Tanzina: I'm Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. Around the country, the pandemic is causing rising tensions between teachers' unions and school districts. In Chicago, the local government decided to reopen the city but in response, the teachers union voted to delay in-person teaching, demanding more protections and vaccinations before they head back into the classroom.
In other places like Austin, Texas, teachers began in-person teaching earlier this month even though the union adamantly opposed the move. All of this is not just affecting teachers, but students as well with working-class students of color disproportionately affected. We're going to talk about the national picture for teachers in just a few moments, but first, we go to Texas from one teacher's experience with all of this. Mario Piña is an eighth grade English teacher in Austin, Texas. Mario, thanks for joining us.
Mario Piña: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: What's your experience been teaching this past year in Austin?
Mario: I think my experience is similar to most teachers this year. It's been absolutely crazy. I'm in my eighth year teaching and I think a lot of us feel like it's our first year teaching, things are completely different, they're not what we normally do, even people [unintelligible 00:01:12] I was in the past have had a bit of a struggle adjusting to virtual learning, trying to teach students in our classes and online simultaneously. It's been a really big change for us.
Tanzina: Who are the students that you teach? What's their demographic profile?
Mario: I teach in a low-income area, it's a Title 1 school, mostly Black and brown kids. They're being affected probably the most out of anybody, I think.
Tanzina: Tell me about the COVID spikes around your community. Are you seeing them? Are they stabilized? What does the COVID infection rate look like right now?
Mario: I think that especially within the past two to three weeks, we've seen a big spike within not just our community within my school but Austin as a whole. Recently, we went into Stage 5, which set a whole new set of parameters around how we socialize, what can be open at what time. That spike has really affected school. We went from having students have the option of either being in-person or online to what the district like to say encouraging students to stay home, not necessarily saying that they should stay home or that they need to stay home, but they were highly encouraging it.
Because of that, we did have a decrease in students coming in-person. We did that for two weeks, but then this week, we took away that highly encouragement, we had a lot of students come back.
Tanzina: What has Education Austin, which is the teachers' union, said about returning to school? What's their position been?
Mario: Their position is that they want to make sure that we are staying safe, try to stay home as much as we can until the pandemic is a little bit better. We are highly asking the teachers we put at the front line for the vaccination and not just our teachers, but our staff as well, bus drivers, our cafeteria staff, anybody who's working directly with the kids because they're on the front lines right now.
Tanzina: Mario, what actions has the union taken to challenge the district specifically?
Mario: At the beginning of the pandemic, we were urging everybody to stay safe, stay home. We wanted teachers to continue to work but make sure that they are also completing the duties that are entrusted in us. A lot of people trust us to teach their children, to keep them safe. We encouraged everybody to stay home and stay safe and continue working. Recently, we had a joint statement that was released between our district and our union urging the Texas Education Agency to allow us a little bit more flexibility in how funding works and making sure that everyone is able to work with accommodations that is best for themselves and their families.
Tanzina: Mario, there's been some flip-flopping the past couple of weeks from the state and the district in terms of in-person teaching. What was that all about?
Mario: Ultimately, all comes down to funding. The state is telling us that to get fully funded like a normal year, we need to offer some kind of options for students to be in-person. I understand that a lot of parents want their students to come in-person because that's the way they learn the best, but I think we're in a very unique situation and we need to take that into account. Unfortunately, if we go 100% remote, which, in my opinion, is the best thing to do, the most safest thing to do, we run the risk of not being fully funded, which means that teachers will have to make up time that they've already worked.
Tanzina: Texas is a right-to-work state which can undercut the union in their collective bargaining power. How has that affected the tension here between the union and the district, Mario?
Mario: For us, because we are a right-to-work state, it's always been difficult to hold a whole lot of leverage. We're very blessed in Austin that our union has a consultation contract, which effectively allows us to collectively bargain. We recently got a new superintendent so we're still learning to work with each other, getting to know each other, seeing how we can work together because every relationship with the superintendent is different.
Tanzina: What does all this mean for your students, Mario?
Mario: I think it's quite a conundrum because I work in a community where it's not an absolute neighborhood. Our students and our parents really are having to make the decision, do they stay home and stay safe, which is probably the best option, or do they send their kids so they can go to work one day or do they go to work and let their kids stay unattended if needed? It's definitely affecting our Black and brown neighborhoods just a little bit more because not all of them have the resources to have their students stay home. Not all of them have the resources to have someone take care of them. They're having to make a decision between their health and their livelihoods.
Tanzina: How do you see the next couple of weeks playing out and months playing out now that many of the students are back in school for in-person learning?
Mario: I think we've seen, on a couple occasions, across America that was seen as coming back inevitably, cases are going to rise and that's really disheartening because the last thing that any teacher wants to do is harm or put themselves or their students or even their own family in jeopardy.
Tanzina: Mario Piña is an eighth grade English teacher in Austin, Texas. Mario, thanks for joining us.
Mario: Thank you.
Tanzina: We've also been hearing from parents and teachers around the country. If your school district is open or planning to reopen for in-person learning, how do you feel about that decision?
Parker: My name is Parker and I teach sixth grade in a public school district. The district that I currently work in is the last district in my area to go back to in-person learning. When I think about coming back, I think about the logistics and the science and it makes me really nervous thinking about people's grandparents and the transmission and all that, but I also feel really excited when I think about being able to be in front of my students and have them face-to-face and give them all the benefits that they need and deserve.
Tanzina: We want to keep hearing from you about your local school district. Send us a voice memo to email@example.com or go to thetakeaway.org and click on Contact Us to record your answers straight into your computer or phone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.