For months, Virginia teachers unions have peddled fear: Reopening public schools for in-person learning was and is too dangerous.
They’ve advocated delaying reopening schools until all teachers – and possibly all students – received a COVID-19 vaccine. In January, a Republican-sponsored state Senate bill requiring school districts to offer parents both in-person and virtual options drew a dour response. Forcing schools to open, the unions said, was a “BAD idea.”
“We can recover from a loss of learning, but we can’t recover from a loss of life,” Virginia Education Association president James J. Fedderman told a local TV station earlier this month, more than a week after CDC scientists released a report finding little evidence that reopened schools have contributed meaningfully to spreading the COVID-19 virus.
But this week, Fedderman and the VEA threw their support behind a substitute school-reopening bill proposed by the Democrat-led House and coordinated with Virginia governor Ralph Northam. Why the change?
While Virginia’s teachers unions have been vocal regarding their worries about returning to school, and their disapproval of the school reopening bill (SB 1303), new documents obtained by National Review show the unions also have engaged in an intense behind-the-scenes pressure campaign to influence Democratic state lawmakers over the reopening issue. Over just the past few months, the unions have combined to send thousands of emails to Democratic House delegates about school-reopening plans. And so far, the lawmakers have refused to release the vast majority of the emails, citing a state law that allows them to shield their correspondence from the public.
On February 3, the Republican State Leadership Committee sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 26 Virginia House Democrats who represent four counties – Fairfax, Loudoun, Chesterfield, and Henrico – where teachers unions have opposed school-reopening plans (there are 55 Democrats currently serving in the Virginia House). The requests, obtained by National Review, asked for copies of any correspondence dating back to early November between the delegates’ offices and several national, state, and local teachers unions, and union-aligned groups, “regarding in-person learning and the reopening of public schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
During the three-month period, the 26 delegates reported 5,274 emails and email chains of correspondence with the unions, an average of more than 200 emails per delegate.
The vast majority of the emails, about 90 percent, went to nine Democratic lawmakers, according to a National Review analysis of the FOIA responses.
Delegate David Reid, from Loudoun County in northern Virginia, reported the most, with 857 emails and ten email chains. He was followed by Dan Helmer, who had 675 emails and 72 email chains. House speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, who represents Fairfax County, reported 619 emails totaling more than 1,200 pages.
Others who reported large numbers of union emails include Mark Keam with 592 emails, David Bulova (Fairfax County, 494 emails), Karrie Delaney (Fairfax and Loudoun counties, 584 emails), Kathleen Murphy (Fairfax and Loudoun counties, 263 emails), Kay Kory (Fairfax) with 433 emails, and Suhas Subramanyam (Loudoun, Prince William counties, 246 emails).
The majority of the nine lawmakers did not return requests for comment. Helmer told National Review that “the email thing is a straightforward one.”
He explained that due to the way the FOIA request was structured, “it was like 700 emails or whatever, but they were literally the same email, or same version of an email, 700 times.” He declined to comment on why he refused to release them if they were innocuous and said he was not intimately involved with the legislative discussion on reopening.
“I imagine there’s somebody that’s had tons of discussions with teachers unions, and I’ve got no issue with teachers unions and in fact I’m proud of supporting teachers in general but no [I’m not involved]” he said. “For some period in November, my inbox was filled with form emails from constituents and non-constituents, from all over the state and from some site that just generates them.”
Helmer, whose wife is a Fairfax public school teacher, is one of several Democrats with public ties to the unions. Kory served as a member of the Fairfax school board before pursuing public office, while Keam met with the VEA’s Fairfax chapter to discuss legislative issues in December.
Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, released a few emails from leaders of the American Federation of Teachers in Virginia and the Virginia Education Association. In the emails, the union leaders asked Samirah to support a pause on school-reopening plans, to prioritize school employees for vaccinations, to oppose the school-reopening bill, and to consider cosponsoring a series of other bills supported by the unions. Some of the emails looked like generic blast emails likely sent to all Democratic lawmakers, matching Helmer’s description.
The responses to the FOIAs from most of the delegates were strikingly similar, using much of the same language, and citing the same law to avoid releasing the emails. Some of the lawmakers responded to the FOIA requests with information about specific teachers unions they hadn’t been asked about, but that some of their colleagues had been, indicating some coordination among the Democrats.
Virginia state senator Siobhan Dunnavant, the Republican who sponsored the school-reopening bill, said the education lobby’s opposition to the legislation was “complete.”
“All of the lobbyists for organized education, whether it be the lobbyists for superintendents, the lobbyists for school boards, the lobbyists for the VEA, were all opposed to my bill,” Dunnavant, a doctor from Henrico County near Richmond, told National Review.
Dunnavant said she tried to push a school-reopening plan during a special session last summer, but she didn’t succeed. But she said that by the end of the special session, there were a couple of senate Democrats — Chap Petersen and Joe Morrissey — who “stood up and came to me and said, ‘This can’t go on.’”
They built a coalition this legislative session, which started in January, and have agreed to withhold their votes on the state budget until the school-reopening issue is resolved, Dunnavant said. The state budget cannot pass without their votes.
Morrissey, a self-described “independent Democrat” from Henrico County, said he moved his elementary-aged kids from public school back to in-person Catholic school this past fall after the district announced it would be remote. With standard health-safety measures, he said none of the 26 diocesan schools in the area have had a COVID-19 outbreak.
“These parents, they want their kids back in school,” Morrissey said in a phone interview. “I know there’s some young teachers that want to get back in the classroom — that’s their passion — but I can’t help but think that these unions are driving some of this, and I think it’s wrong.”
Dunnavant introduced her reopening bill in early January. It is one sentence long and says only that all school districts in the state must make virtual and in-person learning options available to all students, leaving the choice to parents. If passed this session, the bill would go into effect in July, effectively impacting the 2021-22 school year.
Fedderman, who did not return a request for comment, released a public statement against the bill, saying that forcing “every school division in Virginia to offer in-person instruction to every student, based on the preference of the student’s parent or guardian” is a “very bad idea.”
The bill passed the Senate 26-13 on February 2. Just days later, Northam called for a “path forward to in-person learning” and said he expected all school divisions to make in-person learning options available to students by March 15. It was not a mandate.
Dunnavant said she doesn’t think House leaders expected her school-reopening bill to pass in the Senate. “They had no bill of their own,” she said.
This week, the Democrat-led House coordinated with Northam to propose a substitute for the bill — supported by Fedderman and others. It also sets a July return, but allows for local school boards to define “in-person instruction,” and lets staff members continue to work “in a fully remote or virtual manner.”
“It’s my bill that they put their language on,” Dunnavant said.
As the sponsor of the bill, she has a lot of power to guide the legislation through the General Assembly and to accept or deny House amendments. At the moment, she said, she and her Senate colleagues are “talking nicely” with House leaders.
“But if their intent is that they’re going to water down this bill . . . so they can keep making the same bad mistakes, then the conversation is not going to go well,” she said.
Fairfax County drew national coverage this past week when some students returned to school, while teachers — 90 percent of whom have either received the first shot of the vaccine or made appointments to do so — remained home. In their place, the county hired more than 800 “classroom monitors” to supervise students receiving remote instruction from their school desks. The job description for the role says nothing about requiring a vaccination to work in schools.
Dunnavant said students doing virtual education while sitting in a classroom “does not meet the definition of in-person, and does not address the issues of learning loss.”
In January, the Fairfax Education Association said local schools can’t reopen safely until there is “adequate PPE, testing and vaccines for all students, families, and staff.”
Aaron Taliaferro, a parent in Fairfax County, has already pulled his two school-age children out of the local public schools. He called the school district’s online learning system a “technological disaster” and said he’s not at all confident that all local schools will really be open for in-person learning come mid-March.
“They’ve had lots of different reopening plans going back to last summer,” he said. “And they just keep moving the goalposts, and they just keep pulling the football out from Charlie Brown’s leg when he’s about to kick it. So, what are they going to do this time?”
Taliaferro, who is involved with the parent group Open Fairfax County Schools, said there are plenty of parties who deserve blame for keeping schools closed: the “teachers unions who don’t want to go back to school,” the “school boards who aren’t willing to call their bluff,” and Northam.
In his community, most stores, restaurants, churches, and salons are open, Taliaferro said, “but not the schools. The schools are somehow too dangerous.”
“The high school students here in Fairfax County, you will find them working at your local grocery stores, at your local Chipotle,” he said. “So the teachers unions want you to believe that it is too dangerous to open schools while they go to the grocery stores to buy groceries, or to the Chipotle to buy a burrito bowl to go from a high school kid that they’re afraid to teach. That is Twilight Zone stuff.”