Updated at 1:49 p.m. ET on February 11, 2021.
President Joe Biden has made it clear that he wants to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible,” and that he’s willing to spend generously to make this happen. But he’s not going to get his wish. Even if Congress passes the president’s pandemic-relief plan, which includes $130 billion for the reopening of K–12 schools, in addition to the $67.2 billion Congress has already authorized under the CARES Act and the pandemic-relief legislation that passed in December, some teachers’ unions are setting out conditions for reopening that will be exceedingly difficult to meet, and threatening further “safety strikes” if they don’t get their way. In some districts where the teachers’ unions are especially powerful, the return of in-person learning might not happen until well into the 2021–22 school year. And the longer the COVID-19 disruption lasts, the more likely it is to have a deep and lasting impact on the politics of public education.
The heavy toll of school closures—on parents who are finding themselves under intense economic and emotional strain, on students who are experiencing profound learning loss that threatens to compound over time—might have been expected to put teachers’ unions at a political disadvantage. That’s certainly the impression you’d get from recent reports of fierce battles over school reopenings in cities and towns across the country. Judging by recent surveys, however, parental opinion of teachers’ unions has barely budged since the start of the pandemic.