Some parents are fighting back as teachers unions push to keep classrooms closed, arguing that the school reopenings are being hijacked by an agenda that appears to be more about political gamesmanship than the science behind the coronavirus.
That includes Jesse Petrilla of Orange County, California. His 6-year-old son used to love kindergarten but quickly became bored and restless with the worksheets-and-Zoom experience. Mr. Petrilla calls it “nonsense, bogus distance learning.”
“We’re pulling our hair out and counting the days until he can go back to school,” Mr. Petrilla said. “We’ve been really lucky that my wife’s been able to stay home with him and take time off work, but it’s getting to the point where there’s such a decline in his attitude that I’m really afraid of the long-term effects if this goes on another year.”
Mr. Petrilla is doing more than waiting: He and 14 other parents are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Center for American Liberty challenging California’s July 17 order that ties in-person school reopening to stabilized county COVID-19 figures, a standard that will keep 80% of children from returning to their public and private schools this fall.
Do the parents worry about their children catching COVID-19? “I get asked that all the time,” said Christine Ruiz of Los Angeles County, who has three sons, including two with special needs.
California has recorded a spike in positivity rates and case numbers over the summer, but Ms. Ruiz said she refuses to be controlled by fear.
“I’m listening to the doctors, the pediatricians, the Centers for Disease Control director, who all say that it is imperative and extremely essential for our children’s mental health and education for them to be in school,” she said. “As long as the school district takes precautions and spacing measures, your child should be fine.”
Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said “science drives the state’s decisions in this pandemic.”
“We will defend this challenge to the governor’s exercise of emergency authority in this crisis as we have all others, and we note that every federal court to rule on such a challenge to date has ruled that the exercise of authority is lawful,” Mr. Melgar said in an email.
Elsewhere, parents fed up with online learning have launched Facebook pages and petitions calling for the resumption of in-classroom learning, pushing back against concerns that in-person learning will fuel another outbreak of COVID-19.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, parents held a protest Wednesday against an order by Dr. Travis Gayles, the county health officer, closing private and religious schools until Oct. 1, a mandate he reissued after Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, moved to override the order.
“This is not the same epidemic it was in April,” Darnestown parent Kevin O’Rourke said in Bethesda magazine. “We know more, we know how to treat it more, our hospitals are better prepared. This is government overreach for some reasons that still haven’t been adequately explained to us.”
Parents who want to reopen public schools face formidable opposition from teachers unions. Demand Safe Schools, a coalition of a dozen urban union affiliates, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Center for Popular Democracy held nationwide protests Monday against in-person instruction.
The teachers pulled no punches. They used skeletons and tombstones to illustrate their message that instructors would be placing their lives on the line if they return to the classroom.
“Your Multiplication is NOT worth MY LIFE!” said a message on a car at the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association rally. Another said, “I can’t teach dead kids!” as shown in photos on the Milwaukee Public Radio website.
Mr. Petrilla noted that United Teachers Los Angeles issued reopening demands last month that included items not normally associated with the three R’s, including defunding the police.
“They want to defund the police, they want Medicare for all, they want all these things that have absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus,” Mr. Petrilla said. “They’ve been exploiting the opportunity for them to get as much as they can, and it’s really sad.”
Still, the demonstrations had an impact. Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday changed a plan to open with a hybrid of remote and in-person learning and opted instead for all-distance instruction amid rumblings over a possible “safety strike.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, denied that the protests were the driver. She told reporters that when the hybrid model was announced last month, “we were in a very different place in the arc of the pandemic.”
Risks of virus vs. staying home
Those who favor reopening have in their corner experts like Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, who said harms to children from keeping classrooms shuttered outweigh the risks from COVID-19.
“The harms from kids getting COVID are much, much less than from adults getting COVID,” said Dr. Bhattacharya. “[Children] die at much, much lower rates than adults. I think there’s only one child, an 18-year-old, who has died in California during the whole epidemic. The flu is a bigger risk to kids than COVID is to kids.”
He said children have a “different immune response to COVID than adults” and cited the “long-lasting harms,” including increased loneliness, lack of socialization, learning difficulties and poorer educational outcomes from watching teachers on Zoom versus attending class.
“Those harms are unequally distributed, with poor kids facing larger harms than richer kids who have access to tutors and pods and other mechanisms,” he said. “I think the harms are very, very high for kids not going to school.”
Dr. Bhattacharya is more than a disinterested observer. He has three teenagers and said he would readily send all of them back to school for in-person learning.
“I would be very comfortable with sending them back to school in-person,” he said. “The harms to them from staying home and missing out on the school experiences will last a lifetime.”
Mr. Newsom cited the threat to California teachers last month in announcing the school shutdown. “We have hundreds of thousands of adults that are responsible for taking care of and educating our kids as well. And their health has to be considered,” he said.
Given the lower risks to children, Dr. Scott Atlas, former neurology chief of the Stanford University Medical Center, said the focus for schools should be on protecting at-risk teachers by, for example, allowing them to teach remotely rather than having students stay at home.
“I think the teachers unions — I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re afraid — and if they’re afraid, we can accommodate the high-risk teachers,” said Dr. Atlas. “The majority of teachers are not high risk: 92% are under 60, and half are under 41. Do you know how young that is? This is a young profession. They have extremely low risk, and those at high risk can be accommodated.”
Others are wary of the unions’ political agenda. Among Demand Safe Schools’ conditions for returning to school are police-free schools; a moratorium on new charter schools, vouchers and standardized tests; canceling rents and mortgages; and a “massive infusion of federal money to support the reopening funded by taxing billionaires and Wall Street.”
“I think teachers have got to be the ones that should be the most furious,” said Mr. Petrilla. “They should be allowed to do their jobs and not have their union hijack this for ridiculous demands.”
A National Public Radio/Ipsos poll released Thursday found that 66% of K-12 teachers surveyed want to start the school year primarily with remote learning, while 34% favor a primarily in-person reopening. Fully 82% have concerns about returning to class.
Ms. Ruiz said that isn’t what she is hearing from the teachers she knows from her years of PTA volunteering. She said “100% of the teachers I’ve spoken to say, ‘No, we want to get back to class. We want to teach our kids.’
“I think what the school unions are telling you is not the actual representative opinion of teachers,” Ms. Ruiz said. “Even Los Angeles teachers that I know, they’re saying, ‘Go fight, we totally support you, this is not what we want, we’re being held hostage by these unions, and their decision-making is not our decision-making.’”
None of those in his household has contracted COVID-19, said Mr. Petrilla, but he added that “I’m not discounting the danger of this virus.
“Nobody’s talking about going back to school business as usual,” he said. “There are mitigations that could include temperature-taking at the doors, teachers wearing masks, a whole host of things that each district should come up with based on state guidance.”
He has no doubt that schools are up to the challenge. “We’ve got robots driving around on Mars,” he said. “I think we could figure out how to come up with ways to keep the teachers safe and open the schools safely.”
Sign up for Daily Newsletters