Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. We're going to continue our conversation about the rising tension between teachers unions and school districts over when to start in-person learning and how to keep students and teachers safe. As we heard earlier, teachers in Chicago, which is the third-largest school district in the nation, were supposed to return to in-person learning on February 1st, but on Sunday, members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to remain remote until more vaccinations and virus protections are available.
With similar disputes nationwide over when to return to the classroom playing out across the country, President Biden and the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services are working on a national plan and some guidance to help school districts and teachers come to terms on these difficult decisions. Kalyn Belsha is a national reporter for Chalkbeat. Kalyn joins me now to talk about all this. Welcome to the show.
Kalyn Belsha: Thanks so much for having me on.
Tanzina Vega: We heard about what's happening in Chicago, teachers are saying they don't want to return to the classroom. What about teachers unions across the country? We've also heard from a teacher in Austin, where they don't have as much bargaining power there. Are you seeing common issues, Kalyn?
Kalyn Belsha: Yes, I think Chicago has become a symbol for the larger reopening debate, and the availability of the vaccine has complicated that. In places that have not gone back for in-person learning, we are seeing more calls tie reopening to the availability of the vaccine for educators. That's one thing. We're also starting to see bubble up a lot more calls for widespread testing of staff and students. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, that's the second-largest teachers union, has said that's what we really should be focusing on, is more widespread testing in addition to lots of building changes.
Making sure that there's proper ventilation and that people have the PPE that they need. Those are some of the big things that we're seeing asked for right now.
Tanzina Vega: Before the pandemic, we've reported a lot on The Takeaway about how teachers across the country were striking for better conditions, for better pay. Do you suspect that that could happen this time around, with the COVID-19 protocols being different in different places? Could unions strike nationally?
Kalyn Belsha: There's definitely different rules about when you can and can't strike. In Chicago, there is the possibility that they could strike. I think it's unclear. A lot of folks are already back teaching in buildings. I think it's hard to put that back in the bottle. I think what we might see are more calls for that testing and for more things to be in writing. A lot of places have been adding on to their agreements as time goes on. There are plenty of school districts that are not back yet that are still negotiating. Los Angeles is a really good example of that.
They're saying even the availability of the vaccine may not be enough, and that they want things like lower transmission rates and lower infection rates. I think that remains to be seen, if we're going to see widespread strikes and walkouts.
Tanzina Vega: There are so many sides to this story. We know that parents, maybe not all parents, but some parents across the country say they need to have their kids in school for in-person learning. When you talk to parents, what are they telling you?
Kalyn Belsha: I think it's a real mix. I think there are many African American and Hispanic parents that are still pretty scared to send their kids back into school. I've talked with many who say, "We want to see how the vaccine rollout goes. We're okay to stay remote for now for safety purposes." Then there are other parents that say, "No, I want my kids back in school. The larger back and forth with the unions is complicating that." I think there are many parents who are sympathetic to what teachers want. They're asking for more safety protocols and more testing, which could benefit their students too. I think it's all over the map, how parents are feeling right now.
Tanzina Vega: Are there specific school ages that are more contested than others? For example, are you noticing more tension between elementary school teachers who may not want to return versus high school teachers or teachers that work with special needs students, or is it just across the board?
Kalyn Belsha: I think it's across the board. Right now, we're seeing much more focus on the younger students going back to school in person. Even as part of the Biden administration's plan, the promise is really to reopen K-8 schools. There's been a lot less talk about bringing back high schoolers. I know that there's a larger narrative of like, 'What are we going to do with those students?" I think it's not really clear yet. I think the high school teachers are not quite as much in the mix, partly because there's been less calls to bring those students back in person.
Tanzina Vega: Talk to us a little bit about Biden's plan. You said it focuses mostly on K through eight students. What else is it meant to do? We should note that President Biden's wife is a doctor of education, so this is something that's very close to his own heart and family.
Kalyn Belsha: As part of the flurry of executive orders that were signed last week, there's one specifically focused on trying to reopen more K-8 schools. They promised that they're going to do more testing and more vaccination availability for people in general as well as educators. The hope is that that will help with reopening for in-person learning. Then there's also the promise that there will be some national metrics and recommendations to help clarify what people should be looking toward. I think there's been massive confusion of what public health metrics should be used and when should schools be opened? When should they be hybrid? When should they be closed? That's very basic.
Then there's also the--
Tanzina Vega: Of course, Kalyn, you're talking there about infection rates? If they reach a certain percentage, schools close, right?
Kalyn Belsha: I'm hearing a lot of school administrators asking for just more guidance of like, "What should I be looking for? What is the right public health metric," because I'm using many different ones depending on what state I'm in. People want just some clarity on what is the right one to use? Then I think just in general, more data about who's even open and who's even closed? We don't even know that as a country. The Biden administration has promised to do more tracking around opening and closing, and also what harms have happened to students because of the closures.
Tanzina Vega: Kalyn, have teachers been prioritized in some of these vaccine efforts across the country? I know there's been a lot of confusion about who should get what first, but are teachers part of those groups generally?
Kalyn Belsha: Yes, it varies from state to state, but we are seeing educators fall into the essential workers group in many states. I think the problem has been that the supply is very low. Often, they're grouped with first responders, like police officers and firefighters, and so there might not be availability of vaccines. We're starting to see school districts partner directly with hospitals and health systems to try to get their staff vaccinated. Part of the pressure that unions are putting on states and others right now is to try to bump educators up the list if they're falling in the middle.
Some are prioritizing them and some are not, and putting them in the middle.
Tanzina Vega: It's interesting. We're going to see how this all plays out as we head into the second year of this pandemic. Kalyn Belsha is a national reporter for Chalkbeat. Kayln, thanks so much for joining us.
Kalyn Belsha: Thank you for having me.
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