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Inside a Long, Messy Year of Reopening Schools

Teachers unions were accused of being obstinate and compromising education. The real story is a lot more complex.

Last month in Chicago, after months of heated negotiations, the teachers union and Chicago Public Schools emerged with one of the most detailed school reopening agreements in the nation. Brad Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has been studying these agreements since last spring, called it the most comprehensive he’s seen, citing its inclusion of things like testing protocols, measures that might lead to reclosing schools, and vaccination commitments. Among other things, the union succeeded in negotiating accommodations for hundreds more members at higher risk of Covid-19 complications, or who serve as the primary caregiver for someone at higher risk, than the district had originally agreed to accommodate.

Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said one of the most important components of the agreement was the so-called “school safety committees”—a demand the union put forward in December to hold leadership accountable to the health and safety promises it’s made. The school-based committees include up to four CTU members, the principal, the building engineer, and a “reasonable” number of other employees like janitors, lunchroom staff, and security guards. On a regular basis, they will flag to the principal any issues that arise and can hold the school liable if they go ignored. “That is the part of the agreement which provides us with some space to enforce the safety protocols, and it gives people who are working in the buildings power to push back and keep themselves safe,” Davis Gates told me.

Likewise, when I asked the Baltimore Teachers Union about what they’re most proud of from the fall negotiations, Corey Gaber, a vice president on the executive committee, called the “key provision” in its Memorandum of Understanding the one that holds Baltimore Public Schools accountable for everything in its Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. In effect, this means violations of those guidelines could be pursued as formal contract grievances. “The district does not have a strong track record of following through,” he said. “Given past precedent, there is not a level of trust, so for us, it’s all about getting things in writing.”

The remarks from Davis Gates and Gaber reflect something relatively basic to those familiar with the labor movement: When it comes to workplace safety, avoid taking an employer at their word. They also highlight something that, following dragged-out reopening fights, has been confusing to worn-out parents and community members, who are unclear why the pledges made by school districts have been insufficient to persuade educators to return more quickly: Isn’t this enough? Aren’t you letting perfect be the enemy of the good? These dynamics are compounded by a raft of shifting and not infrequently conflicting local, state, and federal public health guidelines—which can and are routinely used to accuse each side of “not following the science.” Even in February, following the release of the long-awaited Biden Centers for Disease Control and Prevention school reopening guidelines, experts quickly came out with contrasting opinions on the recommendations. Some felt the CDC shouldn’t have tied in-person learning to community transmission rates, despite evidence linking the two. Others thought the CDC should tie them but believed their metrics were too conservative. Others were frustrated the CDC stuck to recommending six feet of social distancing, and yet still others criticized the agency for downplaying the role of ventilation. (Two weeks after releasing its guidance, the CDC responded by releasing additional recommendations on school ventilation.)

“I was very disappointed in the school guidance that came out. I think it still has too much emphasis on ‘Covid theater’—like taking daily temperatures and cleaning down everything all the time,” said William Mills, a ventilation expert and engineering professor at Northern Illinois University. Mills, who has been advising his state on Covid-19, says governments have been resistant to embracing a more interdisciplinary approach to safety and have been too slow to accept what has been clear to industrial hygienists like him for a year.

“Many epidemiologists and infectious disease people do not get taught about the ‘hierarchy of controls,’” Mills said, referring to the standard way occupational safety experts analyze and address workplace hazards. While measures like personal protective equipment and social distancing are important, occupational safety experts put greater weight on so-called “engineering controls” like ventilation, which depend less on proper and sustained human compliance. Ensuring young children or teenagers consistently wear their masks and always remain properly distanced—in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and bathrooms—can be difficult, particularly if the school is crowded. “Engineered solutions remove the onus from individuals and their personal habits or attentiveness,” reads Covid-19 guidance from the American Industrial Hygiene Association. “Machines do not get tired, sloppy, or distracted.”

Bob Harrison, an occupational health specialist and clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, agrees what’s often missing from reopening conversations is the melding of different perspectives of safety. “While the CDC might determine that reopening schools will not lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the community, from a worker health perspective, whether or not I am significantly contributing to community health is not how I am coming to the issue,” he explained. In other words, in addition to fears of inadvertently getting their neighbors sick, school staff also just worry about their own health. Schools are workplaces, and since the passage of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, employers have a general duty to ensure all employees “are free from recognized hazards” that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

A year into the pandemic, it helps to understand that school reopening battles have involved different experts carrying different assessments of risk. This has sometimes led advocates for faster reopenings to believe school employees are demanding “zero risk” on the job—an obviously untenable standard. Educators, in turn, see many academics and pediatricians making assured pronouncements about how public schools can be safe, with little reckoning of whether schools are safe and how to keep them that way. “Most doctors have never visited an inner-city school or been in a meatpacking plant,” Harrison said. “They probably have never taken much of an occupational history course, they don’t know what unions do, they don’t know about power dynamics in a workplace. So we’re speaking across a gap trying to understand each other, and it’s been a long and challenging road.”

While the science on schools and Covid-19 continues to evolve—at least two new studies were published in just the last two weeks—many health guidelines often lag reflecting the latest research. Or sometimes, as the debate over the CDC’s guidelines revealed, experts just have conflicting views on how to represent the latest science. This has led to lots of finger-pointing in negotiations, with educators often charged with making demands that exceed what some experts or some guidelines deem necessary.

San Francisco is instructive in how this played out. In December, a coalition of school district unions including teachers, administrators, technical engineers, grounds workers, secretaries, and cafeteria workers collectively put forward reopening proposals around health and safety, including on student testing and ventilation.

The school district then publicly blamed the unions for going beyond what the local health department recommended. But in the weeks since then, as union leaders like to note, local, state, and federal health guidelines were all updated and now embrace more of what the workers had been criticized for putting forward in December. And once elements like student testing were incorporated into San Francisco’s health department guidelines, the school district dropped its earlier objections, and they reached a tentative agreement that included testing about a week later.

“We’re not in a bubble,” said Rudy Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the San Francisco building trades. “The majority of school district unions are regional, and some work in multiple school districts, as well as various aspects of the private sector, so we have perspectives on what’s happening elsewhere and in other industries. This gives us an edge, and knowledge.”

Gonzalez pointed to the Stationary Engineers union as an example, which has members who work professionally to install ventilation units. These workers can seek out reputable industry advice, Gonzalez said, regardless of whether it’s yet been adopted by local regulatory bodies. In mid-December, the demands the San Francisco unions called for included MERV 13 filters with five air changes per hour in every classroom, and compliance with ventilation guidance promoted by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE, in unoccupied buildings. The ASHRAE guidelines were later endorsed by California in its updated Covid-19 guidance released January 14.

“People seem hyperfocused when what we ask for is not directly in sync with state guidance,” said Gonzalez. “But if labor leaders only ever agreed to the minimum safety standards, well, there would be more dead workers on our rolls every year.”

Certainly, though, not all union demands are as straightforwardly reasonable as requesting to follow ASHRAE’s ventilation guidance, and sometimes the unions are operating on wrong or outdated information.

In December, for example, one proposal put forward by the San Francisco school unions was to require lids on all bathroom toilets, a proposal that was mocked as ridiculous and cited repeatedly by reporters in subsequent news stories. “We have to admit that twitter fear-mongers & teachers unions have hit rock bottom,” tweeted Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and professor in the University of California-San Francisco epidemiology and biostats department. “Next, will unions demand we slaughter a goat before schools can re-open?”

Jill Tucker, an education reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, said she felt the toilet lid demand was a clear example of showing “how much things were being asked beyond what is required.” The Chronicle learned of the demand through a public records request, and Tucker said it “demonstrates sort of the lack of information that the union was using in terms of what they were asking for. There is no evidence for that—zero. It’s an example of something they were asking for that had no foundation in science, in research, in expert opinion, so why was it in there?”

The union’s demand around toilet lids was based on research published over the summer. The study, which raised concerns about toilet flushes generating aerosol droplet clouds from the feces of an infected person, was covered at the time in The New York Times, CNN, and even the Chronicle. Some institutions did use the research to guide their reopening protocols, such as the University of Virginia, which installed toilet lids in all its bathrooms.

“The obsession with our ask around toilet lids felt like potty humor but not funny,” said Susan Solomon, the president of the San Francisco teachers union. “It was advice we had been given by some of our sanitation-worker members, based on research suggesting the virus could be transmitted through feces, so we put it in the proposal. It was never a top priority, and eventually we took it out because further evidence seemed to show it wasn’t necessary.”

In Chicago, one demand put forward by the teachers union was to close schools when community transmission rates exceeded 3 percent positivity—a threshold that had been used (and later abandoned) in New York City, and which, by late fall, most public health experts agreed was too conservative. When accused of ignoring experts or science, CTU’s attorney Thad Goodchild told the Chicago Sun-Times the union was basing its demand on other major cities, the threshold previously set by its local public health department, and metrics used by state health officials to require out-of-state travelers to quarantine upon arriving in Illinois. “What we’re proposing is not something we’re pulling from thin air,” Goodchild said. “Is the science evolving? Of course it is. We’re learning more about this every day. Is 3 percent the right number, or is it a different number? We want to bargain about that.”

Chicago Public Schools didn’t like the idea of agreeing to any metric that could require a return to virtual learning but eventually put forward the idea of closing schools if citywide case rates doubled every fewer than 18 days. The doubling metric, it argued, would better reveal how quickly the virus was spreading. But public health experts said relying on that one metric to guide school reopening decisions was flawed, too, because if you have high case rates but a slower doubling rate, that could still mean many infections within a school. “Following the science,” as usual, was less straightforward than it seemed.

In the end, the union and district settled on a relatively complex compromise, which involved using citywide positivity rates but with a much higher bar for closure than the union had originally wanted.

And then sometimes unions and districts just confront what are ultimately subjective judgments of risk, where qualified experts have different opinions. In Baltimore, for example, the teachers union demanded high-filtration masks—such as KN95s—to wear in schools, but the school district said experts it consulted believed cloth masks would be sufficient given other mitigation strategies Baltimore was deploying. In Colorado, by contrast, the state committed last summer to providing all teachers with KN95s, stating its priority was to offer school staff as much protection as possible. If you take at face value that those involved in the negotiations are working in good faith to protect themselves and others, these kinds of disagreements will inevitably arise.

Confusion in school reopening debates has been compounded by leaders in media, government, and even public health mischaracterizing existing research or sometimes conflating science with scientific opinion. In December and January, Chicago Public Schools put out resources falsely stating that researchers had found no link between open schools and community transmission rates. (James Gherardi, press secretary for Chicago Public Schools, defended the communications and said they’re “written in a way that is meant to be accessible to the general public, and includes links to studies and articles [for those] who want to learn more on their own.”)

“Look, the amount of information is dizzying,” said Gonzalez of the San Francisco building trades. “I say that as a labor leader, and as a parent of an elementary and middle schooler, and my 3-year-old who is soon to start preschool.”

Jeanne Noble, the director of the Covid response at the University of California-San Francisco medical center emergency department, has been one of the most outspoken physicians in the Bay Area advocating for reopening schools, including authoring a public letter in January that 30 of her colleagues signed. When the coalition of unions and San Francisco Unified School District reached an agreement on February 6 around health and safety standards, Noble criticized it in the media. “Their decisions are hurting our children,” she said. “It’s like the death of expertise, essentially.”

Noble marshals a lot of critical arguments about the risks to children from prolonged school closures—including heavy tolls on their mental and physical health. But she also downplays the role of school ventilation if universal masking is being enforced and places great stock in a handful of studies that some experts believe are less credible to assess the risks of reopening schools in the pandemic.

Noble and many proponents for reopening point to research in North Carolina, Mississippi, Atlanta, and rural Wisconsin that found evidence of very low transmission in schools when universal masking was in place. The studies were particularly encouraging, as the school transmission rates stayed low even in environments with high community spread, suggesting schools—with proper controls in place—could act as islands of safety for children and staff. “We no longer need to look at community-based data to make these decisions because we actually have stronger data from school-based observations,” Noble argued in a recent debate.

Yet with the exception of the Atlanta study, none of the research tested for asymptomatic infection, and it did not conduct follow-up testing with people quarantining from exposure. The CDC estimates upward of 50 percent of all Covid-19 infections are asymptomatic, with rates likely even higher for children. Two studies released in late February looked at how past Covid-19 research may have undercounted infection rates among children, and weekly random surveillance testing in the U.K. has shown kids with higher infection rates than most adults.

The Wisconsin researchers acknowledged they couldn’t rule out asymptomatic spread, and another CDC study released around the same time found 5,700 Covid-19 cases were linked to outbreaks in Wisconsin K–12 schools and childcare facilities last fall.

Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist who focuses on child and maternal health, says the lack of testing of those in quarantine or those without symptoms were major limitations for her. “They were taking the ‘don’t test and let’s see’ approach, and that’s not helpful,” she said. “We already know if you don’t test you’re not going to find the virus.”

Noble says we should be able to trust what we’re seeing on the ground, and the fact that many schools have been open for so long should dispel the notion that more schools can’t be open safely. She often points to Marin County in California, which has a public dashboard reporting just 11 suspected cases of in-school transmission since schools opened in September.

Ken Lippi, an assistant superintendent for Marin County’s education department confirmed that asymptomatic testing of students is not commonly done. But he attributes their low reported case rates to strong planning. “I don’t believe public health officials think we’ve missed any cases at all,” he told me.

A new CDC study released in late February on elementary schools in Cobb County, Georgia, suggests those who worry past research may have missed asymptomatic spread have a point. Unlike earlier research, this study offered free testing between days five and 10 to any student quarantining from exposure and then tested household contacts of anyone who tested positive from that group. Twenty-six percent of household members living with infected students also had the virus.

“This gives us a clearer idea of how schools can contribute to community spread that none of the earlier studies have given us before,” said Chapple. “We now have concrete evidence that it is biologically plausible, and when you employ appropriate methods you detect it.”

One takeaway for Chapple was that even in schools that have mitigation policies like masking and social distancing, ventilation matters because, as industrial hygienists have warned, strategies that depend on perfect human compliance often fail. In the Cobb County study, while the schools had policies of three feet of physical distancing and mandated masking, in practice those approaches weren’t always followed. Another CDC survey released in February found that among students attending in-person school in October, just 65 percent said their peers wore masks “all the time” in classrooms, hallways, and stairwells, and even fewer said their peers wore masks on buses, in restrooms, and when not eating in the cafeteria.

Mills, the ventilation expert, said one of his frustrations has been when some doctors and researchers say we still lack good evidence to show that upgraded ventilation will work to prevent the virus’s spread. “Where some experts say they see no evidence, industrial hygienists understand that these aerosols work no differently from others,” Mills said. “In my field, we understand that every time you get a new hazard there’s a roadmap you can follow. It’s not so different from SARS. This isn’t really new science for us.”

Harrison, the occupational medicine doctor, thinks one reason ventilation and universal testing often get ignored or dismissed is because they can just be tough for some schools to afford or implement. He supports both—and says from a worker health perspective, testing can be a particularly important element to monitor occupational risk. “A colleague of mine who worked for a long time on Capitol Hill on federal policy once told me, ‘Look, Bob, if a problem gets so big that nobody knows what to do, then we just eliminate the issue from consideration, and therefore it no longer becomes a problem,” Harrison said. “And I think that’s what happens with testing.”

A melding of different safety perspectives, as Harrison suggests, could help resolve some of the remaining sticking points in the months-long quest to reopen schools.

While the CDC has said vaccination is not a prerequisite to resuming in-person learning, the CDC’s advisory committee on vaccinations did recommend prioritizing teachers for the vaccine, and multiple studies have suggested that educators working in person face higher risk of infection. The new CDC study on Cobb County also emphasized the importance of vaccinating teachers to reduce in-school spread.

While the Chicago Teachers Union dropped its earlier demand to have all educators fully vaccinated before returning to school, Chicago Public Schools did agree at the eleventh hour to increase the number of doses prioritized for teachers, which helped the district and union finally reach an agreement. In San Francisco, the agreement with the union also hinges on vaccinating staff if transmission levels in the community remain high.

A spokesperson for D.C. Public Schools, Liz Bartolomeo, said the district is very proud to have already vaccinated 2,800 teachers to help facilitate in-person learning. Educators in D.C. have been prioritized for doses since late January.

Even as families are growing more concerned about the academic toll on children from missing school, a majority of adults across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines say that currently closed schools should wait to reopen until all teachers who want the vaccine have received it, according to a Pew survey released in late February. The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a stimulus package that would dedicate an additional $130 billion for K–12 schools, and Biden just came out more forcefully calling for teacher vaccinations.

Baltimore students in kindergarten through second grade started returning to classrooms on March 1, with more grades set to return later this month. In February, Baltimore Public Schools announced it would finally begin weekly asymptomatic testing for students and staff, something the district had long resisted. Gaber of the Baltimore Teachers Union says that with lower community transmission rates, with commitments around ventilation and testing, and since most educators have by now gotten at least their first vaccine dose, members are feeling relatively comfortable about going back.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “But it’s way better than it was.”