Teachers unions fight to keep students and staff safe amid push to reopen schools

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Sending students back to in-person learning immediately is 'risky, irresponsible, and reckless,' said the president of the Seattle teachers union.

Teachers unions around the country are ramping up efforts to keep staff and students safe amid calls for schools to return to in-person learning — citing health concerns as the primary reason to slow the reopening schedule.

The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that two unions in Baltimore County, Maryland — the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Education Support Personnel of Baltimore County — filed suit in district court to obtain an injunction and restraining order against the Baltimore Board of Education. The union claims that in its haste to bring teachers back to school in person, the district has overlooked the health and wellbeing of its employees in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Baltimore students in preschool up to second grade, as well as some special education students, have already returned in person. The majority of other faculty and staff are expected to come back by March 31. The unions, representing a teacher whose application for ADA accommodations was allegedly ignored, claim the district neglected to process not only the plaintiff's, but several hundred other applications for ADA accommodations.

The teacher in question, a pregnant special education teacher, reportedly experienced a stillbirth in the past due to a virus contracted in a different teaching position. At her doctor's recommendation, she was requesting that the school district allow her to work from home until she was able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She says she received no response to her application.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Seattle Education Association filed three separate complaints against Seattle Public Schools on Sunday alleging the district had violated fair labor practices by requiring 700 special education teachers to return to in-person teaching as "essential" employees.

According to a local outlet, the union claims by reopening schools too swiftly, the district, which serves more than 53,000 students, is "shortcutting the bargaining process and violating their mutual agreement."

The union has cited concerns for student health — particularly that of "medically fragile" students — as the chief reason underlying their objection to reopening.

Jennifer Matter, the union's president, said in a statement Monday that bargaining was "critical to make sure all possible protections are in place to keep our students and educators safe."

"Putting additional students, some of them medically fragile, in classrooms when the district isn’t even providing adequate protection for those few students and staff in-person now, is risky, irresponsible, and reckless," she said.

In California, the San Diego Education Association is also pushing back against district calls to reopen schools in person by April 12, according to a Voice of San Diego report.

The outlet notes that Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified school board, told several media outlets that a firm reopening was set for April 12. But educators say that's not where they left negotiations with the district. The union claims they made it clear that they would not return in person until county COVID-19 positivity rates fell to under 7 in 100,000 residents, and until all teachers had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, Maryland, last week's drive-in protest of premature school reopenings drew hundreds, with a similar "car caravan" protest held in Los Angeles on Feb. 20.

"I want to return to work," one Los Angeles special education teacher told a local ABC affiliate. "I just can't right now because we don't have vaccinations and it's just we want to make sure the safety protocols are in place at school. We miss our kids, we want to return to work. We just want to return when it's safe for everybody."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 3.7 million children have contracted COVID. The American Federation of Teachers told the New York Times in January that at least 530 members nationwide had died of the virus in 2020, although the full number of educators lost to COVID-19 is unknown.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans continue to attack unions for their efforts to protect faculty, staff, and students.

"Young people have never been the target of this disease, but our teachers unions have been driving an agenda for a long time," wrote Rep. Darrell Issa (CA) in a Wednesday tweet. "And the most adversely affected are the kids who need public education the most."

As health experts have noted, while children experience milder symptoms, they can still develop COVID-19. Those with health conditions may experience severe complications due to the virus. Others may pass on the virus to adults at home or in school, who may in turn develop serious health problems.

Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, meanwhile, tweeted on Tuesday that "schools already have the money they need to reopen," referring to Democrats' $1.9 billion COVID relief bill, which passed the House on Saturday, but has yet to pass the Senate. "The money in this bill won't be spent for years," she claimed.

She then blamed unions, who she claimed were "all about power and their paycheck."

"Not about the pupils they teach. This should be easy. For the sake of the children, re open the schools," she wrote.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.