If Teachers Unions Really Cared About Kids, They’d Be Demanding Schools Open

If Teachers Unions Really Cared About Kids, They’d Be Demanding Schools Open

Politicizing public school instruction marks a disturbing new development that jeopardizes the welfare of kids. Our children need to go to school.
Paula Rinehart
By

Like many places around the country, this has been a hot, lonely summer for kids in North Carolina. The governor shut down playgrounds, pools, and camp, nearly every activity that means summer to a child. But, hey, school was just around the corner — or so we hoped.

Even with the prospect of staggered entry and wearing masks, at least kids could look forward to a live teacher in a real classroom with actual books. No longer would they be limited to a strange beast called “online instruction.” You could hear children everywhere start to sharpen their pencils.

Then local teachers’ unions kicked into gear. One by one, they insisted the governor roll back his already-cautious plans to open public schools. One union has drawn the most backlash. Like teachers’ unions in Boston and Chicago, educators in Durham, North Carolina linked political demands to classroom reopenings.

This union saw the pandemic as an opportunity to “fight collectively for moratoriums on rent and mortgage, universal health care, and direct income support regardless of immigration status.” According to them, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos just want to open schools to “protect wealth and big business.”

Politicizing public school instruction marks a disturbing new development that jeopardizes the welfare of children. Parents rely on public schools to focus on educating kids. Teachers’ unions break a sacred trust when they use children as tools to advance educators’ political ideology.

What This Costs Children

By now, we are only too aware of the limitations children face in trying to learn complex subject matter through a computer screen. The best estimates for children who receive average online instruction put them three to six months behind. As anyone who has taught children knows, that gap takes many more months of hard work to close. Some children never catch up. The average black or Hispanic student is roughly two years behind already. With inferior instruction or none at all, many students will give up.

The nation can expect to witness a big jump in the high school dropout rate. A large gap in education achievement translates into lost wages that can follow a person for life. The superintendent of Miami-Dade public schools summarized the cost of shuttering in-person instruction, saying, “The nation should be bracing itself for the biggest ever, precedent-setting, historic academic regression.” He was then speaking only of the two months lost in the spring. Who can calculate what another lost six to nine months will mean for this generation?

How dare educators invent hurdles such as providing socialized health care or dismantling systemic racism in order to open schools, when the actual human costs of absentee schooling are this stark?

The time has come to put a human face to what our children suffer in this shutdown. In a viral video called “Numb,” a Canadian teenager sits on her bed with a computer in her lap. The faint voices of friends she hasn’t seen in months echo in her head. She is alone, staring at the next school assignment on her screen. Her face melts into the quick succession of a hundred other faces, and suddenly you realize thousands of kids just like this one are sitting on their beds, staring into a screen, and going numb.

A Washington Post reporter covered the story of an autistic boy named Bobby in Fairfax, Virginia, one of the nation’s largest public school systems. After four months of looking at pixelated teachers, Bobby’s hard-won vocabulary had been cut in half. His mother reassured him he would be back in school soon. When the school announced it would be online in the fall, however, Bobby’s world fell apart.

“I’m used to society leaving us behind,” Bobby’s mother said. “I’m used to Bobby not being able to go to birthday parties. … But the school system has always been a place where I knew he was accepted.” This isn’t the case if Bobby can’t actually go to school.

Picture a 10-year-old girl living in a fragile home in a unsafe neighborhood. The space is cramped, and she has no computer. Her mother leaves each day to another part of town for a job she needs to keep, but her current boyfriend comes around, or maybe he lives there. Somehow, in this setting, a child is supposed to memorize multiplication tables, or tackle a book she finds difficult?

Can we fathom the number of children living in neglect or even abuse and what it means to them to have their one safe and caring place taken away? More than 90 percent of children who are abused suffer that abuse at the hands of a stressed-out or addicted parent — or a parent’s paramour. How would any of us fare locked inside an abusive home for months on end without school or even a playground to escape to?

This is a fraction of the human cost for children if their education is held hostage to teachers’ political desires. The real goal gets lost. Children need a setting they can count on with an in-the-flesh teacher bent on helping them learn to read or do quadratic equations or treat others with kindness and respect. The revolution will have to wait.

‘Safety’ Is Often a Smokescreen

Whatever goal the left pursues, the battle cry of “safety” is the surefire way to advance their agenda. For instance, the LGBT lobby has long used spurious claims of potential child suicide or bullying as a way to silence opposition and further its aims.

So it is no surprise that “safety” seems to be the only risk that counts for opening schools. Durham educators have followed the national trend of insisting that COVID-19 transmission rates be “much lower than they are now.” Until the curve gets flat and stays flat, “remote learning should be the default,” they say.

Like much of life, however, we can’t eradicate risk in this picture. Studies show kids are in greater danger of dying from the seasonal flu than from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends schools start in person under careful guidelines. Just how safe will we have to be in order to be declared safe enough to go about our lives and educate our children? As the safety goalposts move daily, suspicions rise.

If we are concerned about children’s overall well-being, eliminating risk cannot be the reigning criteria for opening schools. Our kids’ great-grandfathers scaled the cliffs of Omaha Beach under enemy fire. Surely, we can figure out how to space desks and wear masks and get kids to wash their hands. It is possible to lower the risk of transmission and still teach in a well-planned environment.

This practice of using children as a tool to accomplish adult desires is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. What’s novel here is using public school education as a means to accomplish political goals.

The education of our children cannot be held hostage to political goals or adult aspirations. Political battles should be settled in a voting booth or a civil court. Our children need to go to school, to interact in person with teachers and peers. The longer they languish in front of pixelated screens, the more stunted their own futures are likely to be. It’s time to put the education of our children first.

Paula Rinehart, LCSW, is a therapist in Raleigh, N.C. who writes on contemporary cultural issues that affect families. She’s the author of four books, including "Sex and the Soul of a Woman" (Zondervan).

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