open and get children who are not in school back in school as best as we possibly can.” The CDC guidance is clear, “It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services.”

Study after study shows that in-person instruction is not a significant cause of coronavirus’ spread — with mandatory mask wearing and simple precautions. Even when children do contract COVID-19, they are far less susceptible to falling seriously ill, do not transmit the disease easily, and there are very few cases, where schools are largely open, linked to schooling.

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The MSEA and its local chapters keep changing their demands before they will allow in-person learning to resume. When school districts and the state meet their demands, new ones arise that now keep their members from going back into classrooms. They are moving the goalposts. Last fall, the unions wanted PPE, mandatory mask-wearing and proper sanitizing. Leaders like Gov. Hogan fulfilled that request. Now, the unions want teachers to be fully vaccinated (with priority above vulnerable populations) and, you guessed it, hazard pay.

While the MSEA blocks reopening over “safety concerns,” and some unions are adopting resolutions about “adequate staffing levels” as a precondition for returning.

With the schools closed, our children suffer. Special needs students desperately require in-person learning. For students of color and disadvantaged populations, the achievement gaps are disastrous. Some studies suggest that students may be 9 to 12 months behind in their studies as their parents juggle the demands of work, home life, and overseeing their children’s education. And 80% of teachers acknowledge that their students are learning “less well” under virtual learning than in-person teaching.

And the public sees the unions’ demands for extra pay and more employees (i.e. MSEA members) for what they are: blackmail.

My Republican colleagues and I have introduced vital relief for students and families to the MSEA’s roadblocks. The Real Money for Real Education Act would financially help families in districts that are not fully open to send their kids to non-public schools that are. Another bill mandates that public schools provide in-person services for vulnerable groups, especially students with special needs.

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As schools across the state are shuttered, top teachers’ union officials are hard at work at their office — the $6 million headquarters building they own in downtown Annapolis. It seems the MSEA is open for business — to keep our schools closed.

It is plain wrong that the teachers’ unions are putting their political wish list ahead of our children’s best interests. Maryland should open the schools and shutter the MSEA — for good.

Kathy Szeliga is a Republican representing District 7 in the Maryland House of Delegates and is the House minority whip.

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