Commentary: Here's what teachers' unions' refusal to permit a return to classroom learning says about how important they think teachers really are

The Chicago Teachers Union became the latest large teachers' union to object to teachers returning to the classroom on Monday, going so far as to authorize members to flatly refuse to return to the classroom as ordered by the Chicago Public School system. Less than two weeks ago, the Los Angeles School Board voted to authorize the district to sue California Governor Gavin Newsom rather than reopen even partially for in-person learning. The United Federation of Teachers has staged a months-long legal war against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in order to prevent its teachers from having to return to classrooms in Gotham.

It's important to realize who these teachers' unions are fighting. It's not against governors like Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) or Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), who have argued for aggressive early reopening plans. It's against the public, Democratic faces of excessive caution in the face of the coronavirus pandemic — like Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, and Lori Lightfoot.

That's right, even the public officials who have systematically crushed businesses and churches with far-reaching COVID-19 edicts that may or may not have been effective have reached the point where it has become obvious: It's time for teachers to go back to the classroom. But the unions will not budge.

Now listen, it's obvious that no one wants to catch COVID-19. In the middle of an infectious disease pandemic, I am sure that there are a great many people who would strongly prefer not to have to go in to workplaces where they will have to be in close, indoor proximity with their fellow workers (and customers), some of whom might have been reckless in terms of their own potential exposure to COVID-19.

But here's the thing: For the last 11 months, a huge sector of the economy has been required to do it anyway. To name just a few: fast-food workers, grocery store employees, employees in the food production sector, employees who work in distribution warehouses for companies like Amazon, public transportation employees, and the like. We did this because, in the estimation of policymakers, it was deemed that their jobs were "essential" to the continued functioning of an orderly society. So we marched them off to work, in many cases before their workplaces were adjusted even in the slightest way to prevent them from unnecessary exposure to the virus.

Now come the teachers' unions, months after COVID-19 protocols have been developed and after millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to make their workplaces as safe as possible, to demand that they not be made to return to work, even after being afforded the COVID-19 vaccine. One Virginia teachers' union head even demanded that teachers not be made to go back to work until students have all been vaccinated. By way of reminder, neither of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines is approved for use on anyone under the age of 16.

Let us set aside for a second the fact that the science is clear and overwhelming, and even accepted by the most pro-lockdown Democratic politicians, that return to classroom learning is extremely low-risk. Let us also set aside the fact that their refusal to return to in-person learning is affecting the ability of other, vital sectors of the economy to function properly, as parents who previously had careers have been trapped inside their homes for weeks acting as de facto classroom teachers for their children, who are simply not getting the same learning experience by staring at a computer screen all day and being continually distracted by their normal in-home activities.

It's important to realize what, exactly, these teachers' unions are saying about the job of teaching. What they are saying, without realizing it, is that teaching is a much less essential function for the continuation of an orderly society than unions have been saying for years. Prior to 2020, the teachers' unions' public position was that teachers ranked somewhere between the Navy Seals and Batman on the scale of importance to society.

Now that the time has come for them to return to the job for which they are paid taxpayer money, however, the message is that they are (apparently) less important to society than Walmart employees, fast-food workers, bus drivers, and warehouse employees. After all, we required those people to go back to work, whether they wanted to or not, or else face replacement by someone who would do the job, on the basis that they were "essential."

By saying that their members should not likewise be forced to return to work — under conditions that are much, much safer than any conditions that existed last March and April — they are admitting that the function they perform is simply not as essential as any of these jobs. And that reality ought perhaps to be reflected in the relative amount of taxpayer-funded salaries and benefits they should be entitled to.

Make no mistake: There are many good teachers throughout the country who believe that their job is truly important and have acted like it by providing the best in-person learning experience they could under trying conditions. But there are a great many more who are playing the part of the hypocrite; after all, I would assume that when the pandemic broke out last year, they did not go out and live on farms where they grew their own food and manufactured all the goods they needed in their own home.

No, the vast majority of teachers have continued to eat food procured from grocery stores and restaurants and ordered all their usual life needs and luxury goods from internet companies and possibly even from stores. They have thus maintained some sort of normalcy in their lives on the backs of employees of companies who have been put in harm's way so that they could continue to have their preferred household items delivered to their doorsteps. But when the call came for them to release millions of parents from doing their jobs — jobs that many parents are not qualified or trained to perform — they have recoiled in horror. "Surely not us! Returning to a workplace is for other people."

If that is their perspective, they are entitled to it. But we should remember it the next time the unions complain that their teachers are underpaid and unappreciated. If they are less important than all these other employees, as they are inadvertently stating by their actions, then it stands to reason that they should be paid less, as well.

And it also ought to inform how afraid politicians should be of the power of teachers' unions. Gavin Newsom has already apparently been cowed by the unions in his state, and Chicago Public Schools have thus far balked at following through on their completely justified threat to treat teachers' refusal to return to classroom learning as an illegal strike. These Democratic politicians ought perhaps to re-evaluate how simmering anger from parents has changed the public's perception of teachers' unions in the last year and whether it is worth it to kowtow to them any longer.

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