BLOG: More Evidence Shows Unions Were Wrong on School Closures. Do They Care?

A recent Harvard study has added to a tidal wave of evidence that school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the academic growth of students, especially minority and poor students. That study, however, left unstated why school closures varied so much among different communities, as if they were random acts of God. Nothing is said about the public education unions’ widespread and effective resistance to safely reopening schools.

Using data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools across the country, the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) study, published last month, found that schools’ shift to remote learning during the pandemic “was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and by school poverty status.” In school districts that continued remote learning for most of the 2020–21 school year, schools with high poverty levels experienced steeper declines than low-poverty schools in reading and, to a greater extent, math achievement. By contrast, for schools that stayed open, the impact of the school’s poverty status on math achievement was statistically insignificant.

The study notes that minority students were more likely to have been forced into remote learning by school closures, and that “high poverty schools spent about 5.5 more weeks in remote instruction” than others. Minority students and students at high-poverty schools were thus doubly disadvantaged: first, because their schools were more likely to go remote for longer periods of time and, second, because when their schools did go remote, they experienced steeper declines in achievement than students at other schools.

The CEPR study shows that school closures harmed students at both low-poverty and high-poverty schools, but the impacts on achievement were harshest for low-income students. These losses will translate directly into dimmed job and higher education prospects for poor and minority students, and they have led to a spending spree with little to no hope that public school systems know how to remediate learning loss at this scale. In contrast, the study vindicates the policies of states like Florida and Texas, where schools largely remained open and did not suffer the widening gaps in math achievement experienced in states that kept schools shuttered.

The detrimental impacts of school closures on academic achievement are only part of the picture, however. In an article published last week, academics from Harvard and Yale estimate that, by the end of the 2020–21 school year, “the average American public-school student had experienced 65 school days without any contact whatsoever from their schools or teachers.” In addition to the blows to academic achievement and to students’ plans to enroll in higher education, the article points to less visible but still important impacts of school closures on students, including less exercise, higher risk of obesity, vision loss from increased screen time, and increased anxiety and depression, while also spotlighting the substantial harm done to parents and teachers. The authors point out that “the nation’s public schools have lost more than 1 million students since 2020, and the districts that stayed remote the longest have suffered the biggest losses.” Like the CEPR study, the article does not examine why so many public schools remained closed while others did not.   

National Union Demands and Policy Manipulation on School Closures

Recent research published by the Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies (DFI) and elsewhere reveal the fingerprints of public education unions on this education crisis. In a report DFI published last October, investigative reporter and Director of the Education Intelligence Agency Mike Antonucci explained how national and local teacher union leaders exploited the pandemic to attempt to extract funding and policy changes – many having nothing to do with COVID-19 – from state and local officials, while keeping teachers out of the classroom.

At the national level, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) published a reopening plan in April 2020 that included demands for smaller class sizes of 12 to 15 students, limits on student testing, halting performance evaluations of teachers, and at least $750 billion in federal spending. In a co-authored letter to Congress the same month, the National Education Association (NEA) went even further on spending, calling for Congress to provide at least $1.2 trillion in “stabilization funds” to state entities, in addition to expanded Medicaid payments, COBRA premium relief, and paid sick leave for all workers. Following the $2.1 trillion authorized in the CARES Act and the $900 billion authorized in the CRRSA Act prior to his taking office, President Biden signed legislation in March 2021 adding another $1.9 trillion in spending, fueling inflation but meeting the demands of the public sector unions.

Using their powerful influence in the Biden Administration, the teacher union bosses continue to pull strings behind the scenes to tamper with federal guidance used by state and local governments in determining whether to keep schools open to students. Despite the assurance by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky that school reopening guidance published in February 2021 “is free from political meddling,” documents obtained by the watchdog group Americans for Public Trust show that it was anything but. In fact, Walensky, her staff, and other members of the administration shared draft guidance on school reopening with union leaders at the AFT, NEA, and other outside groups, an action that even a CDC official described as “uncommon.” The final guidance contained language taken nearly verbatim from AFT’s demand that the CDC explicitly leave open the possibility of future guidelines pushing for the closure of schools across the country.

Local Unions as Obstacles to the Reopening of Schools

While the AFT and NEA receive the most attention, local union leaders perhaps deserve the lion’s share of contempt for their role in keeping teachers away from classrooms while they pursued policy concessions from the districts.

In July 2020, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) released a 17-page report containing its demands for reopening schools, including class sizes of no more than 12 students, ending standardized tests, at least $500 billion in federal aid, Medicare for All, new taxes on the rich, defunding the police, and a moratorium on charter schools. The posturing led to the continued closure of L.A. schools through 2020 and part of 2021.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which declared in a since-deleted tweet in late 2020 that “[t]he push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny,” shifted its demands in school reopening negotiations over the course of the 2020–21 school year, at various times pushing for a nurse and librarian in every school, 500 more social workers and counselors, additional “restorative justice coordinators,” class size reduction, rent abatement, and defunding the police. In January 2022, despite evidence furnished by the city that schools could be reopened safely, the CTU prevented its teachers from reporting to work until various conditions were met.

In collaboration with “stakeholders” including the Houston Democratic Socialists of America, the Houston Federation of Teachers released a plan in the summer of 2020 identifying the following policies, among others, as “essential for reopening”: racial and economic justice equity assessments, suspension of high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations, free universal access to the internet, limiting class size to 15 students, and a “massive investment in public schools.” Classrooms remained closed at the start of the 2020–21 school year.

Considering these union demands and others like them across the country, it is no surprise that research points to local teacher union strength as one of the primary predictors of whether schools remain open to students.

In May 2021, UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said the following of the impacts of school closures on students during the pandemic: “There is no such thing as learning loss.” A mountain of evidence is proving that Myart-Cruz was wrong. But does she care that she was wrong? Do any of the public education unions care about the impacts their resistance to school reopening had on students? As long as policymakers, officials and school districts allow these union leaders to retain their powerful influence and advance their leftist agenda at all levels of government, do our public schools stand a chance at preparing our students for success?

Paul Zimmerman serves as DFI’s Policy Counsel and leads its Teacher Union Accountability Project.