Reopening schools mirrors class divide

March 11, 2021

From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters

Detroit—Everyone wants schools to reopen. But the divide between “reopen schools NOW” and “reopen schools SAFELY ASAP” mirrors the class divide in U.S. education. In wealthier districts, parents push politicians to let schools—and school athletics—open now. They cite damage to their children’s mental health. They blame teachers’ unions for resistance, with little thought of the teachers and other school workers themselves.

In inner-city districts, the main concern is school safety. Detroit Public Schools opened in the fall of 2020, and closed again after Christmas in response to increasing COVID-19 cases. Only 20-25% of the students had returned to in-person learning. There was no outcry against teachers, only appreciation for both online and remote instruction.


We know that districts, and schools within a district, vary greatly in ability to open safely. But why did the CDC wait until February 2021 to issue “guidelines” for school re-opening? Was it because these indicate massive infrastructure investment, like major modifications to ventilation systems in most buildings? Because the CDC under Trump did not want to be seen supporting teachers’ unions?

By CDC guidelines, very few schools could open safely “as is.” Nevertheless, newer buildings, strong social distancing practices, and low student populations would allow in-person learning in both rich and poor districts. How safely? We don’t have data yet. The CDC did “recommend”—but did not “mandate”—teacher vaccinations for in-person teaching, leaving many teachers at the mercy of conservative politicians who don’t prioritize them as essential workers.

Unvaccinated teachers also remain vulnerable to community spread outside school. Parents and older students may be exposed at work, on public transportation, and in large social gatherings. Lies that COVID-19 isn’t real can increase viral spread.

Fortunately, strong teachers’ unions (like the Chicago Teachers Union) are demanding full access to vaccination against COVID-19. Parents struggling with children in virtual learning at home should appreciate teachers enough to respect their fight for a safe workplace—for themselves and for the children.

—Retired teacher

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