The following opinion piece originally appeared in The New York Post on January 5, 2022.
America’s schoolchildren have suffered terrible harm during the pandemic, and the damage has fallen heaviest on poor children from black and Latino communities. Data from across the country make that fact painfully clear. Tragically, it’s about to get worse.
Chicago teachers’ decision to walk out on their students and refuse to return to the classroom Wednesday is a profoundly troubling abdication of duty that should be met with public outrage — and national opposition to its spread.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and public schools CEO Pedro Martinez have rightly insisted that schools reopen for in-person instruction after a two-week holiday break. Teachers and students have an enormous amount of catching up to do, as they do across the country.
Remote schooling has been a colossal failure for America’s most vulnerable students. In Chicago, fewer than one in five third-graders met state standards in math and reading last spring. In other words: More than 80% of students are failing to achieve basic proficiency in the two most important skills determining their life trajectories and career success.
Pre-pandemic, the scores were still disturbingly low but almost twice as high: About 40% met standards in reading, and about 33% met them in math.
As scores have gone from intolerably bad to exceedingly worse, most of the city’s 330,000 students, 83% of whom are black or Latino, are at risk of falling into the abyss. At this rate, it is a cold, hard and shameful truth that these students are on track for failure — never acquiring the skills they need to gain entry into either professional jobs, including teaching, or trade-based careers. The result, of course, is a perpetuation of intergenerational poverty.
These are not things we like to say out loud. But decades of experience tell us they are true. To begin changing them, we need to say loudly and clearly — as Democrats, Republicans and independents — that teachers are essential workers, we need them physically present in classrooms, and we will not stand for walkouts.
At the same time, we should stop using the phrase “remote learning.” “Remote languishing” is closer to the truth, as parents know all too well. They are justly furious that schools have left their children to flounder through virtual classes.
Sadly, it’s not just Chicago where teachers are staying home. Unions in other cities have also pushed districts to return to virtual classes and succeeded. It increasingly seems as though unions view in-person instruction as an optional part of a teacher’s job — and too many Democratic elected officials are going along with it. Democrats who think they can outsource their education policy to the teachers unions need only look to Virginia’s recent elections to see how that goes.
Of course, teachers should not come to work if they are sick or test positive. And they deserve access to high-quality masks and other protections. As Lightfoot has noted, the city has spent over $100 million to mitigate the virus’ spread in schools. Many other districts have also made major investments in school safety.
We know from two years of data that transmission in schools has been low. While the Omicron variant is challenging that, the best evidence indicates that vaccination is highly effective at preventing serious illness, and teachers across the nation, including in Chicago, have high rates of vaccination, to their credit.
It’s good to see Lightfoot and other mayors — like New York City’s newly sworn-in leader, Eric Adams — doing right by students by insisting on in-person instruction. That’s a welcome change from a year ago. As unions push back, they must stand firm — and we must give them our full support.
At the same time, the pandemic has made clear that America’s public education system is fundamentally broken. Our goal should not be to “return to normal” — not when the normal state of affairs was school failure, especially for the vast majority of America’s black and Latino children. We must aim much higher, and that requires us to act much more boldly.
Last month, I announced a $750 million initiative to create 150,000 classroom seats by opening and expanding more high-quality public charter schools. Public charter schools give far greater autonomy to principals and teachers in exchange for far greater accountability — and they give students and parents an alternative to failing traditional schools in their communities.
All children deserve to attend a first-rate school, no matter their race, ethnicity or family income. And all children deserve to have teachers at the front of their classrooms who demand excellence from them and help them fulfill their potential.
We all know what an incredible difference great teachers make in the lives of young people — I know I certainly do. There are many great teachers in America’s public schools. They deserve a system that supports them — and demands as much from their colleagues as they give to their students every day.
Chicago’s students badly need their teachers back. And America’s children need more schools that never quit on them.