How the Concerns of Teachers Have Been Misrepresented in Omicron Reporting

Photograph Source: Phil Roeder – CC BY 2.0

The return to in-person K-12 education after holiday breaks hasn’t been smooth as some had hoped, as cases of Covid-19, made worse by the Omicron variant, have skyrocketed, and teacher groups have called for delays in reopening (Boston Globe, 12/31/21).

In-person return plans were disrupted at schools in Milwaukee (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 1/2/22) and Atlanta (WXIA, 1/3/22). Chicago canceled school after the Chicago Teachers Union “approved a labor action to work remotely due to safety concerns as Covid-19 and its Omicron variant surge in the city” (WTTW, 1/4/22).

The Chicago labor dispute has drawn the most eyeballs, as it is the third-largest US city, but teacher unionists nationwide are indicating that the Omicron surge is pushing school systems to their breaking points. In San Francisco, the system saw as many as 600 educators out of work, with the union blasting the district for its severe deficit in Covid-19 testing kits (Mission Local, 1/6/22). The left caucus of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers reported 10,000 student absences and 2,000 staff absences, criticizing the mayor for inadequate “baseline testing” (Twitter, 1/6/22), while dozens of New York state and city lawmakers have demanded a remote option for the city’s schools (Twitter, 1/6/22).

Media have responded with dismay to teacher objections, backing political leaders who insist that schools must remain open. Prominent outlets argue that children’s education is of tantamount importance and that the health risks of the pandemic are simply overstated. This stance oversimplifies both the risks involved and what teachers are demanding.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board (1/5/22) declared, “The political scandal of the year so far is unfolding in plain sight in Chicago, where the teachers union has effectively shut down the public schools.” That an economically conservative editorial board would be against the Chicago Teachers Union isn’t a surprise; however, that position is also supported by the Biden administration (Politico, 1/5/22).

The New York Post (1/5/22), in a front-page opinion column, lavished praise on incoming New York Mayor Eric Adams’ steadfast policy on keeping schools open, because “severe complications have been uncommon in kids and will be even less likely with the currently prevalent, but less virulent, Omicron variant.” Children thus pose “little risk” to their families, teachers and school staff.

Adams has chalked up fears about the Omicron variant in schools to “hysteria” (New York Times, 1/4/22). The Post’s editorial board (1/3/22) enthusiastically backed Adams–whom the paper (5/10/21) endorsed last year–saying, “Teachers unions are wrong, Mayor Eric Adams is right: School buildings are the safest places for children to be.”

CNN (1/5/22) came out strong in its position against teachers’ concerns about Omicron, posing the question of whether schools should reopen with two guests–Brown University economist Emily Oster and Washington Post public health columnist and physician Leana Wen–declaring the answer: yes.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times (1/4/22) also went in on the “cure is worse than the cause” ideology, saying that serious Covid-19 complications for children are rare, and that for children, “the virus resembles a typical flu.”

Politicians and media push the idea that teachers are simply ignoring Covid-19 progress–vaccinations, masking and the fact that Omicron appears less severe than previous incarnations of the virus–and are overreacting at students’ expense. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (Twitter, 1/5/22) mocked teacher concerns after the CTU vote: “If you don’t want to teach, don’t teach. Quit. Just stay at home and stop teaching children, okay?” He added, “You are either ignorant when it comes to science or you just don’t want to be in classes.”

Krystal Ball, the ostensibly left-wing co-host of Breaking Points (YouTube, 1/6/22) (she keeps a copy of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent on set behind her), fumed while citing the Leonhardt piece:

It is absolutely inexcusable that we have continued to inflict widespread, well-documented, significant harm on our kids under the guise of protecting them from this pandemic.

And many of these media examples show how the teachers’ intentions are often misrepresented. Wen wrote in the Washington Post (1/6/21) that “left-wing activists are pushing for schools to remain closed,” saying that the CTU “has successfully shut down in-person instruction in the city.” Chicago teachers didn’t refuse to work, they organized to work remotely. They were looking for a solution, not an excuse to skip working.

It’s easy to paint teachers unions as overly cautious and defensive. But it is the nature of the pandemic, not teachers, that is making it difficult to keep schools open. If cases continue to rise, yes, fewer people (proportionally) will die or be hospitalized than in previous peaks. But it’s not just a question of fatalities: If 20% or more of a school’s workforce (which would include school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff) has to tap out due to sickness or quarantine, the logistics of safely and effectively running a school with in-person classes simply become impossible. It is not an unreasonable demand to insist that major school districts have a plan to deal with such a scenario.

No one wants to go back to the days of constant remote schooling, which is as burdensome and hellish for teachers as it is for the parents who have to be part-time homeschoolers. The CTU said as much in a statement (1/4/22): “The educators of this city want to be in their classrooms with their students,” but noted that conditions in the buildings simply weren’t up to the task, adding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and “her [Chicago Public Schools] leadership have put the safety and vibrancy of our students and their educators in jeopardy.”

Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune (1/5/22), which as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (2/3/21) noted has often sided with the city against the CTU when it comes to health concerns in the schools, faulted the city for falling short when it comes to Covid testing in schools. The teachers union also publicized the city’s overflowing drop-off stations for student testing kits illustrated the city’s inability to handle the Omicron crisis (WLS, 12/29/21). The union (12/30/21) said that the city had continued “to reject investing in more testing, contact tracing, vaccine initiatives and other safety tools,” while throwing “the responsibility for testing and vaccines directly on the shoulders of parents and families.”

And the Times’ decision to keep the “no worse than the flu” line in the discourse is especially shortsighted. Yes, Covid-19 has much less severe impact on children than it does on older adults, but the problem right now is that there is a huge surge in Omicron cases. If an unprecedented number of children and school staff were contracting the flu, schools and other institutions would probably want to respond to that.

Political leaders and media are making it seem like the Chicago teachers and advocates from around the country want to live in the bad old days. But that’s not the case. The issue for teachers is that there is an acute crisis right at this moment, and there is optimism that Omicron may pass over sooner rather than later, but that means that schools should at least have the preparedness to pivot to online on a short-term basis to weather a Covid-19 surge. And these calls are coming from the fact that in many cases city governments are simply not doing what teachers say they need to do in terms of testing in order to keep people safe.

That is a perspective worth hearing.