Saturday, January 30, 2021

Look For the Union Libel


That's where David F. Brooks was yesterday, too, though he didn't sound quite as much like QAnon as the Senate Republicans do, but with the same child sacrifice theme, in his Times column ("Children Need to Be Back In School Tomorrow"—don't know if he was aware tomorrow was Saturday). In fact, his tack is to explain that the AFT is exactly like QAnon, anti-intellectual:

There’s a wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping America. There are people across the country who deny evidence, invent their own facts and live in their own fantasyland. We saw it in the Republicans who denied the reality of the Biden election victory and we see it now in the teachers unions that are shutting down schools and marring children’s lives.

Which is really kind of libelous, I think, especially if he means that progressive present verb ("are shutting") the way it's usually used in English, and is complaining specifically about approximately one local, the Chicago Teachers Union, which is not currently shutting down anything but rather fighting against Mayor Lightfoot's plan to reopen K-8 schools that were closed 10 months ago by order of Governor Pritzker, and not with the intention of marring children's lives, which I believe most people who have devoted their lives to the not very remunerative occupation of elementary and middle school teaching would not want to do, but in the interest of making the environment safe for themselves, with a more satisfactory testing regime, PPE supplies, adequate ventilation of school buildings, and priority for vaccination for teachers and support staff, much of which the city says it's now ready to do (Lightfoot won't bend on the vaccination, at least outside the hardest-hit zip codes), but that's a genuine matter of dispute:

“This is uncharted territory,” said Mailee Smith, a staff attorney and director of labor policy at Illinois Policy, a conservative think tank. “We don’t have an example in the past of a union refusing to go to the school to work but being willing to work online. We don’t have an example of a school locking teachers out of their computers virtually when those teachers refuse to go to school.”

Smith said the novel situation probably means that Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board will have to weigh in to determine “who is right and who is wrong in the situation.”

For the 19% of parents in the K-8 cohort who have opted to return to the physical classroom, because the overwhelming majority of parents are actually less willing to go back right now than the teachers are; that's something David Brooks won't tell you. 

What he will tell you is that the parents who are desperate to send the kids back are largely black and brown, with the kids who are mostly likely to suffer real harm from the shutdown, but he won't add that so are most of the teachers (CPS teaching staff is 20% African American and 21% Latin), with the same vulnerabilities (respiratory issues, multigenerational households). 

And teachers are in danger!

Or Washington, D.C., where schools have been shut down for almost as long after a November reopening was scrapped on protests from teachers, principals, and parents over the district's lack of transparency, and where they are in fact reopening 1 February after fixing the HVAC systems, hiring a lot of nurses' aides, instituting asymptomatic testing, and negotiating of a vaccination plan for the staff.

It's not obvious that closed schools are a pervasive problem. Those two cases, Chicago and Washington, are the only ones he names as attacked by the wicked union in this way. There aren't even that many closed schools, nationally, and where they are it's not just a crazy demand of a union local but a negotiated decision on the part of lots of stakeholders including, as I say, parents, who are just as reluctant as teachers are and voting with their feet, but just saying no. Just four states and should-be-states that had were fully closed down as of 15 January; four more had partial shutdown orders (including New York, where the up-and-down has been pretty hairy, as we keep opening and closing and the UFT has been a very active negotiating partner, but only 26% of students had opted for in-class learning as of last October, and they weren't being allowed to change their minds in the next round of reopenings); and four with reopening orders, while 40 states have no orders at all.

Nobody wants schools to be closed, including teachers. Nobody likes teaching online, especially for younger children (even college teaching online is pretty bad, though people like David Brooks have been promoting MOOCS as a money-saving device for decades). 

Many children have simply vanished from official oversight. Schools in Hillsborough County, Fla., started the year missing 7,000 students.

But they did reopen, in September; that's when they found out. Get a grip.

The union says its members won’t go back to work so long as the city’s positive test rate is above 3 percent. Where did it get that threshold as the basis for its negotiating stance? It pulled it out of thin air.

It was set last July by the Harvard Global Health Institute in their Path to Zero guidance document, based on the experience of Finland, where the 3% figure was used. That's regarded as outdated now (as of the end of December, according to this month's update), because especially the elementary school has turned out not to be an important vector of community transmission (which doesn't mean it isn't a vector of transmission to teachers and school staff—evidence from reopening schools in New York, Texas, and elsewhere shows a worrying upward trend in their infection rates compared to the rest of the community). But it isn't what the Chicago union is dwelling on anyway; it's the number the district is already using as part of the offer the union isn't comfortable with, but the union isn't focusing on the positivity rate.

Readers, many of us got involved in the Black Lives Matter marches last summer. I guess I would ask you, do Black lives matter to you only when they serve your political purpose? If not, shouldn’t we all be marching to get Black and brown children back safely into schools right now?

Wow, I miss everything. I wonder where Brooks was marching last summer? He didn't say a word about it!

But the answer is no. Black lives always matter, but the strategy for making them matter differs according to the circumstances. The protests over the murder of George Floyd were aimed at shaking an obdurate and immovable enemy—police forces across the country under the control of their worst, murderous and racist, elements, and a presidential administration devoted to supporting police brutality—by mobilizing the good people who had no idea that police brutality existed. The issue of school opening is in the context of the combat against an enemy that's not even strictly alive—a virus—by negotiation among "stakeholders" who are all interested in the same outcomes: resuming normal education as quickly as we can do it safely. If you want to work on this, show up—they're listening!

Plagues, you know, are bad. They're going to be bad no matter how well we handle them. In Germany, where schools were opened very early and systematically, they're now closed again, and virtual learning is turning out to be a terrible problem because they aren't properly equipped

Right now, Eric should be having a French class online, the 15-year-old tells DW on the phone. "I'm sitting in front of my laptop, trying to access my school's learning platform. But again, nothing works at all." 

Eric's comprehensive school near Kaiserslautern in southwestern Germany is not the only one struggling with the transition to remote learning. In many parts of the country, pupils and teachers report similar difficulties.

"These server problems simply have to be solved," Eric says. The tenth-grader is an active member of the student council in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate. He supports school closures while infection rates remain high. "But we don't even know if we'll be able to go back to school in February. I don't even know if I'll be able to take my final exam this year. The digital lessons simply have to work. It can't go on like this," he complains.

They're going to be worse here, for a while, of course, because everything is worse here

but it's not the time for marching. We now have a federal government that is committed to reopening schools, as in the executive order President Biden signed on Day 2, including

(iv)    develop a Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse to enable schools and institutions of higher education to share lessons learned and best practices for operating safely during the pandemic;

(v)     provide technical assistance to schools and institutions of higher education so that they can ensure high-quality learning during the pandemic;

(vi)    direct the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to deliver a report as soon as practicable on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on students in elementary, secondary, and higher education, including those attending historically black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions...  

And it's not the time for scapegoating those who are most deeply involved in the process. Certainly not for accusing teacher unions of "denying evidence, inventing their own facts, and living in their own fantasyland," and it's worth emphasizing that calling them anti-science betrays Brooks's weak understanding of what science actually is: trial and error, readiness to change your mind accompanied by caution in making assertions. Anthony Fauci himself advised the public not to wear masks 10 or 11 months ago, teachers and parents may need to be soothed and reassured now, but getting it right is a process that will be accompanied by a lot of pain no matter what.

Not having school is absolutely bad for kids, but pandemics in general are bad for kids; like the rest of us, what kids need most, whether we're talking about emotional health or "learning loss" keyed to future income, is the end of the pandemic itself. We should think of school closing as part of what's wrong with pandemics, avoid them when we can, but work like hell to do it right, as is the plan. Getting rid of the pandemic is the main object, school closings just one of the slices of Swiss cheese we may or may not need to deploy at one time or another to do the job, even in Germany. Teachers are a necessary part, and there's no need to insult them, especially if you yourself have a poor comprehension of what's going on, David. 

In the 14th century, a lot of Christians succumbed to the temptation to treat the local Jews as malevolent plague spreaders. Now we have Trump and Pompeo doing this with Chinese people. Brooks is superior to that, but treating teachers as monsters dedicated to driving their pupils to despair and poverty is really not that different.

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