As the nation heads toward a chaotic back-to-school season, with officials struggling over when to reopen classrooms and how to engage children online, teachers’ unions are playing a powerful role in determining the shape of public education as the pandemic continues to rage.
Teachers in many districts are fighting for longer school closures, stronger safety requirements and limits on what they are required to do in virtual classrooms, while flooding social media and state capitols with their concerns and threatening to walk off their jobs if key demands are not met.
On Tuesday, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union raised the stakes dramatically by authorizing its local and state chapters to strike if their districts don’t take sufficient precautions — such as requiring masks and updating ventilation systems — before reopening classrooms. Already, teachers’ unions have sued Florida’s governor over that state’s efforts to require schools to offer in-person instruction.
But even as unions exert their influence, they face enormous public and political pressure because of widespread acknowledgment that getting parents back to work requires functioning school systems, and that remote learning failed many children this spring, deepening achievement gaps by race and income.
With the academic year set to begin next month in much of the country, parents are desperate for teachers to provide more interactive, face-to-face instruction this fall, both online and, where safe, in person. But many unions, while concerned about the safety of classrooms, are also fighting to limit the amount of time that teachers are required to be on video over the course of a day.
The unions are “really on the backs of their heels on this,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy group that sometimes takes positions contrary to unions. She is concerned that the urgent needs of children who have not physically attended school for many months are getting lost. “I feel like we are treating kids as pawns in this game.”
Pressure from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who are distrusted by many educators, has hardened the opposition of many teachers to returning to classrooms, even in places where the virus is under control. They contend that political leaders are putting the needs of the economy above their safety and pushing schools to reopen without adequate guidance or financial support.
“It’s been a terrible disservice to parents, to kids, to educators, who basically are left holding the bag and trying to figure this out,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which voted to support its members who choose to strike while stressing that such actions should be a “last resort.”
About 70% of American teachers were union members in 2016. Educators have enjoyed significant parental support in recent years during a series of walkouts, including in Republican-led states, in favor of higher wages and more school funding.
But now, with the economy sputtering and many parents struggling to balance work and child care while overseeing remote learning, teachers who resist demands to appear over video or to work in classrooms where it’s considered safe risk fraying those hard-won bonds.
Some critics see teachers’ unions as trying to have it both ways: Reluctant to return to classrooms, but also resistant in some districts to providing a full day of remote school via tools like live video — the kind of interactive, online instruction that many parents say their children need after watching them flounder in the spring.
Union leaders point out that many teachers went above and beyond the work hours laid out in emergency labor agreements that were quickly pulled together after the coronavirus closed schools in March. Their members provided technical support to families and answered emails and text messages from students and parents late into the night, leaders say.
Now, those representatives must balance the concerns of an often-feisty membership against the urgent needs of vulnerable children and the often-competing demands of local and federal officials. Complicating matters, parents disagree sharply on what they want from schools during the pandemic.
A July poll found that 60% of parents supported delaying school reopening until the virus is under control. Polls show that Black and Latino families, who have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic, have expressed more concern about returning to school than white parents, but are also more worried about the academic and social effects of online learning.
In New York City, where the coronavirus caseload is now relatively low, a June parents’ survey found that most respondents were at least somewhat willing to send their children back to physical classrooms, despite teachers’ fears.
Dionn Hurley, who lives in the South Bronx, said her 18-year-old son, who has autism, “regressed by a year in a month” after schools shuttered. “Our kids need in-person learning,” she said.
She and her husband are both essential workers who have been commuting across the city to their jobs since the pandemic began. She contends teachers should do the same, with adequate safety precautions.
“We all know there’s a pandemic. It’s affecting everyone,” Hurley said. “You can’t just keep saying you’re scared. We’re all scared.”
Union representatives said they were aware of those sentiments, and the very real needs behind them. That makes the job of negotiating for their members especially difficult.
“I would not say that being a teachers’ union leader is a job most people would want to have at this moment,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, the largest local teachers’ union in the country.
Pressure from California’s politically powerful teachers’ unions helped push Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce guidelines earlier this month that will require many of the state’s districts, covering more than 80% of its population, to start school remotely, opening classrooms only once new infections and hospitalizations decline sufficiently in a region.
Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, had already made the decision to start the year online because of soaring infections. Now the union and administrators are engaged in long negotiating sessions via Zoom, with one of the stickiest points of contention being how many hours per day teachers should be required to teach live via video.
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, said she understood the benefits — she watched her own son engage with teachers online during the spring shutdown — but she argued that a full school day over video would not be feasible for either students or teachers (although some private schools have embraced it).
“You’re not going to see people engaged,” she said. “Kids will turn off to that.”
The union’s priorities, Myart-Cruz said, include ensuring that remote mental health counseling is available to students, and that teachers are reimbursed for work-from-home expenses such as upgrading their internet connections.
In the Sacramento City Unified School District, a history of mistrust between the union and administration has led to a series of repeated breakdowns in talks during the pandemic.
The district will open in a remote-only mode Sept. 3, and has proposed that lessons delivered live over video or audio should be recorded for families to access at times that are convenient for them. But the union has objected, arguing that recording lessons could be a violation of privacy for educators, students and families, because their likenesses could be posted and viewed without their explicit permission.
In the spring, the union argued in favor of providing more paper materials to students, making the case that it was unfair to lean into high-tech learning when some students lacked laptops and internet access.
Across the country, it is likely that most students will experience a mix of online and in-person education this academic year, sometimes during the same week. That means that teachers will need to do two very different jobs: teach in classrooms and online.
Districts without collective bargaining, like Marietta, Georgia, have more flexibility over assigning teachers’ roles, and plan to staff their remote learning programs with educators who have demonstrated skill in engaging students online.
But unions elsewhere, including in Miami-Dade County, the nation’s fourth-largest district, are resisting that model, saying teachers with their own health concerns should be the first to get the opportunity to work online from home.
On Wednesday, the district announced that it would delay the start of the academic year by a week, to Aug. 31, and that schools would open online. It hopes to begin bringing students back to classrooms by early October.
This spring, when classrooms closed because of the coronavirus, an emergency agreement between the district and union required Miami teachers to interact with their students for a minimum of three hours per day, which could include making phone calls or responding to emails.
Parents have since made it clear that was not enough, according to Alberto Carvalho, the Miami superintendent. “One of the biggest concerns was how much of a difficult time they had in terms of time management with their children,” he said, adding that the district expects teachers to provide something closer to a regular school day this fall, with live instruction over video.
The local union president, Karla Hernandez-Mats, said her members were willing to follow a more traditional schedule, but many teachers have expressed anxiety about how they and their homes would look on camera during live teaching.
“If a teacher does not feel comfortable, and the teacher is not secure in the modality, they are not going to flourish and give the best of themselves,” she said.
In Orange County, another large Florida district that includes Orlando, a major concern for the union is that teachers working in schools might be expected to simultaneously broadcast their lessons live to students at home and respond to children both in-person and virtually.
“You can’t keep track of people remotely and in front of you at the same time,” said Wendy L. Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association.
New York City, the nation’s largest district, is one of the few big systems in the country planning to reopen schools even part time this fall. Mulgrew, the local teachers’ union leader, helped officials settle on an approach that would allow children to report to classrooms one to three times per week.
But in the weeks since the plan was unveiled, Trump’s push to reopen classrooms has magnified growing alarm among educators about returning to work, and some have threatened to stage a sick out.
In a town hall with members last week, Mulgrew threw the plan he helped create into disarray, telling teachers he does not currently believe it is safe for schools to reopen physically in September, absent a major funding influx to pay for more nurses and upgraded air filtration systems.
“I am preparing to do whatever we need to do if we think the schools are not safe and the city disagrees with us,” Mulgrew said on the call.
City officials said they were caught off guard when Mulgrew backed away from reopening, in part because the city had already agreed to a number of safety measures, including requiring masks and social distancing in the classroom, and to allow teachers over 65 and those with preexisting conditions to work remotely.
Some New York City teachers are encouraging their colleagues to apply for medical exemptions that would allow them to teach at home, even if they are not eligible, and asking parents not to send their children back.
Still, educators hardly present a monolithic view.
“I’m a public servant, and I’m ready to serve wherever I’m needed,” said Carlotta Pope, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn. Pope said she had some lingering questions about safety, but was hopeful they would be resolved before September.
“I’m excited to go back, if that’s what’s decided,” she said. “I miss my students.”
Get Boston.com's e-mail alerts:
Sign up and receive coronavirus news and breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.