Reopening schools: CDC says vaccinating all educators isn’t necessary, but teachers unions disagree

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser and Sarah Sweeney

The Biden administration and the CDC say it’s safe for teachers to return to classrooms before they’re vaccinated. California Governor Gavin Newsom agrees.

In LA County, teachers will be eligible for the vaccine starting March 1. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner says elementary schools might be able to reopen if 25,000 teachers and staff get their shots. That could take months. 

Some of the biggest pushback to reopening comes from teachers unions. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) says it can’t support reopening until in-person staff members are vaccinated and LA County is out of the purple tier. The California Teachers Association (CTA) also says returning to in-person learning is premature.

What is the power of teachers unions as parents and elected officials push to reopen — not just in California but around the country? 

KCRW talks with Louis Freedberg, executive editor of EdSource, based in San Francisco; Bradley Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert on California’s teachers unions; and Moriah Balingit, who covers national education for the Washington Post.

The power of California’s teachers unions

Marianno says California’s teachers unions have grown in strength due to a larger political system that’s supported their goals, such as collective bargaining. 

“If we think about unions as one part in a larger ecosystem of what schools look like, so, if unions are the tree in this ecosystem, then the politics are the soil that allows that tree to gain strength and grow.” 

Marianno notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has padded the strength of unions. He adds that it’s their responsibility to support and represent the views of California teachers, including the desire to be vaccinated before returning to school. 

Support for teachers unions has remained favorable over time, but this may falter as schools remain closed and conversations around reopening continue, says Marianno. 

“If a large portion of schools fail to return the school year, unions are at risk of overplaying their hand here. A lot of parents are frustrated with what they call the changing of the goalpost. The goalpost keeps moving down the field in terms of what teachers are comfortable with in terms of reopening,” Marianno says. “It's entirely possible that we'll see public opinion sway against the unions moving forward.”

Public perceptions around reopening 

The showdown between teachers and administrators could become confrontational, says Marianno. But he points out that the decision isn’t just up to them — it includes the perspective of parents. 

COVID-19 has hit lower income families and families of color in LA particularly hard, notes Marianno, and these communities are more hesitant to send their children back to school. 

“If public perception is strongly for reopening, that is one force that will turn the tides in terms of the power that teachers unions have — not just the district administrators drawing a hard line, but what parents feel and share in school board meetings. So if that changes, then we might see a stronger push for reopening as well.”

Marianno says parents might pull their students from public schools and enroll them in charter or public schools so they can return to physical classrooms. But he notes that even if schools lose students, they won’t see lower budgets due to new hold-harmless legislation passed in June. Marianno argues that will help prevent competitive pressure for school districts to reopen. However, he says those actions will lead to an opportunity gap among students.

“Your students who are wealthy and have the resources, parents who have those are certainly going to pull their kids out and move them to private schools if they're able. And then we end up with kids who don't have the opportunity to learn in person as a result of that.”

Long Beach in the lead?

Freedman points out that as daily cases continue to drop across California, schools are beginning to eye a return to the classroom. That includes the Long Beach Unified School District, which announced it’s planning on reopening on March 29. 

The difference there is that the city has already started vaccinating its teachers. Freedman says by the time teachers return, they likely will have received both vaccine doses. 

“You ask yourself if Long Beach can do it, why can't other school districts do it? …  If everybody thinks getting kids back to school is so important, shouldn't teachers be not just a priority, but number one priority?” 

Reopened classrooms won’t be the same as pre-pandemic

Balingit says the Biden administration has fallen short of requiring teachers to be vaccinated as conversations around reopening schools continue. That’s led to a discrepancy in how each jurisdiction approaches teacher vaccinations and reopening. 

Some districts have made agreements to reopen with local unions, including the Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. districts. 

She says the educational experience in reopened classrooms are different from pre-pandemic days. After visiting a New York school on the first day, she says students weren’t allowed to play on the playground, all plush toys were removed from classrooms, and learning was often disrupted after a student became exposed to another classmate.

“It's really important that when we talk about reopening, we're not talking about a normal reopening experience. It's often with a lot of restrictions and a lot of interruptions,” Balingit says.