News & Politics

AFT President Randi Weingarten Defends Teachers' Unions School Closure Demands

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten spoke with Axios to deflect criticism of teachers’ unions and their demands in order to reopen schools to in-person learning. Given what we know about the effects of school closings on children, in both education and mental health, her comments are astounding:

Kids are not as resilient as Weingarten asserts. According to NPR, a national survey of 3,300 high school students in the spring found a third reporting they were unhappy and depressed. That has progressed to reports nationwide of increasing mental health emergencies in children. A spate of 18 suicides among students forced Clark County schools in Las Vegas to reopen.

A lawsuit against the San Francisco Public Schools claims that UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has seen a 66 percent increase in the number of suicidal children in emergency rooms and a 75 percent increase in youth who required hospitalization for mental health services. UCSF Mission Bay also reports record numbers of suicidal children and increases in mental health diagnoses like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. In Cook County, Illinois, one report claims that 30 children under 18 have committed suicide since last March. It would not be a stretch to forecast that we will lose more children to suicide and self-harm related to isolation than to COVID-19.

Weingarten goes on to say:

“We as adults have to meet their needs. Their emotional needs, their social needs, their learning needs. And that’s who America’s educators are. That’s who America’s bus drivers are. That’s who America’s paraprofessionals are and that is who America’s food service workers are. And we are pained about what has happened in this pandemic. The crises that have enveloped our kids, our communities, ourselves. But at the end of the day, we have to believe that this is recoverable, and we have to believe that virtually all our kids will thrive with the opportunities we put before them.”

To be clear, in the 65% of school districts that are open and offering hybrid instruction—that is who our educators and ancillary staff are. Unions that refuse to open are engaging in rent-seeking from the politicians they donate to. They are seeking policies or money in exchange for providing the taxpayers the services they provide. America will remember Weingarten for ruining a generation of children for no reason other than a political agenda.

She can believe whatever she wants, but the recovery of learning for children is not something you can wish into existence. There is well-established education research that shows there are optimal ages to learn particular concepts. There is no guarantee that if large numbers of children miss those developmental milestones they will ever be proficient or recovered.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, there has been a loss of one standard deviation in standardized math and reading scores as of September 2020, which is likely more prominent in earlier grades. This deficit has only expanded in districts that remain closed. The EPI’s policy recommendations note research showing that online learning is only effective if used consistently and children have adequate access to the technology. Many school districts are reporting large percentages of students who are not logging on, and the disparities for low-income students having appropriate access to technology have been well-documented. Failure rates have also skyrocketed.

The United Nations called the disruption in education caused by the pandemic a generational catastrophe in August. They were not so hopeful about learning recovery. There is no reason to believe this problem is limited to developing nations.

In the foundational years of education, the impact might be the strongest. Simulations on developing countries participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that without remediation, a loss of learning by one-third (equivalent to a three-month school closure) during Grade 3 might result in 72 per cent of students falling so far behind that by Grade 10 they will have dropped out or will not be able to learn anything in school.

The social development of children is also at risk. According to HHS, play is a primary social learning tool for children:

If human youngsters lack playtime, says Dr. Roberta Golinkoff, an infant language expert at the University of Delaware, “social skills will likely suffer. You will lack the ability to inhibit impulses, to switch tasks easily, and to play on your own.” Play helps young children master their emotions and make their own decisions. It also teaches flexibility, motivation, and confidence.

Lockdowns have limited play, in and out of school, for almost a year for an illness that almost never makes healthy children and teens seriously ill, depriving them of developing essential interpersonal skills that lead to success.

There is a link between the presence of a teachers’ union and your child’s school remaining closed. A Brown University study in October noted (emphasis mine) :

Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning.

So, unions will protect public schools where parents have a significant educational choice and are open, but where choice does not exist, they were more likely to keep schools closed in the fall. Now, unions remain a significant barrier to reopening in the approximately 35% of districts that remain closed. Weingarten deserves no quarter in the media for continuing this charade.