Parents like Pittsburgh mom Marijke Hecht are rightfully frustrated by the refusal of her daughters’ public schools to grant them online instruction access to assist with their learning during the current coronavirus school closures. Her girls are doing plenty of learning at home, “Unfortunately,” says Hecht, “all of this learning is happening without guidance or support from our school district.”
Public school districts across Pennsylvania and the country are struggling to adapt so they can provide students remote education. Some school officials blame laws requiring equal access to appropriate education, particularly for students with special educational needs, for their failure to offer online classes. Others are actually trying to use these laws to justify their denial of remote education to students.
Citing equity concerns, school officials in several states are insisting that until all students have remote learning access, no student gets it.
Imagine the public outcry if a National School Lunch Program official used this same excuse to deny meals to hungry students.
School officials’ rationalizations for denying online learning options also fall flat because schools have had access for decades to numerous multi-billion dollar technology programs for enhancing and expanding classroom technology. Schools should have been better prepared to adapt, but there’s a hidden obstacle no one’s talking about, according to two Pennsylvania teachers.
“As public school teachers with a combined 33 years of experience, we know we’re supposed to be ‘union strong’ and never air unions’ dirty laundry,” write Scranton/Wilkes-Barre-area high school teacher Cheri Gensel and Charissa Daman, a former Pittsburgh-area high school teacher in their recent Federalist article. “But the coronavirus crisis has pitted unions against teachers, students, and administrators who just want to teach and learn.”
Gensel and Daman explain that while teachers are leveraging every possible 21st century tool to assist their students’ learning, from videoconferencing with them to offering parents help through online message boards, some of their union “representatives” seem stuck in a bygone era—and are fighting like heck behind the scenes to keep students stuck there, too.
“From unions, however, we’ve seen just two things,” say Gensel and Daman, “pointless obstruction of basic student-teacher interaction and furious pro-union PR campaigns to avoid getting blamed for it.” They add that:
Throughout the coronavirus quarantine, teachers’ priorities have been keeping their students on track and creating innovative ways to learn, but the union has focused on warning teachers against straying one inch from their contracts, including initial bans on e-learning. …
Unions were wary of remote learning from the start because they feared families might like it and switch to cyber charter schools. They’ve said as much in their emails to teachers, as if we would share their fear of families making their own educational choices.
We both left our teachers’ union because of issues like this. The intimidating emails sent during stay-at-home are nothing new to us, although employees in any other profession would be shocked to receive them: ‘Do not try to teach any new material or post any videos on the online portal. We know who you are. We’ll find out, and you will hear from us.’ …
One of us teaches Advanced Placement courses. … But our union representative barred any contact with students for two weeks during quarantine; new contractual terms allowing online education had to be negotiated first. Meanwhile, the students were on their own to prepare for the looming exam.
What Gensel and Daman describe isn’t an isolated incident.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown made headlines for an executive order she issued in March closing public schools—including virtual public charter schools, which were only allowed to provide supplemental education instead of their complete, regular curriculum. The stated reasoning was that since all students can’t enroll in online learning, previously-enrolled students shouldn’t be allowed to continue, either.
But this policy was likely motivated more by concerns over funding for school districts where most teachers-union members work, rather than fairness for students.
If students who attended brick-and-mortar district public schools start enrolling in public charter or private online schools, they might not return to their previous schools, which would then lose those students’ associated funding. The Oregon Department of Education admitted as much in its recent guidance memo on Gov. Brown’s executive order.
Likewise, an Alaska teachers union is opposing the state education department’s decision to contract with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) to open the Alaska Statewide Virtual School (AKSVS). FLVS is the country’s oldest and largest public online school offering nearly 200 courses and enrolling more than 200,000 students within and beyond Florida. In March FLVS announced that it would offer up to 100 free courses to all Florida schools and students through the end of June, and it partnered with the state to offer virtual teacher training.
Rather than make students wait months more to retrofit physical schools for remote learning or get new online schools up and running, Alaska has contracted with FLVS so students can access its teachers and curriculum right away. The AKSVS will also continue operating after brick-and-mortar schools reopen. Tim Parker, head of the National Education Association-Alaska teachers union, objects because now public school districts will have to compete for students and their associated funding.
If we want to prepare our education system to handle a crisis, we educators need a little more local control and space to innovate. We can’t maximize our students’ potential, or our potential as teachers, with the union breathing down our necks.