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Back-to-school in the time of COVID: Who’s supporting the support staff?

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By Brigette Herbst

It’s politics over people.

That’s the accusation being hurled by the heads of America’s two largest teachers’ unions against anybody seeking to open schools this fall. But which people are being hurt by this effort, exactly?

It’s not working parents, who are desperate for schools to reopen so their schedules and livelihoods can return to normal. It’s not children, who are not at risk for coronavirus and whose education will continue to regress if they cannot return to the classroom.

Is it teachers? Teachers are only hurt by school reopenings if they are COVID-19 vulnerable and allowed no reprieve. But nobody has suggested sending senior citizens or teachers with respiratory conditions into the classroom. And as children are highly unlikely to transmit coronavirus, teachers are safer in a classroom than they would be at a bank or grocery store.

It’s politics over people, alright—but only for those who want schools to remain closed. Tens of thousands of teachers have demanded a laundry list of non-educational policies like universal single-payer healthcare and the cancellation of all rent and mortgages nationwide before they will return to the classroom.

Los Angeles and multiple New York City districts have banned any in-person learning for the fall. The United Teachers Los Angeles union, along with a coalition of ten major teachers unions from Chicago, Boston, and other cities, has demanded an end to all standardized testing and to defund police before they will open again.

These activists try to act like they’re the heroes—while holding the education system hostage until their petulant demands are met. Meanwhile they’re walking all over their support staff colleagues, who have filled an ever-expanding role since March, and still have no additional demands.

Bus drivers and cleaning workers actually say they are eager to get back to work—mostly so their jobs can return to normal. In March, bus drivers shifted into overdrive to transport school lunches to low-income families who rely on those meals to keep their children fed. Meanwhile, custodians and cleaners have been hit with a laundry list of new sanitation requirements for Fall, and no budget increase to pay for it. In New Jersey, one district ordered non-essential custodial workers to violate quarantine and clean schools, as the workers allege in a recent lawsuit.

These front-line workers shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden for the extremism of teachers’ unions. Custodians, bus drivers, and teachers are all on the same team—and their priority should be getting students an education.

Parents are still facing uncertainty about the fall semester, and they are counting on teachers to provide a voice of sanity and calm. Instead, their unions are prodding them into conflict with their own colleagues, and even provoking strikes and chaos.

Clearly, not all teachers want to be party to that.

That’s why many teachers have chosen to separate their teaching from unions’ political activism. Teachers now have the First Amendment right to leave their union with no penalty—and if unions continue down the path of extremism, they’ll find their ranks thinning.

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