Could Virtual Education be the Death Knell for Teachers Unions?
If students can learn online during a pandemic or snow days, then they can still be taught during a strike.
Teachers’ unions continue to resist a wholesale return to schools. The performance of school boards in and around Washington, DC, has been particularly shameful. Maryland lags behind the rest of the country in in-person education, and Montgomery, Howard, and Prince Georges Counties trail behind the rest of the state.
Whereas teachers unions may have cited “science” at the beginning of the pandemic when so much was unknown, they now act against it. Studies show children are safer in school than at home. Transmission rates are extremely low among schoolchildren and those who do catch the coronavirus seldom suffer severely. Indeed, the rates of death among schoolchildren who contract the coronavirus are lower than those killed in accidents going to or from school. Practical comparisons confirm the studies: Neither open school districts, private schools operating in areas whose schools remain closed, nor daycares have become engines of transmission. Indeed, if the health and wellbeing of students is the issue, school reopening is long overdue. According to FAIR Health, during the lockdown, overdoses among those ages 13 to 18 have more than doubled, anxiety has doubled, and depression is up 84 percent.
The biggest impediment to school return now is not the coronavirus, but politics and irrational fear. With Trump gone, unions no longer have a bogey to hide their agenda. Unions may still resist in-person education buoyed by a reluctance of parents to blame teachers and principals for delays, but private surveys of teachers suggest they agree that virtual learning is a disaster. That unions nevertheless push virtual education in some cases until they receive unrelated concessions will slowly drive a wedge between parents and teachers even in the most progressive districts.
True, polls do not show a definitive public turn against teachers unions, although they do reflect a softening of support. However, there is cognitive dissonance on the issue: Support for school choice has surged as parents understand both the amounts of tax dollars transferred to shuttered districts while private schools costing the same or less open safely.
Teachers unions may use the existence of virtual learning platforms as an excuse not to return to the classroom, but perhaps soon, districts can use the same technology to undermine union ability to hold children’s education for ransom. The school board for Maryland’s Montgomery County has already discussed replacing snow days with virtual learning days. If districts can use the virtual infrastructure they established to keep schools open during weather emergencies, then they can also do so should teachers’ unions call strikes or, in the case of Montgomery County, sick-outs.
Whereas in the past, teachers unions might run pickets and harass those who crossed them, in a virtual environment teachers who put children above politics need not subject themselves to that harassment. Nor will it easy for unions to criticize the virtual experience when, for a year, they have used its existence as an excuse to avoid a return to school buildings. True, virtual learning will always be subpar, but it is better than weeks or months without school all together, which is the threat at the heart of teacher union strikes.
It is time to get students back to school but districts should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. So long as they maintain their virtual options, they will permanently shift the power dynamics between districts, parents, students, and teachers compelled to join closed shop unions on one hand, and an increasingly politicized and agenda-riven teachers union leadership on the other.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a frequent author for the National Interest.