All students returning to school in person this fall is so close we can smell the fresh pencil shavings in the classroom. But, once again, the teachers’ unions are dangling this prospect of normalcy above our heads and threatening to take away school reopenings like bullies.
Union bosses claim to care about our kids, but the loss, hardship, and setbacks students nationwide suffered — especially by poor, Black and brown students—mean little to a political machine that willfully uses our children’s educations as bargaining chips.
If we want to fight the inequities in our education system and increase opportunity for students of color, it’s time for teachers’ unions to stop playing games. We cannot allow them to hold our children’s education hostage again.
We must reopen schools this fall or parents should be given resources so they can send their kids to a private school that is willing to put their children’s education first. Reopening schools should not even be a discussion right now.
Parents had been reassured for months that schools would be in session in person. In March, President Biden told educators and school leaders that it was “time to open the schools” and later said that they should “probably all be reopened” this fall.
There is ample funding to make that a reality. The massive pandemic relief spending bill passed this spring included $125 billion for public K-12 schools to implement measures that allow kids to return to the classroom safely including updating ventilation systems and buying personal protective equipment.
Thanks to the vaccine, half of those aged 12 and up and most teachers are fully vaccinated.
This spring, it seemed that the teachers’ unions, one of the biggest blockades to reopening, were finally on board. In May, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, argued that “we can and we must reopen schools in the fall” and keep them open fully for five days a week.
Yet, two days ago, Weingarten backpeddled somewhat saying in an interview, “…we’re going to try to open up schools.”
Parents and education advocates are rightfully alarmed that with weeks to go before the start of the 2021-22 school year, the head of the largest teachers’ union is signaling that school reopenings are not a done deal.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen the lengths that teachers’ unions will go to disrupt online education and delay in-person instruction. Most gaulingly, this continued while private schools across the country safely provided in-person education to children whose families could pay for it.
Elected officials and school leaders should not allow the teachers’ unions talk to go unchallenged. They ought to assure parents that they will not kowtow to the unions. What’s at stake is too important.
The disruption to students’ educations by the pandemic was devastating. Today, we have a clearer view of how last year, which began with only about 40% of K-12 students in districts that offered in-person learning, damaged student learning and future prospects.
New analysis by McKinsey & Company, which builds upon academic assessments they produced earlier this year, found that students were on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading at the end of the school year.
For Black and Hispanic students, the impacts are worse: Pre-existing opportunity and achievement gaps have widened; students in majority-Black schools ended the school year six months behind in both math and reading, while students in majority-white schools ended up just four months behind in math and three months behind in reading; students in low-income schools ended the year seven months behind in math, compared with four months for students in financially better off areas.
Many of the students most affected by the pandemic already lagged behind their peers academically. They may never fully catch up.
Academic achievement is only part of the story. Well-being suffered as students lost family members, family members lost jobs and incomes, and kids were isolated. This all contributed to mental health issues among young people.
As a result, Black and Hispanic parents were seven to nine percentage points more likely than white parents to report higher levels of concern about their children’s mental health, according to McKinsey.
Over time, the cumulative effects of these setbacks and education losses could be to stunt the economic prospects of our young people. The report estimates that pandemic-related unfinished learning could reduce lifetime earnings for K–12 students by an average of $49,000 to $61,000 and lead to a potential annual GDP loss of $128 billion to $188 billion.
Education has always been the great equalizer of our society. The ability to read, write and learn granted freedom, personal agency and choices to individuals who had been locked out and left out of opportunity.
That’s why it’s critical that every child, but especially poor and minority students, have access to the best education that they can get.
It’s increasingly clear that our government-run public schools prioritize union workers’ interests—not the education or well-being of children or families. Parents and our communities deserve better.
School choice policies give parents greater freedom to move their children to the public, private, or home-based options that better meet their student’s academic and social needs. The breathtaking migration of students of all colors out of the public school system and into alternatives is a big success story during this pandemic.
Despite this, millions of Black and Hispanic children are still enrolled in public schools with no access to educational choice. They too deserve to have a quality education that can set them on a path to a bright future.
The past year has demonstrated that in-person education is the best environment for many of these learners. For many reasons, showing up to a school building provides the oversight to ensure that they do not fall through the cracks.
If our public schools won’t offer this, then families should have the ability to pull students starting this fall.
Educators should be racing to open the school doors, bell in hand to welcome students back. If we want to fight for racial justice and betterment for Blacks and minorities, we must keep special interests from blocking the way.