How Teachers Fought for Their Safety in the Pandemic—and Won

How Teachers Fought for Their Safety in the Pandemic—and Won

How Teachers Fought for Their Safety in the Pandemic—and Won

As the debate over in-person schooling roiled, teachers’ unions secured significant protections­—often with parents’ support.


At 7 am on Monday, February 8, Kaitlin McCann, a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at the General George A. McCall School in Philadelphia, arrived at work. The temperature was in the teens and snow covered the ground, but McCann didn’t go inside the building where she’s taught for a decade. Instead, decked out in snow pants, boots, and gloves with hand warmers nestled inside, she set up a portable power generator and a circle of socially distanced tables and chairs in the schoolyard.

Then she and 30 of her colleagues—about two-thirds of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members in her building—spent shifts teaching in frigid temperatures all day from their computers outside the school, tangled power cords plugged into the generator, Wi-Fi more or less holding steady. McCann stayed until 3 pm, teaching her full schedule of classes. Her students “thought we were nuts,” she said. But “they understood that what we were doing is to keep them and their families safe.” The teachers’ message: They weren’t refusing to teach; they were just refusing to do so in buildings they feared were too dangerous.

The district had told teachers to report to their classrooms that Monday to prepare for the return of students on February 22. But the teachers and their union insisted it was still unsafe without agreed-upon Covid-19 protocols for ventilation and without vaccine prioritization for teachers, particularly after news surfaced that some schools were merely installing window fans as “ventilation devices.” So on Friday, February 5, the teachers decided to stage a demonstration the following Monday. McCann spent her weekend procuring supplies and organizing her colleagues.

Not everything went smoothly. It was so cold that computers started malfunctioning. Teachers took breaks to warm up in their cars. But they were bolstered by the community. Parents came by to deliver coffee and pizza, chairs and space heaters, and to wave signs of support. Only one parent showed up to counterprotest in favor of reopening.

That night, back in her warm home, McCann saw the announcement on the 5 o’clock news: The city would roll out a new vaccination program aimed directly at teachers, principals, and school staff.

McCann credits the actions of thousands of Philly teachers who taught outside in protest that day for the change in vaccine eligibility rules, as well as more transparency about building conditions. “The action worked—we pulled it off,” she said. Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, noted that the teachers also secured a “robust” testing and tracing program in the schools, which was “directly attributable to our activism and mobilization,” he said.

Whether and how to bring teachers and students back inside school buildings has been the subject of intense debate since last summer. But a clear theme has emerged: Expanding on recent waves of activism, teachers were able to band together and compel school districts to adopt protocols for masks, ventilation, testing, and even vaccination. Teachers have secured “really innovative agreements that were unprecedented,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

In Oakland, the union says it reached a tentative agreement in mid-March that establishes safety criteria more stringent than state laws on things like ventilation and testing, and also requires the appointment of safety leads at schools in areas hard-hit by Covid to ensure that the new rules are implemented. United Teachers Los Angeles had reached an agreement with the LA school district days earlier, in which teachers would return to their classrooms in April, but only after they are vaccinated and the county has complied with the most restrictive tier of health regulations. That agreement represents a “gold standard,” said UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz. Chicago teachers had held a “work outside” protest similar to the one in Philadelphia in January and threatened to do so again in April. Those actions resulted in an agreement to send high schoolers back to classrooms that includes a vaccination program for parents and students, which the Chicago Teachers Union said is the “first of its kind in the nation.”

Not all teachers are happy with their unions’ agreements. Some feel that with the Covid case rate still scarily high, it’s not safe to go back before all teachers are vaccinated. When I spoke in early March to Fatim Byrd, who teaches elementary-school Spanish at Mayfair School in Philadelphia, he was reporting to his school building daily even though students hadn’t yet returned and he hadn’t been fully vaccinated. “I don’t mind going in there and being back to work…as long as I have the full protection,” he said. But he worried that he would contract Covid and suffer long-term consequences, given his existing asthma and respiratory issues. “I’m super concerned that as we see more kids come in, we’re going to see more deaths and more Covid cases.” Some factions within the unions, such as the Working Educators caucus in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which he and McCann belong to, have been critical of the union leadership that signed off on agreements to reopen schools. In response to these concerns, Steinberg said that while he understands why teachers are afraid after such a terrifying year, he is “fully confident we have done the best job possible in making sure we have the safest, most responsible reopening plan of any urban district in the country.”

“Teachers should have the right to decide whether they want the vaccine or not,” Weingarten said in response to the same concerns. “We have been very careful in this early stage of pushing back when someone has said that the vaccine should be mandatory.” Instead, the AFT has advocated prioritizing teachers for vaccination.

But if teachers hadn’t flexed their collective muscle, it’s likely they would have been forced back into school buildings without any say at all. In Georgia, where teachers don’t have the right to strike or collectively bargain, no deal was struck with unions, and districts were allowed to reopen without even requiring masks. In the child care and early education sector, which is largely nonunion, providers have mostly remained open throughout the pandemic.

When teachers mobilized around Covid precautions, they weren’t starting from scratch. Several unions were building on a surge in activism in recent years. In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union staged a seven-day strike to demand better conditions for students, such as smaller class sizes and more teachers, as well as better pay and benefits. The demands resonated deeply with the community. Taking a page from that playbook, teachers in a number of red states held Red for Ed strikes in 2018 to demand more funding for education—a goal they largely achieved. In early 2019, teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland went on strike over similar issues and won higher pay, smaller class sizes, and more support staff. The Chicago Teachers Union followed later that year with an even longer strike. “Whenever [unions] were able to link themselves with the community, especially the community of color, that’s when they really were successful,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, professor emeritus of labor history at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Philadelphia teachers were able to mobilize quickly thanks to their own recent organizing. In 2014, they had successfully organized against state control of the city’s schools. “That really laid the foundation for this,” Steinberg said. More recently, teachers at McCann’s school were asked to take on additional responsibilities; McCann and the union fought the proposals, and the superintendent backed off. “That moment gained a lot of trust between members,” she said.

The trust paid off on February 8. Even though a few teachers were comfortable returning to in-person teaching, no one walked inside the building that day. “I have never felt more solidarity from my colleagues than in that week,” McCann said.

Byrd and other teachers The Nation spoke with say they desperately want to be back in the classroom with their students. “We know you can’t replace an in-person teacher with just digital learning,” Byrd said. “I’ve always wanted to go back. I just want to go back the right way.” McCann described teaching during the pandemic as “overwhelming.” There are plenty of days that end in her crying because she’s had such a hard time getting all 120 of her students to turn on their cameras and microphones; even if they do, she doesn’t know if they’re listening. “I’ve never worked harder as an educator,” McCann said.

Many teachers are also parents. The three children of Alejandro Estrada, a fourth-grade teacher at the International Community School in Oakland, are all at home learning remotely while he teaches from the basement; when he comes back upstairs, he often has to help one of them with their schoolwork. “I understand what it is to live with children who are experiencing anxiety, depression,” Estrada said. His son, a high schooler, needed therapy for the depression he experienced last year. “This is hard on everyone.” But he also teaches in a zip code with one of the highest rates of Covid cases in his county. “We want [reopening] to be done safely for staff, students, and teachers.”

The reluctance of teachers to return to school buildings stems in large part from having worked in substandard conditions for so long. About half of the country’s school districts need to update or replace systems or features in their buildings. In 41 percent of districts, at least half of the school buildings need to upgrade their ventilation or HVAC systems. “We don’t trust our building conditions in normal years,” McCann said. In 2019, 28-year Philadelphia teacher Lea DiRusso threatened to sue the school district, claiming she’d developed a deadly form of cancer from exposure to asbestos in her classrooms. McCann’s building is over 100 years old and only recently went through lead and asbestos remediation. She’s regularly seen leaky ceilings, rodent droppings, bathrooms without soap or paper towels, even broken sinks and toilets. When classroom ventilation was first inspected in the fall, she said, most of her building’s rooms were rated zero—meaning they weren’t safe during the pandemic. Remediation has improved that situation somewhat.

Estrada says that before the pandemic, he didn’t have soap dispensers or paper towels in his classroom; it took the crisis for them to finally be installed. “It seems like we’ve always been fighting for the same things, and even in Covid conditions we’re still fighting for that,” he said.

Many parents seem to share teachers’ concerns. National polls have found that most parents have been wary of rushing teachers and students back into school buildings. A Politico poll released in February found that a majority of Americans trust local teachers’ unions on whether to reopen schools. Only about a third of the families in McCann’s district opted for any in-person classes. That doesn’t surprise Weingarten: Teachers are “the third-party validators,” she said. “Parents will see a school as safe when they see their kids’ teachers seeing a school as safe.”

The minority of parents who argue for a faster reopening, however, have been very vocal and visible. And some politicians are looking to capitalize on their frustration. Republicans see demonizing teachers’ unions as a way to draw suburban voters and take back Congress in the 2022 midterms. Right-wing groups like the Koch-connected State Policy Network and the Liberty Justice Center, which brought the Janus v. AFSCME union rights case to the Supreme Court, stand ready to support parents suing over the teachers’ unions’ demands.

But the demonstration in Philadelphia, and the one in January in Chicago, “started piercing through that rhetoric of educators not caring,” Weingarten said. The organizing that teachers have done around reopening agreements has focused on “teachers and students [having] the conditions they need to stay alive, to be safe.”

Estrada and other members of his union held Zoom meetings with parents to hear what their needs were and how they felt about reopening school buildings. It was “to get feedback and input,” he said, but also “to help empower them and give them a voice in the district.” He said that most parents aren’t comfortable sending their children back yet. Many know people who have had Covid or who had it themselves. “For the most part, our parents are feeling like they do trust us, and they feel like once we say ‘OK, it’s safe’…they will feel comfortable.” To keep building that trust, union members will join parents to visit the school buildings together to ensure that everything that was promised by the district is in place before teachers and students return.

The pandemic has also mobilized teachers without a recent history of activism. The board of education in Howard County, Md., was in the midst of discussing what metrics to follow for reopening school buildings when Governor Larry Hogan ordered the state’s schools to reopen by March 1. The board reversed course and adopted that date without plans for testing or for establishing cohorts of students in order to enable social distancing and reduce exposure.

The teachers were furious, but Maryland law bars them from striking, so they have implemented a “work to rule” action in which they work only within their contractually mandated hours—the first time teachers in the county have done so since the 1990s. “It takes so much for teachers to speak up in that way,” said Kelley Thomas, a high school teacher in the county. “We absorb so much without question. That lets you know the level of rupture that has occurred.” The teachers also held a caravan to protest in which 700 cars participated, according to the union—the biggest such protest in a decade.

Thomas hopes that the action will continue to have an impact long after the pandemic is over. Working to rule has made her realize “how much work we did outside of the scope of teaching,” she said. The action “has given me a chance to return to my original purpose, which is: I’m an educator.” It has also forged deeper bonds among her colleagues. “We have a shared concern,” she said. “We have a shared passion.”

The fight over reopening school buildings may appear specific to a historic pandemic, but it has had reverberations that teachers hope will last. The next stage of organizing can’t just be “how to get back to the status quo,” Weingarten said. One key issue is the physical infrastructure in which they teach and their students learn. “It’s a blessing that the pandemic has given visibility to these poor conditions, but I don’t want to go back to that being normal,” McCann said. She had already been part of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative to demand more funding to upgrade buildings. “We have to keep it at the forefront,” she said. While the American Rescue Plan includes $170 billion for schools, that money is intended to help them implement Covid safety measures and address learning loss, not to fix long-standing problems with school facilities.

In August, the Philadelphia teachers will head into contract negotiations, and while she hopes it can be avoided, McCann said a strike is “very possible” to secure priorities such as a significant wage increases, class size reductions, and more staff like counselors and librarians, as well as concrete language about building maintenance. “By engaging in this work action in February, it’s really a test,” McCann added. “It’s a test to show our community, to show the district, that we’re going to show up and we’re not going to be silent. There’s a lot at stake. I’m hoping our union retains this power, this momentum, going into the fall.”

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