Minneapolis Public Schools students were forced to stay at home for two weeks in January due to an outbreak of the omicron COVID-19 variant, which caused schools to close. Because of a teacher strike, schools have been closed for another two weeks — and counting.
Because no agreement was reached over the weekend, classes will be canceled on Monday, according to the district. Teachers in Minneapolis have been on strike for better pay and benefits, smaller classes, and more mental health services for students. They aren’t on their own. Teachers unions across the country are striking or preparing to strike over many of the same demands, from Minnesota to Illinois to California.
The worst of the COVID-19 outbreak has passed, but two years of pandemic preparation has taken its toll. Educators must navigate health protocols, staff shortages, students’ academic challenges, parents’ frustrations, and national criticism of how they handle race and sexuality issues in the classroom.
Many people also feel belittled. According to a new survey by the American Psychological Association, one out of every three teachers has been verbally harassed or threatened by a student, and nearly as many have been harassed or threatened by a parent or a student.
Teachers and lower-wage school workers have seen a sharp increase in turnover and shortages, prompting unions to demand pay raises. They also want more support services for students, many of whom are struggling academically or socially as a result of the disruptions in their education over the past two years.
However, the efforts to improve schools are halting in-person instruction at a time when students have already missed a significant amount of it.
The organizing harkens back to the “Red for Ed” teacher strike movement of 2018 and 2019, which began in West Virginia when teachers with no legal right to strike went on strike to demand more funding for schools. Teachers got raises, and the movement inspired educators across the country, including in conservative states like Arizona, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Money is still a major concern today, though unions say they’re concentrating on helping struggling students and reducing teacher workloads.
Superintendents recognize how hard teachers work and are aware that they are underpaid, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. Strikes, on the other hand, are adding to the stress, he said.
With a last-minute agreement on raises, class-size limits, and $3,000 bonuses for educators, nearby St. Paul Public Schools teachers avoided a planned March 8 strike. The bonuses will be funded by federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to the district.
Classes for 4,200 students in the Proviso High School District 209 in suburban Chicago have also been canceled for two weeks due to a teacher strike for higher pay. The district’s leaders claim they won’t be able to keep up with the union’s demands for raises. Negotiations are still underway, but the district expects students to return on March 28 after a regularly scheduled spring break.
Sacramento’s teachers union has announced plans to strike on Wednesday in order to demand higher pay and more staffing. Sacramento City Unified School District officials hope to reach an agreement before then, but if the strike continues, the district’s buildings will be closed, according to a statement released Friday.
Administrators often lack the financial flexibility to meet teachers’ demands, according to Domenech of the superintendents’ group. Many communities do not want to pay more to support teacher raises because districts are primarily funded through local property taxes, he said. He also mentioned that the federal aid money is great, but it will run out in three years.
Another issue is that schools are paid by the state based on enrollment and, in many cases, attendance, according to William Jones, a labor historian at the University of Minnesota. As a result, while many districts have a surplus of pandemic-relief funds, urban schools that have lost students as a result of the pandemic are struggling.
During the pandemic, public support for teachers has plummeted, and support for strikes will likely vary by community.
Parents first praised educators’ work in the early days of 2020, as they grappled with the challenges of guiding their own children’s education from home. Parents were berating teachers at school board meetings across the country by summer 2021, as frustrations grew over everything from school reopening policies to pandemic protocols and curriculum concerns.