The year 2020 hasn’t just been one for the history books: It’s made quite an impact on K-12 grade books as well.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on into another school year, the school playground has instead become a battleground for adults — teachers, parents, school administrators, public health officials, lawmakers — rowing over the future of education:

Should schools reopen? Is remote learning just as effective as in-person classes, and is the technology available to ensure equity for all students? For schools that open, is enough funding available to effectively protect teachers and students from COVID-19? For those that don’t, what about parents’ need to return to work despite the need for at-home teaching?

For answers, we turned to Bradley Marianno, a UNLV College of Education professor and expert on teachers’ unions.

Read on for an explainer of unions' influence and what's at the heart of their battles with school districts over fall instruction; the impact of economic concerns on school reopening plans; how in-person, remote, and hybrid learning impact various populations of K-12 students; and his predictions about the future of education in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What's at the heart of the teachers' and unions' objections to returning to school as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic?

One way to think about teachers’ unions is as a type of insurance policy for teachers. Teachers will invest in their unions (i.e. pay membership dues) based on the degree to which the union organization can provide a return value, particularly in difficult and uncertain situations. COVID-19 is an unprecedentedly difficult and uncertain situation. Teachers are turning to their unions to help them voice their concerns and unions, with membership dues as the primary way in which they survive, take up the banner.  

Polling of teachers confirms that health and safety sit atop their list of concerns regarding  a return to school (see here, here, and here). Anecdotally, we heard of teachers preparing wills over the summer in case they had to return to face-to-face classroom instruction. 

Teachers’ unions, as the voice for the safety concerns, have put forward what safety measures should be in place before teachers should return to schools (see here and here for examples). These typically include the same measures we hear from health experts: adequate protective equipment, social distancing, and sterilization protocols. They also include additional items, some of which are more challenging for school districts to implement due to cost, like retrofitting HVAC systems, regular testing and contact tracing of employees, temperature screenings on campuses, and isolation rooms for sick students. Teachers’ unions aim to ensure that these measures are taken before schools are reopened. We have seen them threaten strikes, advocate for teachers to delay their decisions to return to teaching for the fall, and file lawsuits (see here, here and here). 

Many school districts across the country are allowed to decide how to proceed with course offerings this fall, leading to a variety of in-person, hybrid, and online-only plans. What role have teachers and unions played in these decisions? 

The story of school reopening is a local story. While we saw several governors take steps to close schools in the spring, the decision to reopen in the fall has largely been left to local school districts, their school boards, and their employees (see here for an analysis). 

And for the most part, reopening decisions have been pushed too late in the game, with the beginning of the school year right on the horizon. This is partly because the June and July surge in COVID-19 cases left many school leaders in a holding pattern. It’s also because local school district leadership in many places around the country were looking for more of the same guidance from state leaders about school closures that they received  in the spring to also occur in the fall. But that fall guidance never really came in most areas around the country. 

So as districts navigate the waters of reopening, they are caught between the demands of teachers’ unions, as representatives of teachers, and those of parents, which sometimes complement one another and sometimes compete. To navigate union tensions, some places have signed formal agreements (Memorandums of Understanding) to set forth the expectations of teachers. These are legally binding documents. Other places are creating their distance learning plans with union input without signing a legally binding MOU. And still others have created plans without much input from their unions. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District received heavy union input. Other locations, like Arizona, faced pressure from parents to reopen — and followed through — against objections from teachers and their unions. They now are facing protests from teachers, which will likely disrupt face-to-face learning. 

How have nationwide economic concerns impacted school reopening plans?

Economic concerns have compounded the challenge of reopening schools. Federal CARES Act funding largely went to shore up budget gaps created by the spring stay-at-home orders. Whether additional federal funding is on the way is unclear. Consequently, when school district leadership looks at the demands put forward by teachers’ unions — like retrofitting HVAC systems or implementing widespread COVID testing of staff and students — even if they agree with the measures, the fiscal situation precludes them from being able to act. Even implementing social distancing in classrooms as crowded as those in CCSD is a costly endeavor because it requires the creation of more classrooms, the hiring of more teachers, and the provision of more space. Sufficient funding could have changed the landscape of fall reopening.   

Stay-at-home orders forced parents to serve as teacher, guidance counselor, and recess monitor, giving many a newfound appreciation for the complex jobs of teachers. How might the current battle over returning to school impact that perception? 

The longer distance learning draws on, the more likely public perception regarding teachers and teachers’ unions will change (and probably not positively). We know that teachers are “essential” workers. Parents know that. Research over and over again shows that they are the most important school-based factor in student learning. If distance learning 2.0 is of higher quality than distance learning 1.0, than we might see public perception remain in support of the teachers for some time. But if not, or if distance learning drags on for a while, then be prepared to watch the reopening debate continue to play out in the school board meetings around the country. Parents are reporting worsening mental health for themselves and more behavioral problems for their children since March (see here). No doubt, the closing of schools played a role. 

We also have to remember that there is an equity issue at play here—some homes are in a better position to manage distance learning than others. Polling of teachers suggests that they are also acutely aware of this from their springtime experience trying to maintain contact with all households (see here). Perception among teachers could certainly change as well based on the degree of success they believe they are having with distance learning 2.0 and on the perceived risks of COVID-19 exposure, as case counts change. 

Which populations have been most impacted by online-only and hybrid learning?

Polling suggests that schools that serve a majority of Black and Brown students are far less likely to have access to the technology needed for remote learning (see here). Additionally, these populations of students were far less likely to be engaged in remote learning in the spring time (see here). With the suspension of some formative and summative tests, documenting the exact amount of learning lost will be difficult and tailoring instruction to help students catch up will be a challenge.  

A large group of educational researchers have called for steps to address these inequities (see here). This will not be just a “this year” problem. It will be an issue for years to come. COVID-19 has shined a light on opportunity gaps, and it will be incumbent upon educators and policymakers to direct the necessary resources to mitigating these disparities in the coming years.  

I believe we will see discussions regarding whether we should allow our special education students, homeless students, English-language learners, and other students at high risk of further learning loss to return to face-to-face instruction first. California is beginning these discussions. We may see phased reopening plans begin to include these students as the first to return so long as there are staff willing to serve them.