Since early in the pandemic, both Republican- and Democratic-leaning pundits have portrayed virtual school as an educational disaster for students, an economic disaster for the country, and a political disaster for Democrats. They’ve also united in blaming teachers’ unions, rather than the pandemic and the government’s failed response to it, for school districts’ decisions to go virtual. This narrative waned as schools across the country returned to in-person instruction in 2021.
However, teachers union-bashing has returned with a vengeance in the past few weeks, as the omicron variant infects record numbers of students and staff members. Some school districts have retreated to virtual learning due to student absences and lack of staff, and little learning is happening in many that remain open.
In only one case has a union action been central to the shift back to virtual learning. Before returning to in-person after the holiday break, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) called for expanded COVID testing, a request that Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker reportedly offered to help implement. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, instead chose last week to lock out teachers. The standoff continued, until yesterday, when the two sides reached an agreement to reopen school on Wednesday.
Predictably, anti-union pundits have blamed the CTU for having the temerity to ask for safety procedures that already exist in many other districts. Both Yahoo News White House correspondent Alexander Nazaryan and National Journal columnist Josh Kraushaar called on President Joe Biden to break the CTU like Ronald Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981.
FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver went further, declaring that virtual school has been a bigger disaster than the Iraq War, which killed as many as 1 million people. While Silver’s comment triggered widespread criticism for its absurdity, it wasn’t far from what many elite opponents of virtual learning have said for months. For example, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a longtime critic of teachers’ unions, wrote in March — when COVID had already killed half a million Americans — that virtual school was the “gravest catastrophe” of the pandemic.
Every piece of the pundits’ narrative has been flawed from the start — especially the blame placed on teachers’ unions. Because while many of these anti-union voices claim they’re speaking for poor families and families of color, both polling and actual enrollment decisions directly rebut their claims.
Rhetoric and Reality
Since the beginning of the pandemic, preference for distance versus in-person schooling has been strongly correlated with race and income. Last October, a YouGov poll found that both African Americans and Latinos supported schools going remote by nearly two to one. Only white people, by a small margin, opposed the shift. Income was similarly correlated, with lower-income respondents more supportive of virtual learning than upper-income ones.
Anti-union pundits have also claimed they’re trying to save Democrats from electoral disaster. Yet polling throughout the pandemic has revealed that most families are happy with how their local schools have handled COVID. A March Chalkbeat poll revealed that 75 percent of parents were getting the type of instruction they wanted, with 15 percent wanting more in-person and 10 percent wanting more virtual. More recently, a November Ipsos poll found that 71 percent of overall respondents and 75 percent of parents thought their local schools were doing a “very good” or “somewhat good” job of balancing health and safety with other priorities.
With national polling failing to prove their case, pundits tried another tack: they seized on the Virginia gubernatorial election results, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost a close race to Republican Glenn Youngkin. The fact that McAuliffe ran a dreadful campaign focused on tying Youngkin to Donald Trump — and that Youngkin barely mentioned virtual schooling during his campaign, preferring to stoke fears about “critical race theory” — was irrelevant. Bizarrely, some pundits went so far as to cite Youngkin’s lack of attention to virtual school as proof of its centrality. “Youngkin, the unlikely governor-elect of Virginia, didn’t talk about school closures on his way to defeating McAuliffe,” Nazaryan wrote. “He didn’t need to.”
Searching for evidence to prove unions’ threat to Democrats’ electoral prospects, the anti-union Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) created a push poll that asked Virginians whether they agreed with the statement, “Despite CDC guidelines about safe school reopenings, Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats sided with teachers unions instead of scientists and kept schools closed for in-person learning for too long. Glenn Youngkin will follow the science and oppose unnecessary shutdowns.” In an ostensible piece of straight reporting, the New York Times’ Dana Goldstein and Noam Scheiber cited this poll as a neutral source, without mentioning that DFER receives backing from hedge funds, the Walton family, and Rupert Murdoch.
Left unmentioned was the reality that Virginia’s Democratic trifecta mandated five days of in-person instruction per week for the 2021–22 school year and gave higher raises to police than to teachers. In short, it’s not clear what more Virginia Democrats could have done to placate parents who wanted to see in-person enacted and teachers punished for their insolence.
As Chris Jackson, Ipsos’s senior vice president, told Education Week, “If you just watched coverage of those elections, you sort of got the picture that there’s this popular revolt of parents just totally fed up with what’s going on [regarding virtual]. The data suggests that’s not true at all — that in fact, most parents are actually pretty positive about how schools have handled the pandemic.”
Instead, Virginia polls found that critical race theory (CRT) was the most important issue for a quarter of voters. Those voters preferred Youngkin by more than two to one. Another quarter of voters said their number one issue was how schools were handling the pandemic. But those voters preferred McAuliffe by two to one. The best evidence that virtual school mattered in Virginia is a study that suggested it swung the state by eight-tenths of a percent against McAuliffe — less than Youngkin’s margin of victory. However, the study wasn’t able to disentangle the effect of CRT and other education issues from virtual.
Perhaps the biggest fallacy in the entire COVID schooling narrative is that teachers’ unions are to blame for districts shifting to virtual. Almost nowhere in the country do unionized teachers’ contracts grant them any control over whether their district offers virtual or in-person instruction. In Virginia, teachers didn’t even have collective bargaining rights in 2020 or 2021. Teachers, it seems, are to blame simply for having an opinion about their workplace.
The most compelling evidence that unions have played little role in the adoption of distance instruction is that charter schools, which are overwhelmingly nonunion, have stayed virtual at higher rates than traditional public schools. As a study by Columbia professor Sarah Cohodes found, “charters were more likely [than traditional public schools] to offer virtual learning, both in urban and nonurban areas.”
Like every other piece of discomfiting evidence, this fact scarcely pierced the elite anti-union narrative. In fact, longtime union antagonist Michael Bloomberg pledged to give $750 million to charter schools, allegedly in response to unions causing schools to go remote. Yet the charter that Bloomberg touted as the kind of school he wants to fund, New York’s Success Academy (known for its maltreatment of students), actually stayed virtual throughout the entire 2020–21 school year, months after public schools in the city returned to in-person instruction.
The reality of the COVID schooling debate is that there’s a split within the tenuous Democratic coalition. Beyond unions, the party relies on the votes of low-income people and people of color, while simultaneously trying to woo upper-income white professionals. Were unions at odds with low-income parents, as in the famously fractious 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict, Democrats might understandably be torn. But today the debate is largely between well-off white parents and everyone else. It’s only framed as a crisis because many pundits are themselves part of this group and because Democrats have spent decades trying to make the white professional class loyal members of their party.
Much like their predecessors — the neoconservatives who fondly quoted Ronald Reagan’s quip that “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me” or the white parents who said they opposed busing not because they opposed integration, but because they were concerned about their children’s education — some white liberals upset about remote schooling have embraced a narrative of personal political betrayal.
In November, journalist Andrew Rice wrote in New York magazine, “My wife, a socially liberal professional woman, voted for the school board but left her ballot blank in the race for governor. She had sworn to me that she would never cast a vote for [Democrat] Phil Murphy again after our son spent the majority of last school year learning in our dining room.” Last week, Cleveland-based writer Angie Schmitt lamented in the Atlantic, “Until recently, I was a loyal, left-leaning Democrat, and I had been my entire adult life…. But because of what my family has gone through during the pandemic, I can’t muster the same enthusiasm. I feel adrift from my tribe and, to a certain degree, disgusted with both parties.”
Yet if anything, Schmitt is out of step with other parents in the Cleveland district, which is 65 percent black, 17 percent Latino, and 15 percent white. As the 74 reported last February, “school district surveys have repeatedly shown a majority of parents uneasy with returning to school.” When asked by the district about their preference, families’ top choice was virtual schooling, followed by hybrid, and then full-time in-person. The district also experienced an enrollment drop in in-person charters and a huge increase in enrollment in virtual charters.
A Just Response
The one element of the virtual debate that doesn’t collapse under scrutiny is the contention that in-person education is more effective for most students. Few teachers would disagree with such a claim. All things equal, in-person instruction is clearly preferable to remote learning. However, even here, the rhetoric has become totally untethered from reality.
A study by Brown University economist Emily Oster — whose data has been criticized as invalid and who has received funding from several billionaire donors — claims that the difference between a full year of virtual and a full year of in-person schooling was approximately 10 percentage points in a district’s math passing rate and four points in its English passing rate. However, passing rates plummeted across the country, regardless of whether schools were in-person or virtual — hardly surprising given the stress of the pandemic, students’ own illnesses, and the stunning fact that more than 1.5 million children have lost a caregiver during the pandemic. Complicating things further, Oster’s research showed that, in some states, virtual districts outperformed in-person districts. Moreover, swings of five or even ten points in passing rates occurred pre-pandemic, especially when measured at the district level.
If we really want to help students recover academically from the pandemic, we know how to do it. The first step is getting the pandemic under control. The second is providing families with the tools to weather the pandemic’s effects, such as paid leave, free health care, and generous financial support. Study after study has shown that everything from minimum wage increases to SNAP benefits to a universal basic income can dramatically improve educational outcomes.
One study found that simply upping students’ calorie intake on testing days boosted math pass rates by 11 percent and English pass rates by 6 percent — a more significant effect than Oster claimed to find between a year of fully virtual school and a year of fully in-person school. Within the classroom, the best evidence is that intensive tutoring is “one of the few school-based interventions with demonstrated large positive effects on both math and reading achievement.” However, intensive tutoring isn’t cheap. It takes the political will to fund it.
Crucially, the ability of schools to help students academically will depend on attracting and retaining good teachers and staff members. But schools — particularly high-poverty ones — were already having trouble filling open positions before the latest round of teacher-bashing, and research has found that teachers are working longer hours during the pandemic, are more stressed out than the average worker, and are facing burnout, with many considering leaving the profession.
Do pundits really believe that calling teachers lazy and selfish for their reasonable concerns about workplace safety, or slamming unions, which boost teacher pay and make it a more attractive occupation, is likely to attract more high-quality teachers? Making matters worse, because standardized test scores are a flawed basis for evaluating both student learning and teacher quality, it will be impossible to disentangle the effects of the pandemic from the effects of attrition on teacher quality in the years to come.
Ironically, many of the studies cited to show the ruinous effects of virtual schooling serve to underscore just how underpaid US teachers are relative to their importance. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Budget Model claims that adding one month of in-person instruction to public schools would increase long-run GDP in the United States by $1 trillion. That means that each of the country’s 3.2 million full-time public school teachers generate over $300,000 in economic benefit for the country per month — approximately five times the average public school teacher’s salary for the entire year.
One doesn’t need to buy Wharton’s extravagant estimates to see the disconnect here. Anti-union pundits seem to think that in-person education is crucial both socially and economically. Yet when it comes to actually investing in public education — including in teachers’ compensation — these pundits would rather bash unions. When confronted with this discrepancy, Silver and Oster have said they think teachers should receive an unspecified amount of hazard pay due to the risks of in-person instruction.
That’s more than many pundits have allowed, but these passing comments pale in comparison to the strident criticism they’ve leveled at teachers for the past two years. Similarly, while many Democrats — including vice president Kamala Harris — put forward proposals to raise teacher pay during the 2020 campaign, Democrats haven’t raised the issue since.
Anyone who truly cares about making sure that students come out of the pandemic stronger than before needs to push for the social programs that families need and the funding required to attract and retain qualified teachers and staff. Neither minimizing the threat COVID poses to students and workers nor blaming teachers unions will achieve that goal. Instead, by making it more likely that students will miss instruction due to illness and by pushing good teachers out of the profession, it will achieve precisely the opposite.