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Trump says open schools. Teachers say not until they're safe. As cases rise, unions may win.

Staff didn't feel safe teaching in person.

Chicago teachers piled into hundreds of cars on the first Monday of August and rolled their way to City Hall. No strangers to large demonstrations, the teachers spent hours protesting Chicago Public Schools' plan to mix in-school and at-home learning this fall to reduce crowding in buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic. Staff didn't feel safe teaching in person, the educators said, especially given rising rates of positive COVID-19 cases in Illinois. The demonstration had hallmarks of the massive strike the Chicago Teachers Union waged 10 months prior during a contract dispute with the city. As union members murmured about potentially striking again for their safety, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Chicago's near 400,000 students would start the year online-only on Sept. 8.

That means almost all of America's biggest districts will start the school year with online learning — a move largely driven by local teachers unions.

Emboldened by strikes and walkouts for more pay and greater respect in 2018 and 2019, unions have become a powerful force in shaping school reopening plans amid the coronavirus pandemic. They have pressed for a return with virtual learning to ensure the health of staff, students and families in places where virus cases are still high — and where districts can't ensure physical distancing and other safety measures that help mitigate the spread of the virus.

Among the largest districts, only New York City is planning to open with some in-person instruction — and a wing of its United Federation of Teachers is fighting that move. 

Critics say teachers are shirking their duties as front-line workers. Doctors and grocery store staff have worked during the pandemic, they say, and getting kids back to class is paramount to make up for learning losses and to help the economy. But as more early-start schools see reports of new infections, some of the unions' dire predictions are being realized.

How long they can hold the line on at-home learning is unclear. Even if coronavirus cases remain high, parents' tolerance for managing their children's education while trying to work from home may wane again. Will unions risk losing public support if they continue to advocate for virtual education? How will they ensure the experience is more productive than in spring — especially since many unions have mere weeks to negotiate work rules related to online learning? 

"If unions message this properly, it will carry the concern to parents: 'There’s no plan. There are no resources. Nobody is helping us out,'" said Linda Kaboolian, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program. "If they don’t position it properly, it will look selfish."

​​​'Don't open a school if infection rates are high'​

As of early August, 17 of the country's 20 largest school districts totaling more than 4 million students planned to start the year with remote learning until conditions in the community improve, according to data tracked by Education Week magazine. 

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