Monday, December 21, 2020

Powerfully Unionized Fallen Professional Class Doesn't Trust The Science Or Believe The Experts

Slate |  “Teachers do not need to be sitting on a panel with a scientist, getting convinced to shut up and go with their position,” longtime union president and former Brookline High teacher Jessica Wender-Shubow told me recently. (She drew a distinction between individual teachers being asked to participate, which she didn’t support, and the union as a union getting an invitation—which didn’t happen.) She believed that parents didn’t understand the logistical realities of teaching, and the impossibility of getting perfect adherence from even the most perfect children. Brookline parents, she said, “are in in the business of ventilation and spacing. They decide what transmissibility looks like. They say the children are safe. But there are debates about that.”

The rest of the students, from third grade on up, returned in phases to Brookline’s school buildings for hybrid learning starting at the end of October. And then on Nov. 3—Election Day, and the day after the last group of students returned to in-person learning—the teachers went on strike. It was only for a day, and the kids weren’t scheduled to be there anyway; it was a professional development day for teachers. But the message was clear: The union wasn’t happy with the way reopening was going.

This fall, school reopening became a flashpoint, especially in blue America. The same public health experts who warned of the pandemic and had advocated closing everything in March made it increasingly clear that reopening schools was—if case counts were low, if testing were available, if buildings could be ventilated—a manageable risk, at least before it got cold and another wave of the virus hit. Reporting in places like the New Yorker showed how remote learning was likely to be a disaster for low-income students. Meanwhile, many teachers and labor allies were skeptical about the safety of reopening. States were facing budget crunches, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were advocating for blanket reopenings while refusing to provide funding or help, and states like Iowa and Georgia had refused to mandate masks in high schools.

But if there was any place that could do in-person learning safely, surely it was Brookline. The town was well resourced and civic-minded, and the state of Massachusetts had kept counts relatively low and hired a giant corps of contact tracers. The parents—at least a significant chunk of them—wanted it. (In Brookline, as everywhere, there were parents who were publicly leery about in-person schooling, but the ones clamoring for in-person learning seemed to be the loudest parental demographic.) And then there were those expert panels, which rivaled the state’s advisory board, especially Panel 4—“Public Health, Safety and Logistics.”

And yet for all that credentialing, when the 1,000 or so Brookline educators went on strike in November, it appeared to be an implicit response to Panel 4’s expert advice. Panel 4 had recently advised that 6 feet of distancing might be revisited in certain specific circumstances, especially given new science that showed the disease was less transmissible in younger children. Soon thereafter, the school district had refused to put language permanently guaranteeing 6 feet of distance into the union contract that was under (protracted) negotiation. “Six feet is just a proxy for how many people are in the classroom,” said Eric Colburn, a ninth grade English teacher who has worked in the district for 18 years. “I could easily be convinced it should be less in some cases, but I certainly think my union should be involved in making that decision.”

On the Brookline schools’ Facebook group, the comments read like a church going through a schism. “I trust teachers to teach, and scientists to guide us on science,” wrote one person, capturing a common view among parents. “[T]he point is that teachers aren’t being heard, all I hear is how amazing panel 4 is, I get it, a collection of brilliant minds working diligently on the matter,” shot back another Brookline resident. “If you all trust your teachers so much open up your ears and listen to what they are telling everyone,” that commenter added. Wender-Shubow, in our conversation this past September, took pains to say that Panel 4 had the best intentions. But, she said, “what they don’t know is how you teach children.” Their expertise stopped at the schoolhouse door. These kinds of fights, she said, “were happening everywhere, with a group of privileged white parents who are extremely skilled at promoting their position. They are squeaky wheels who know how to operate within civil society.”

Economic And Cultural (Power) Discontents Of The Fallen Professional Classes