“This is not the agreement you deserve.”
So said Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, announcing that members had voted to accept a plan to return to school buildings.
Chicago teachers began returning to schools on February 11 after contentious negotiations over whether they would be forced to teach in person. While their district’s animosity was exceptional, many similar struggles for safety are being fought across the country.
The CTU agreement increases vaccine access for educators who are required to enter buildings, delays the return to buildings for some, and establishes union-dominated building safety committees. It also guarantees Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations for educators who are the primary caregivers to individuals especially vulnerable to Covid, and establishes metrics for what would prompt the district to close school buildings and go fully remote again.
Nonetheless, by not maintaining fully remote teaching, it puts educators and the community at risk for catching the virus.
Sharkey speaks for educators across the country when he says that the struggle to protect the health and safety of educators and their communities should never have been this difficult, should never have been a subject to be negotiated. And the agreement does not go far enough.
Although Covid numbers in Chicago and across the country are on a downward trend, the daily case rate in January was as high as the highest rates last spring. New, more transmissible variants are expected to dominate the U.S. by mid-March, just when more students and educators will be back in school.
So why did Chicago teachers accept the deal? After months of sustained battle, they’re exhausted. “It is difficult to understand the trauma of this struggle,” said Kirsten Roberts, an elementary educator. Others felt that they had built as much power as possible, and still didn’t have enough power to win what could have been a prolonged strike.
The battle in Chicago has been particularly intense, but since January, the heat is being turned up across the country as districts, politicians, and a cascade of media stories demand that educators return to school buildings.
In Philadelphia, the district announced on January 27 that the first wave of educators would return February 8. In San Francisco the city is suing the school district to force educators back into buildings.
In Montclair, New Jersey, the district filed a suit against the union for supporting 30 educators who have, with union support and solidarity, refused to enter their buildings since October.
In North Carolina, cities like Durham, where the school board voted months ago to continue remote learning throughout the school year, are facing state legislation that would overrule these local decisions and require school buildings to reopen.
Likewise in Los Angeles, where the union won fully remote schools quickly back in the summer, pressure is mounting from the city council and the governor for buildings to reopen, even as the virus rages in the county.
“A lot of people across the country are at a point of exhaustion” from the unrelenting pressure, said Carlos Perez, a high school teacher in Durham.
Refused to Enter
In Chicago, special educator Ana Bolotin said, “the leadership fought as hard as they could at the table against a cruel and incompetent mayor and a cruel and incompetent, unelected board of education.” But, she said, “the energy from the leadership shifted away from being able to build power.”
They won what they could in bargaining, but Bolotin felt there was more to win in the streets. And she believes members had shown they were ready — when some refused to enter buildings, teaching outside in the cold instead, and when the whole membership took an initial vote to strike if those educators were locked out.
Kirsten Roberts, a teacher in Chicago who voted against the agreement, felt that educators should have followed through on a tactic they had voted up: refusing en masse to enter the buildings, and continuing to work remotely. In her assessment, doing this would have forced the mayor either to lock them all out of remote learning — as it had already done to punish a handful of activists — or to concede to continue remote learning districtwide.
“There were strong leaders and good people on both sides [of the vote],” said Roberts. “It was a balance of forces issue.” By locking educators out, she believes, the mayor would have lost any community support. Teachers were ready to teach remotely; the mayor would have been the one denying students the opportunity to learn.
Teacher unions in Chicago and elsewhere have struggled to build and assess power in the midst of the pandemic.
Besides the challenges of trying to organize behind masks and over Zoom, the pandemic has affected everyone differently. Dennis Kosuth, a nurse in Chicago public schools, said it took a lot of conversations among members to figure out how to take action together — some people were more afraid of getting the virus, while others were more afraid of getting fired.
In places where educators were able to talk through these risks, they used direct action to pressure districts to slow things down and, in the case of Chicago, to finally come to the table.
Many districts are announcing phased school reopening plans that further divide members. Usually a small group of educators of special needs students is required to return first. Then, over time, come the educators of young elementary, older elementary, middle school, and high school students.
This has complicated negotiations and the building of solidarity.
In Montclair, 30 educators of special needs students were told to go back into the buildings in October. With no preparation, no access to protective gear, and no clear plan, they refused to enter.
“We talked about it, we organized, and they made the unanimous decision not to reenter the building. They’ve been in that sort of action since October 15,” said Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson.
In late January, when the superintendent suggested it was safe to return to the buildings, the union said it was not safe and insisted on mediation. Shortly after mediation started, the city announced that it was suing the union to force educators back in.
The court refused the city’s request for an injunction; a hearing on the suit is set for March 9. All educators continued to work remotely, except for a skeleton crew of custodians who go in to maintain the buildings.
“That group of 30,” said Robertson, “it’s important to know, they’re not building reps. They’re not on my union committee. They are a quiet subset of the association who have never had to do anything like this before. It changed my whole association.”
Members Moving Members
Schools in Philadelphia have been remote since last spring. But on January 27, the city announced that it would begin to reopen buildings — starting with PreK-second grade educators on February 8, and their students two weeks later. Liza Dolmetsch, an art teacher in the only K-2 school in the city, said her building committee met immediately to talk through what this timeline meant and how to respond.
“It was clear that we did not feel it was safe,” she said, “and that we at least had to talk about not going in.”
Across the city, supported in large part by the Working Educators caucus, building meetings brought members together to talk through what steps to take in the face of the district’s announcement.
Kaitlin McCann, a seventh-grade teacher in a K-8 school, talked about the meeting in her building. “It was very emotional,” she said. “People are afraid. They’ve been spending months being super safe, not seeing family, not seeing grandchildren, and now they were supposed to risk everything. It really made a difference for people to hear each other’s stories.”
Still, she said, “it was a heated debate.” It wasn’t easy getting teachers in third through eighth grades to support a refusal to return. “But one thing that helped was saying, ‘This is a moment in showing our power’” — no matter where you stood on reopening.
The building-based organizing was buoyed when Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan announced that educators should not enter buildings on February 8. Instead, educators showed up with signs, donuts, and hand warmers. They chanted, made speeches, and cheered supporters who honked as they drove by.
In Dolmetsch’s school, all 53 educators refused to enter the building. “It was transformative,” she said. As the only building where everyone was in the first wave required to enter, they felt that “we should be the loudest voices.”
The district backed off the plan, for now, and has brought in a mediator.
Direct actions like these have slowed the process of reopening, but we still do not know how much power the unions will need to keep members safe for the duration of the pandemic and if they can access that power.
In D.C., where the union put a strike vote to members around re-opening, the members voted it down.
Back in Chicago, some educators started back in the buildings on February 11. Safety committees will be the front line of the fight to enforce the agreement, and that will require action at the building level. Following up on guarantees for ADA accommodations and access to vaccines will take vigilance.
One of the complications of organizing during the pandemic is just how weedy and detailed an agreement can become. All those details are ideal places for management to obfuscate — and, Roberts suggests, the technical issues pulled the fight away from other issues the union could have taken on: education quality and childcare for all.
“Ventilation, social distancing, six feet, three feet, all of this stuff,” she said. “We tried but didn’t have the space to build solid coalitions around childcare, funding, and reimagining schools.”
A Sudden Rush
The pressure to reopen school buildings now, rather than wait until all educators have been vaccinated, exemplifies the reckless disregard for educators’ lives that district administrators and politicians have shown throughout the pandemic.
But Durham teacher Perez has seen “a dramatic shift” since Biden took office. “Now there is bipartisan support for going back into buildings,” he said. “Even [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten is putting out statements saying we need to do this.” Weingarten is a close ally of the Biden administration.
“I am trying to get my head around how the argument changed once Biden was elected,” said Roberts in Chicago. “There was suddenly an avalanche of the need to get back to work.”
With the Chicago agreement being held up as a model for the country, other unions may feel pressure to accept the same terms.
The pandemic isn’t over. For Perez, the lesson of the struggles thus far is that “we need to create more opportunities for members to have debates and conversations with each other.
“We need to stop training members to look up” to politicians, he said, “and instead learn to look over their shoulder, toward each other.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Philadelphia students were expected to return February 22, not February 15.
Additional reporting was contributed by Jonah Furman.