Americans alive in August 1981 likely remember what is arguably the most stunning and at the same time daring displays of a political leader taking on a powerful interest group—Ronald Reagan summarily firing over 11,000 air traffic controllers.
After demanding 11% pay raises and a shortened 32-hour work week, which was rejected by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) negotiators, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) declared a strike on August 3, 1981. Declaring the illegal strike a “peril to national safety” that same day President Reagan declared, “They are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” And make good on the promise Reagan did two days later.
The oft forgotten part of the story, though, is this—PATCO endorsed Reagan in the November 1980 election. Thus Reagan had to take on not just a powerful interest group but an ally as well.
Now imagine the unthinkable—Joe Biden orders all K-12 public school teachers nationwide back to work within 48 hours or find themselves without their jobs. Of course the president does not have the legal authority to dismiss those employed by state, county, or local units of government. But what a display of moral authority it would be if Biden took on the nation’s two most powerful national teacher unions—the National Education Association and the more militant American Federation of Teachers.
But why do this? Answer—to rectify a terrible injustice being committed against our children that has gone on for over six months too long. Sadly, teacher union leaders across the country, though obviously not all individual educators themselves, have chosen to ignore the near unanimity of science and guidance from experts on Coronavirus transmission in schools and among our youth.
Here’s a quick primer. In April 2020 (yes, nearly a year ago) The Journal of the American Medical Association noted children “develop only mild symptoms and typically recover within two weeks.” Lancet followed in June with “Covid-19 is generally a mild disease in children, including infants.” There were more studies, and not one found anything different or contradictory. The watershed moment came in July when the esteemed American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that schools should reopen for in-person instruction. We appeared poised to have in person K-12 instruction start in August 2020. What happened? Politics.
President Trump chimed in with, “Stop this nonsense. We need to open our schools.” But rather than unify on the issue of education, one not normally prone to partisan divisiveness, “The Left” hardened in opposition. Speaker Pelosi said on CNN, “Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus.” Their vehement and unfounded opposition persists to this very day in February 2021.
Truth in advertising now—I taught high school social studies for nearly fifteen years in a high achieving district in Massachusetts 2002-16. It was a phenomenal career. But within hours of Trump declaring schools should reopen last summer I found my former colleagues taking to Facebook with rants like, “Stay in your lane!” as an example of one of the more polite posts. I tried to explain the science, but to no avail. To this very day, 69 children age 5-14 have died from Coronavirus according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Even if you believe one death is too many, consider that 522 children commit suicide in any given year. Government data reported in The Washington Post notes children are much more likely to die of homicides (1,865 in 2016), drowning (995), and fires/burns (340).
The only other logical step we might have taken as a country last fall, besides reopening, would have been a complete one year pause or sabbatical. If the virus was so bad, everything should have completely closed until Fall 2021. To that end, school staff would have been furloughed. No pay for no work. Zero. If that seems untenable, consider where we find ourselves now by muddling through at home learning. Pediatrician after pediatrician has been warning of the permanent and irreversible damage that has been done to our children. Many are indeed one year behind.
This school year is almost three-quarters over. Joe Biden still has time to lead. He preached unity in the campaign and Inaugural address. I can think of no better single act he could take that would bring Republicans, conservatives, moderates, some Democrats, and most parents together. And, let’s not forget the biggest winner of Biden taking a page out of Reagan’s 1981 playbook—our children. Will he do it? I doubt it.
Jeff Szymanski works in political communications for AMAC, a senior benefits organization with nearly 2.4 million members. He previously taught high school social studies for 15 years and was even a past President of his local Teachers’ Association.