Teacher unions have certainly received a lot of attention in the news since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Regularly out front and center of the cameras, union members have fought to keep teachers and staff members safe during an uncertain time. And they have taken a lot of heat for their actions.
What began as a request to shutter school doors and switch to virtual education until safety measures could be put into place, ended up dragging on for weeks, months, and a whole school year in some areas.
Teacher unions made it clear that teachers and staff should not return to buildings until they could do so safely. Their demands included ventilation system upgrades in buildings, personal protection equipment, sanitation procedures, testing, and vaccination availability to name a few.
And while many teachers and staff members across the country returned to in-person learning at some point during the last school year, many others did not.
Strangely enough, it was found that the likelihood of returning to in-person learning was less about infection rates and more about the political affiliations and demographics of the area, as school districts with higher concentrations of Republican voters and white citizens were more likely to resume in-person teaching.
But what is perhaps less often discussed is the impact teacher unions have had on virtual learning itself since the pandemic started.
In the fall of the 2020-2021 school year, the mere presence of a teacher union actually accounted for more school districts choosing to start the year with virtual classrooms instead of in-person learning. This was especially true in areas with extensive union contracts because the unions themselves pushed hard to continue virtual learning and keep buildings closed.
And while the unions strongly supported virtual education as means of keeping teachers and staff members out of the classroom, they openly opposed hybrid models of learning.
They reasoned that it was prohibitively difficult for teachers to be forced to juggle both in-person and virtual students at the same time. And instead, they called for a mixture of live instruction and independent work, stating that their teachers were working excessively long hours to develop lessons in multiple formats.
It was only after vaccinations became widely available and the government passed multiple stimulus packages intended to help schools with additional funding that teacher unions started pushing to reopen schools.
They are now claiming that virtual education does not work effectively, that students need in-person learning for both academic and social reasons, and that virtual education should not continue in the upcoming school year or any years thereafter.
In fact, teacher unions are also voicing concerns that continued virtual education will lead to more mandated professional development for teachers, and that virtual learning has not and will not ever be a successful substitute for in-person teaching.
So the fact remains, that whether you agree with teacher unions about the successes and failures of virtual education or not, teacher unions have and will continue to impact virtual learning in the upcoming school year.
Having said that, there are many virtual schools where the success rate of students is higher than their in-person peers. Virtual classes are very powerful and impactful when teachers are trained on the virtual classroom technology along with how to teach virtually. Students benefit significantly from virtual classes since they don’t have so many of the “peer pressures” in-person students have.
For virtual education and learning to be effective, virtual schools or classes need to use the right technology that not only provides a high level of engagement, allowing students to own their learning environment but one that also provides the learning analytics necessary to understand that learning is occurring. Virtual education is NOT the same as online learning and to understand the difference one just needs to attend a virtual classroom in action.
Virtual education is here to stay and as students and parents continue to push for this option, traditional school systems, districts and teacher unions will need to analyze how they incorporate this option within their ecosystem.