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John Thompson: Is It Time to Apologize to Teachers and Their Unions for Their Caution?

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, has a beef with “experts” and pundits who criticized teachers and teachers’ unions for refusing to reopen schools when it was not safe and uncertainty was the rule.

He writes:

The Guardian reports, “Los Angeles is becoming the center of America’s out-of-control coronavirus pandemic in these final days before the new year.” Its “meteoric rise in infections is crushing the healthcare system.” Hospitals have set up triage tents, and “doctors will have to make agonizing choices to ration care.”

Reports about L.A.’s “horrific” super-surge stand in stark contrast to the commentaries of a month ago. On November 20, when it should have been obvious that Thanksgiving was coming and would start a series of “surge on surge” spreads, Alexander Russo continued to compile journalism that attacked teachers for excessive caution in reopening for in-person education, and to urge more attacks on their unions. His focus that week was New York City school closures illustrating the meme, “Never before in my experience has the strength of teachers unions been so clear — or so woefully under-reported — as these past few months.” He then expanded his challenge for journalists to focus on unions pressuring Democrats and the incoming Biden administration.

At the same times, Politico reported, “California’s major cities never even opened their public schools this fall, under pressure from powerful teachers unions.” Without evaluating the danger of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, it described the “wave of pushback,” even by liberal Democrats, against supposedly excessive caution regarding reopenings that create “crisis-level inequity.”

In October, one of the most vocal critiques of schools’ caution, Emily Oster, explicitly criticized Los Angeles, as well as Houston and Chicago, for not returning to in-person instruction. She continued to claim “the evidence is pointing in one direction. Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19.” But she didn’t seem to acknowledge the problem with her data not being representative of the situations in large urban districts. And as late as November 30, she persisted in her calls for reopenings, even though it was inevitable that the Thanksgiving surge would by followed by the subsequent Christmas and New Years’ surges.

Even as public health experts predicted the Thanksgiving surge, Nicholas Kristof ramped up criticism of Democrats who he claimed “instinctively lined up” in opposition to President Trump’s calls to reopen schools. In  “When Trump Was Right and Many Democrats Wrong,” Kristof charged, “Joe Biden echoed their extreme caution, as did many Democratic mayors and governors.” So, he claimed, “Democrats helped preside over school closures that have devastated millions of families and damaged children’s futures.”Kristof also quoted L.A. Superintendent Austin Beutner, who is hardly an objective source about the teachers union, who said, “Students are struggling.” But Kristof didn’t balance criticism of the teachers’ position with the evidence against reopening at such a dangerous time. 

As the latest COVID crisis unfolds, don’t Russo, Oster, and Kristof, owe an apology to teachers, families, and all the other people in Los Angeles?  

Of course, they were right when calling for the closures of bars before schools, but why didn’t they consider the decisions that educators had to make in cities where those closures were off the table? Even if the evidence didn’t say that schools are proven super-spreaders, why was that an argument for opening buildings that would clearly become contributing spreaders? Finally, shouldn’t they apologize for ignoring the predicable effects of the holidays so they could double-down on criticizing Democrats and unions?   

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