Opinion: S.F. teachers may be mad as hell, but they need to stay in the classroom

If COVID is endemic, so is our knowledge about the failures of online learning

I am no expert on relationships. But I know a few things.

For instance, when you and your housemate get into a rip-roaring argument about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher?

It’s usually not about the dishwasher.

More likely, there have been a series of aggravations, slights and disappointments over time. Until one day you find yourself in the kitchen ranting, “AND YOU CAN’T EVEN LOAD THE STUPID DISHWASHER!”

Which brings us to the San Francisco teachers union, whose members are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. As you read in The Examiner, some 600 teachers staged a “sick out” last week, badly hamstringing efforts to keep schools open.

The shortage was so acute that school administrators were pressed into service, teaching classes. Even Superintendent Vince Matthews took a turn, stepping in to instruct a 6th grade science class.

If you follow the news, you might get the impression that this kind of work stoppage by teachers is sweeping the nation. Chicago teachers had a much-publicized work stoppage that canceled classes for four days, before reaching an agreement this week.

Actually it is not. The Los Angeles public school district, the largest in the state and the second largest in the country, announced Jan. 11 it would open for in-person learning in the current semester for K-12.

And, MSNBC tells us their research shows that the vast majority of public schools in the country — their estimate is 95% — are open for in-person school.

UCSF pediatrician Dr. Lee Atkinson-McEvoy told Mission Local this week, “The highest risk behavior is not in-school behavior, but out-of-school behavior.”

So what’s the problem in San Francisco? Why are local teachers undermining efforts to open schools and keep them open?

Well, let’s begin with a step back.

As I tediously remind you, I taught school for four years — three in middle school and one in high school. It remains the toughest job I ever had. And, by the way, I made almost nothing. Less than $10,000 a year, which was pathetic even then.

It remains a demanding, difficult profession. It can be deeply unsatisfying. The National Teachers Association says teachers were quitting in droves before the pandemic.

And now, with health concerns, the staff shortage has only accelerated. Politico talked to Jane McAlevey, a senior policy fellow at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, who said:

“I remember getting on a phone call with the head of the San Francisco teachers union … and they had the highest resignations in the history of recorded resignations by week two of school.”

So we have an already stressed out workforce, now facing the added pressure of a pandemic.

It is understandable that the rank and file would have some demands. Like a solid, comprehensive COVID plan for returning to school. Or an acknowledgement of support from the district.

That didn’t happen. There’s a reason three school board members are facing a recall election next month and it isn’t because they were working too hard to get schools open.

Instead of focusing on that, the board went off on woke wild goose chases like renaming schools. Also, SFUSD was way behind on distributing and administering COVID tests.

As the teachers point out, the huge LA school district was able to put together a comprehensive testing program. Other Bay Area districts did too. Even perennial also-ran Oakland had an effective testing program.

Hence, the dissatisfaction with the district, which led to the headline-grabbing sickout. Which was a huge strain on a school system trying to stay open.

So, I’m willing to stipulate that San Francisco teachers have a point, and that when they rail against the school board, it is somewhat understandable.

However …

The teachers aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory. There’s been some exasperating examples of moving the goalposts.

Back in February in an Examiner editorial, Susan Solomon, then-president of the United Educators of San Francisco, lobbied to get teachers moved up in the vaccination line, “to get educators vaccinated so we can get back in the classrooms.”

But then, in July, as schools were preparing to open, the union said it was rejecting a vaccine mandate or any disciplinary action for teachers who did not get the shots. The union said it was opposed at the time because “the vaccine does not have FDA approval.”

Pick a lane guys.

It is hard to find someone to root for in this mess, but I think we can agree on one difficult truth:

Remote learning is no learning.

Studies have shown it over and over. Test scores for students during the pandemic, and with remote learning, have dropped. There is no substitute for in-person learning.

Teachers know that, school officials know that and parents know it better than anyone.

The ripple effect of keeping kids at home, and leaving parents with child care responsibility, is huge. Going to school is important for socialization, education and for adults to get back to their jobs.


Now, you’re going to say that is all fine, but haven’t you noticed that COVID cases are skyrocketing?

Yes, but we’re now at a point where the number of people infected, particularly with omicron, is less important than the number of people hospitalized.

Anthony Fauci and UCSF infectious disease expert Monica Gandhi have argued that hospitalization should be the real marker.

Sure, you reply, but haven’t you read all the stories about hospitals experiencing a huge surge in COVID cases? Hospitalizations aren’t down.

Yes, but The New York Times is reporting 50–65% of those hospitalized in New York actually came in for treatment of something else. So one-half to one-third of hospitalized patients with COVID didn’t even know they had it when they were admitted to the hospital.

(Not that it isn’t unpleasant. A member of our extended family got a breakthrough case. He had a couple of rough days in bed, taking long naps. But he’s vaccinated and boosted and bounced back. He’s fine.)

This all points to what we are starting to understand from medical experts. That COVID isn’t going away, but with vaccinations and precautions, we can learn to live with it safely, like with other viruses.

And one of the ways to do that is to open schools and keep them open. It is essential.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, head of UCSF’s COVID response, said after last week’s “sick out” she’s getting emails from parents whose kids are “in a near panic state at the thought of returning to remote learning. We cannot do this to our children again.”

So, to you teachers, we recognize your job challenges and hear your concerns.

But now it is time to load the dishwasher.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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