US schools in disarray over Covid safety fears

Teachers threaten strike action over proposed return of pupils to classroom

High school teacher Cristin Espinoza works in her classroom at Strive Prep — RISE school, which has been remote, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in northeast Denver. With instruction time reduced as much as half by the coronavirus pandemic, many of the nation's middle school and high school teachers like Espinoza have given up on covering all the material normally included in their classes and instead are cutting lessons. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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As the coronavirus pandemic slows in the US, tension among parents, teachers and school districts over restarting classes have in the past week moved to court cases and threats of strikes.

Chicago teachers are on the verge of walking out over Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s insistence that schools are safe to reopen.

San Francisco is suing its school district over delays in resuming classes and Philadelphia’s teachers' union has told members to ignore an order to prepare for classes on Monday.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second biggest in the US, says the virus is still too rampant for pupils to return to class, although most health officials agree that schools are not a significant source of spread.

The pressure to reopen is growing as the US economy tries to recover almost a year into the pandemic, amid a slow and chaotic vaccine programme.

Dissent is complicating efforts by President Joe Biden to fulfil a promise to get children back into classrooms in the first 100 days of his administration.

And parents trying to work from home are stuck in the middle as their children struggle to learn online.

“If the children are doing remote learning, there has to be a parent there helping them do it and that’s fairly time-intensive,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Centre for the Continuing Study of the California Economy.

If public schools reopen, “it will free up millions of people who have chosen to stay at home”, Mr Levy said.

More than a third of US schoolchildren have not been taught in a classroom since the pandemic began, said Burbio, a data service that collates academic calendars.

The issue may come to a head in Chicago after talks faltered on Friday between the mayor and the teachers’ union, in the nation’s third-largest school district.

If staff and teachers of pre-school and special needs children do not return on Monday, the district has threatened to cut off their access to classroom technology.

Teachers with remote-work agreements would be exempt.

The union said that could force them to take strike action, but talks continue.

The rift comes as the nationwide vaccination drive accelerates after initially stumbling, although in some states teachers are not given priority for inoculation.

At the same time, the number of new cases in much of the US is on the decline after a surge over the Christmas holidays.

Districts are contending with rapidly changing coronavirus infection rates and challenges in obtaining enough vaccines.

Teachers and authorities in open warfare

Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week that teachers would not need vaccinations before schools reopened.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the union’s 11,000 members on Thursday that the district’s 250 school buildings were unsafe for teachers to return on Monday as planned.

Mr Jordan asked for a neutral third party to evaluate the conditions.

William Hite, superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, said the union’s advice to its members not to return next week was “deeply disappointing”.

San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera filed a complaint on Wednesday alleging the city’s board of education and the San Francisco Unified School District had failed to create a reopening plan compliant with state requirements.

Mr Herrera asked a court to direct the district to immediately prepare to offer lessons in classrooms.

Educators want to be back in the classroom but ... we are in an untenable position

In Los Angeles, a paediatricians' group said the time that most of the area’s 1.5 million students had spent out of classrooms was accelerating inequality and harming mental health.

The city council's president, Joe Buscaino, agreed with the doctors and said that he would ask the city to consider a lawsuit similar to the one in San Francisco.

LA Unified School District superintendent Austin Beutner said case counts remained too high and that the city fumbled by allowing businesses to open while closing testing sites.

“Educators want to be back in the classroom but as the pandemic continues to ravage our communities, we are in the untenable position of fighting to save lives because our elected officials have failed to do so,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the United Teachers LA union, said in an online presentation on January 29.