The politics of in-person learning: Unions, COVID, and DCPS

Rebecca Khoury

I first walked into Room A-302 at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. It was January 14, and I was there to speak with Rebecca Bradshaw-Smith, one of Jackson-Reed’s health teachers. 

At the time, students and staff were finishing their first semester of in-person learning in about two years. While many of us had settled into a “normal” routine, the PPE and sanitary equipment dispersed around the room served as a stark reminder of the ongoing pandemic in which we were living.

That Friday marked the end of the first week after winter break, a time during which numerous schools across the country opted to return to digital learning. This disruption was especially prominent in Chicago, where public battles between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) made national headlines. Although their move was less incendiary, many DCPS schools also went virtual prior to the break due to staffing shortages and high positivity rates.

While I watched the scene unfolding in schools across the country, I felt a sense of dejà vu. After all, during the 2020-2021 school year, DCPS was one of the country’s most restrictive school districts; according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the return to in-person learning was delayed longer in DC than in almost any other state in the nation. (The only exceptions were Delaware, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.) 

The confusion caused by the Omicron variant also provoked renewed uncertainty regarding former DPCS policies that have yet to be explained. Primarily, why was our return to in-person school so delayed? And what does that mean for the continuation of in-person learning throughout the pandemic?

In my attempts to answer these questions, I tried to get a better understanding of the technicalities of COVID procedures over the past two years. During this process, I found that one entity was consistently accused of hindering citywide efforts to reopen schools: the Washington Teacher’s Union, otherwise known as the WTU. 

Over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, WTU leaders and DCPS officials frequently came into conflict. During a press conference in November of 2020, Mayor Muriel Bowser noted that she was “disappointed but not surprised” when the WTU refused to sign an agreement that would begin to reopen schools for in-person learning.

By 2021, the dispute had intensified: one article stated that the District of Columbia filed a temporary restraining order against the Union to “[prevent] the Washington Teachers’ Union Local #6…and District teachers from engaging in a strike or work stoppage that would halt the District’s reopening of some schools for in-person learning on February 2, 2021.”

Local media outlets portrayed the issue as a contentious battle between stubborn DCPS administrators and selfish teachers. However, for most of the students and parents stuck at home, the nuance of this conflict was lost in translation. News of policy developments, which occasionally appeared on our Canvas pages as notifications, seemed like the workings of a distant and irrelevant bureaucracy. 

In order to better understand teachers’ thoughts on the events of last year—and their current perspectives on COVID-19 and educational policy—I talked to Bradshaw-Smith, who has been a member of the Washington Teacher’s Union for over 30 years. Bradshaw-Smith is also an executive board member and Jackson-Reed’s former building representative.

When asked about WTU’s decision to delay the reopening process at multiple points during the 2020-2021 school year, Bradshaw-Smith was hesitant. As a union member in a position of authority, she is no doubt conscious of the judgment that teachers have faced over the past two years.

“At that point, COVID was at its height…we were trying to make sure that it was safe for not just the students, but also for the teachers,” Bradshaw-Smith explained. “That year was a very hard year, because we had to fight for simple things.” She expressed concerns about the availability of equipment such as PPE and masks, noting that DCPS originally did not intend to provide certain tools (such as air circulators) for teachers. 

According to Bradshaw-Smith, a lack of proper planning and equipment coupled with the absence of vaccines made the prospect of reopening seem unwise. (Significantly, DCPS teachers were among the first people for whom vaccines were made available at the beginning of 2021, yet our schools remained almost entirely online for the duration of the year.)

Now, as COVID-19 cases in the city remain low and school remains in session, DCPS and the WTU seem to be reconciling. Just a couple months ago, DCPS reintroduced the policy of paid sick leave for teachers who have contracted the coronavirus, conceding to one of the union’s top priorities. 

However, there’s no guarantee that this new amiability will last. Bradshaw-Smith mentioned that many teachers are still not satisfied with districtwide COVID-19 policies, and resentment between the two parties is ongoing. “A lot of teachers feel as though DCPS is leaving us in the margins…We don’t get the same respect [that students do]. We get the respect of ‘do what we say, do it now, or we’re going to brandish you in some way.’”

Looking at the current state of the pandemic, it is clear that officials are dealing with an entirely different set of issues. Instead of tightening public health measures, governors across the country (both Republican and Democrat) have repealed mask mandates in commercial and educational settings. As of Wednesday, March 16, DCPS did the same: new posters, plastered to Jackson-Reed’s front doors, remind us of the current mask-optional policy.

This strategic shift received surprisingly little backlash (especially considering the outrage with which DCPS guidelines are usually met). According to Michele Bolinger, a social studies teacher who is currently Jackson-Reed’s building representative for the WTU, the union willingly agreed to changing the mask mandate. Bolinger hasn’t heard any criticism of the policy from WTU leadership—however, a lack of overt conflict isn’t necessarily indicative of consensus.

For instance, Bolinger mentioned the resistance of one of the union’s caucuses—known as DC-CORE—to the repeal of the mandate. This subset of DCPS educators has made the maintenance of safety protocols one of their top priorities, hinting at the existence of sectional rifts that go far beyond the battle between “teacher” and “administrator.”

Setting aside the minutiae of this issue, it’s important to understand the extent to which public health measures have been politicized on both a local and national scale. Debates over COVID-19 measures tend to simplify an issue that, in reality, is quite complex. Officials are tasked with determining a system of rules that not only maximize the academic benefit provided by our schools, but that protect the lives of students and staff. For DCPS, this responsibility is further complicated by the disparities that exist across our city.

As parents and students, we can recognize the failures of teachers and government officials to adequately respond to the pandemic. However, it is essential that we acknowledge the complexity of this issue, rather than contributing to the polarization and miscommunication that exacerbate such conflicts. •