Trouble started brewing in Iowa this summer when Gov. Kim Reynolds announced at least half of all schools must meet in person this fall. She pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance showing COVID-19 posed little risk to children and transmission rates among kids and even between children and adults remained low. “With proper tools and resources, we can reopen safely protecting students, teachers, staff, and families,” the Republican governor said.
The state’s main teachers union pushed back, particularly against a requirement that schools seek state approval before offering only remote instruction. The Iowa State Education Association and Iowa City School District sued for exemptions to begin the school year online. Des Moines Public Schools filed a similar lawsuit on Aug. 25 seeking a waiver to the 50 percent requirement. Both of those districts are scheduled to return to school on Tuesday. Iowa City schools have a hybrid schedule that would satisfy the governor’s order, but Des Moines still proposes an almost fully virtual model.
The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the nation, said that to reopen safely, schools had to have a local coronavirus transmission rate lower than 1 percent, an outside authority with the power to shut down schools if cases spike, and guaranteed accommodations for vulnerable staff members working from home. At its virtual convention in late July, the union’s executive council encouraged teachers to use advocacy, protests, negotiations, lawsuits, and even “safety strikes” in states that don’t meet its reopening standards. “Nothing is off the table,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said.
Whether the AFT’s actions and Weingarten’s rhetoric ignited or merely reinforced already brewing sentiments, teachers in Iowa and across the country followed the call to action throughout the summer.
The Florida Education Association in July sued the state’s Department of Education and other officials to block an order requiring schools to open for in-person classes. Florida’s number of COVID-19 cases is high but trending downward. A state appeals court struck down Florida’s reopening guidelines as unconstitutional on Monday.
In Detroit, protests, negotiations, and the threat of a strike all came into play. Detroit Public Schools Community District officials eventually brokered an 11th-hour deal with union leaders late last week to avert a strike and pave the way for classes to resume in-person and online on Tuesday. The deal includes a hard cap of 20 students per class and up to $3,000 of hazard pay for teachers.
New York City Public Schools, the nation’s largest district, just announced a delayed start to the fall semester after failing to reach an agreement with union officials on reopening. Districts in Los Angeles and Chicago, the second- and third-biggest school systems, respectively, opened completely online. Their leaders will need to sit down and outline a return to the classroom eventually.
Meanwhile, much of flyover country quietly prepared for the new school year. School children in Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas all returned in August to a variety of scenarios: virtual, hybrid, and face to face.
Some families feel unheard in the quarreling of school leaders, unions, and advocacy groups.
Felicia Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times that her 10-year-old daughter, Maria, thrived before the pandemic, earning awards for reading to younger students at her school in California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District. But when her school shut down, Maria had to use Gonzalez’s cell phone to access lessons. They ultimately gave up on the patchy solution, leaving Maria to complete printed worksheets the remainder of the year. Gonzalez said they are apprehensive about the district’s plans for a virtual start this fall: “She feels like she’s going to stay behind.”