COVID-19 — Social Distancing Brings Solidarity in Massachusetts
Waning, Then Gaining, Support
On March 10, 2020, Governor Baker declared an official state of emergency, instructing all K-12 schools in the state to cease in-person learning due to the rising COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. Literally overnight, traditional operations were thrown out the window, as the governor ordered superintendents to “consult their school boards, teaching staff, and other stakeholders how best to provide student access to alternative learning opportunities during this period based on equity and availability of resources to support such efforts."
Using whatever was available in their living rooms, teachers continued to conduct their classrooms virtually through both asynchronous and synchronous methods, supplying handouts, links, and materials to parents as often as they could.
As a result, the first few months of the pandemic that rounded out the 2019-2020 academic year were filled with high praise for educators, from both parents and the news. On MTA’s social media, posts dedicated to teachers were met with comments of encouragement, gratitude, and a perpetuation of the “we’re all in this together” sentiment.
“Teaching isn't just a profession—it's a calling. No one embodies this more than these inspirational, innovative teachers, who are doing everything they can for their students right now,” said a Reader’s Digest article. According to a poll from Kickstand Communications from last April, “88% of parents say this experience has given them a deeper appreciation for teachers and childcare workers...When the doors to our schools and childcare centers open again, our too often unsung heroes will be met with excited kids and grateful parents."
As Jimmy Fallon penned songs about teachers deserving higher wages and Ellen Degeneres virtually hosted educators on her talk show, ALEC took this time of remote learning as an opportunity to push forth its own agenda on education reform, providing what they considered useful resources on their website. Links to the Center for Education Reform (CER), the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, National School Choice Week, and the Heritage Foundation all skewed the pandemic as an opportunity for education innovation, with CER going so far as saying “virtual education saves the day” and should be a “road map for state policymakers."
At the same time, ALEC constituents continued to create the argument that unionized teachers’ hesitancy to return to the classroom was indicative of the unions’ failure to prioritize student —and educator— success.
“The national COVID response has shone a brilliant light on the long‐existing necessity of school choice. COVID-19 has driven home how important freedom is for children. But it is also important for teachers, even if their unions insist on standing in the way,” argued CATO Institute’s Neal McCluskey. A Bloomberg op-ed opined, “The actions of too many teachers unions are serving as a reminder of what happens when that collective power is misused — and why so many Americans turned against unions. The teachers’ actions are incredibly selfish, putting their fears, largely unfounded, ahead of the needs of their students, their communities and their country."
An interesting juxtaposition emerged on the MTA’s public commentary as the pandemic inched closer to the fall. Growing resentment became evident every time MTA posted on their Facebook page about safe return to school; just a few months prior, public posts contained such positive remarks as, “I was proud the MTA took the stand to put [the] health of our students and staff above all else,” and, “You all have my deepest gratitude and respect.” Now, the tone visibly soured, with more frequent commentary criticizing the union’s adamancy to protect its members’ health and safety. “[This is] what laziness looks like,” one commenter said, “Time to fire all teachers and automate learning online.”
Others pointed fingers, alleging that teachers were causing irreparable damage to their students by advocating for remote learning. “History will remember that the MTA chose to ignore the science and destroyed the lives of many children in their community that desperately needed to be learning in person,” one wrote. Nearly every post pertaining to the remote/hybrid/in-person discussion going into the fall of 2020 was met with harsh criticism.
With the honeymoon over, MTA and its members were back to grappling with a well-established but troubling notion — parents and community members love teachers, but hate their unions.
Cambridge fourth grade teacher Karen Engels experienced this exact sentiment this past year, noting, “From the parents in my classroom, I’ve received consistent, effusive expressions of gratitude… One parent recently shared, ‘I can’t imagine how much planning and work goes in behind the scenes, and we’re tremendously thankful for it.’”
She continues. “How is it that we love teachers as individuals but hate them collectively? I received quite a different email this summer after publicly stating my support for greater educator involvement in reopening planning:
You are on the wrong side of history- lobbying in a way that shows your true colors and harms children that are disadvantaged, stuck at home with remote learning (widely proven to be ineffective) because you are too ignorantly scared and uninformed to enter the classroom. As a physician, why should I care for you and your family when you are sick when you can’t put on a mask and teach my kids? Shame on you! Stop fear mongering! Learn some science and do your job!”
Engels also notes that while the pandemic created a number of obstacles for both teachers and families, it should also be looked at as a chance for educators to vie for a more prominent seat at the planning table as experts in their field.
“Unions have been falsely characterized as refusing to ‘return to work,’ when in fact, we want desperately to return to our classrooms (and the ‘work’ has never left — it’s with us seven days a week),” she asserts. “But we want to be partners in designing what school looks like. There’s too much at stake to ignore teachers’ fine-tuned understanding of children and their needs."
This “fine-tuned” understanding of student needs is what has propelled MTA to advocate for the cancellation of the MCAS, both during the pandemic and possibly in perpetuity. While MTA’s stances on the state’s fall 2020 plan, return to full-time classroom instruction in 2021, and vaccine rollout for teachers were met with a wide spectrum of criticism, their MCAS cancellation campaign has been overwhelmingly praised — it seems the implementation and enforcement of standardized tests has been bipartisanly supported by both democrat and republican presidents, while universally hated by voters on both sides.