Teachers’ union opposes prompt school reopenings


Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bradshaw-Smith

Anna Arnsberger

As Mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans to begin reopening schools in early November, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) has asserted that they are not yet ready for in-person learning. The union is still waiting on a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of returning to the classroom.

At a meeting on Thursday, October 1, members of Wilson’s union chapter expressed concerns and discussed possible initiatives in regards to returning to school. Wilson’s WTU Representative, Rebecca Bradshaw-Smith, said that the meeting confirmed that “everybody’s at the same point and our position is we go back only when it’s safe.”

Having received very little guidance from DCPS, Wilson’s union members are still not confident that a return to in-person learning would be safe. “We’re the largest high school and nobody has given us a plan yet,” Bradshaw said, “I haven’t seen anything… I spoke with Ms. Martin the other day, she said nobody’s given her a plan.” Though Bradshaw had been trying to proactively work with Principal Kimberly Martin on reopening, she feels as though they have been left in the dark and don’t know which direction to go in.

The union is resolute on needing a thorough plan because they believe that schools are simply not ready for in-person teaching. Teachers who had visited Wilson reported mold and broken toilets; Bradshaw expressed concern with the lack of plexiglass and other available personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Union members have emphasized the importance of waiting until the science supports reopening. “They’re saying, well, DC has leveled off and we’re this and that. Okay. But what about your surrounding districts? Because everybody doesn’t live in DC,” Bradshaw said. In addition, the teachers worry about Wilson students travelling from all across the city to come to school.

The greater Washington Teachers’ Union has been at discord with Chancellor Lewis Ferebee over reopening attempts. The union urged teachers not to fill out a survey sent by DCPS which they claimed had threatening language and assumed that everyone who abstained from answering was in support of going back. In a DC Council hearing on distance learning, WTU President Elizabeth Davis testified that, “the WTU also wants to reiterate our warnings against returning to our schools too soon. The decision to reopen before an effective treatment or vaccine is available will place extreme strain on our teachers who… face significant fears about our city’s ability to safely reopen for in-person learning.” The union is waiting on the Chancellor to sign off on a checklist for reopening school buildings that includes requirements such as having sufficient PPE.

At Thursday’s meeting, teachers discussed possible next steps to advocate for a safe reopening, including writing letters to council members and communicating with parents and students. They also planned a list of actions for October, from car caravans and town halls to protests at the Wilson building downtown. “We just got to let them know that this is something that we are really, really, really passionate about,” Bradshaw said. 

One scheduled event is a gathering at Fort Reno on October 17 with the Wilson community and that of nearby DCPS schools such as Deal, Murch, and Janney. Union member Chisda Magid explained, “this action is important to communicate that Wilson teachers and the community reject the Mayor’s, Chancellor’s and other leadership’s efforts to force us into unsafe learning conditions in order to satisfy other special interests.” Magid is optimistic about the collective power of bringing together teachers, students, and families to advocate for a common goal. 

Bradshaw believes that the union’s tireless protesting over the summer is a main reason why DCPS did not open at the beginning of this school year. “There are teachers literally right now that are dying in Florida, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Arkansas, in Arizona, because they went back early. Because these are the States that don’t have strong unions,” she said. In emphasizing the strength of the WTU, Bradshaw said, “[DCPS is] trying to ignore, but they can’t ignore. Because they figure, well, we have the last say and essentially they do, but they really don’t because depending on what the parents, the students, and the teachers want to do, that’s the last say, because we outnumber them.”

“They’re saying teachers are wrong because they don’t want to go back. I haven’t spoken to a teacher yet that doesn’t want to be back in his or her classroom,” Bradshaw said. While the union is aware of and, in many cases, hindered by distance learning, they recognize it’s necessary for the safety of themselves and their students. “Every teacher that I know wants to go back to work, but I’m not going to jeopardize my health and my life to go in because someone else that is not doing what I’m doing is trying to force me to do that. I challenge the Mayor to come in and teach… I challenge her and I challenge the chancellor,” Bradshaw said.