Ruben Navarrette: COVID-19 gave teachers a hall pass for an entire year; but it's time to get back to class

Summary: Someday, this pandemic will end. We can expect our public schools to get back to business as usual — with teachers' unions calling the shots and putting the interests of adults ahead of those of kids.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — It's hard to believe that it was a year ago that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic .

The coronavirus plays tricks with time. The last 12 months seem more like a decade.

On Thursday, in his first primetime address, President Joe Biden paid his respects to the past while also paving a path to the future.

"We all lost something — a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us," Biden told the nation.

As a result of COVID-19, the world has suffered more than 119 million cases and 2.6 million deaths.


Biden also reiterated his pledge to reopen most K-8 public schools in the United States within his first 100 days in office. What once seemed like a lofty goal is now in reach, he said, thanks to the speed at which Americans are getting vaccinated and his administration's plans to give the shots to teachers and staff as soon as possible.

Biden described the reopening of schools as the No. 1 priority of newly sworn-in education secretary Miguel Cardona.

Getting students — at all grade levels — back to class is already the top priority of one subset of Americans. They're called parents.

The biggest divide in this country isn't what you think. It's not labor vs. management, immigrant vs. native, rich vs. poor, white vs. non-white or Republican vs. Democrat.

It is teacher vs. parent. The model for educational success is a three-legged stool. The teacher, parent, and student all have to work together. That can't happen when two of three elements are feuding.

I was a substitute public school teacher for five years in my 20s to support a writing habit. My wife was a Montessori teacher for twice as long, and she was much better in the classroom than I was. Now we're parents of two teenagers and a pre-teen. So we're able to hear — from listservs, message boards and virtual happy hours — what other parents think of their kids' teachers.

The grades are in, and they're not good. Mind you, the relationship between teachers and parents wasn't all that great before COVID-19 struck. But it seems to be worse now.

Everyone takes credit for an honors student, but they point fingers when it comes to the underachiever.


Many parents put too much onto the shoulders of teachers, and fail to do their own part to educate their kids. Many teachers can't wait to blame parents, and the family's home life, when students go astray.

The relationship is especially tense in California, which educates the most K-12 public school students in the country. Individual districts are calling the shots about reopening, and most public school campuses have been closed for an entire year. Elementary schools have been allowed to reopen, as long as students and teachers wear masks and keep their distance. Yet most intermediate and secondary school students are still studying from home through online learning.

Many parents feel as if they're being held hostage. Unable to fully dedicate themselves to making a living, they are angry and frustrated.

Not us. Sure, our teenagers butt heads as they encroach on one another's space. But, unlike a lot of parents, my wife and I actually like our kids — and we feel good about the job we did raising them. Not every home is like that. Yet, in a lockdown, you reap what you sowed.

Meanwhile, the status quo is just fine with the nation's largest teachers' unions. They are the chief villains of this pandemic drama. The unions insist teachers won't return to class until they've all been vaccinated and all schools have been upgraded with safety equipment.

Unions have all the power in these negotiations. No teachers, no classes. Truth is, even beyond the pandemic, the unions have too much power over the entire educational system.

It's not like organized labor — even the groups that represent teachers — care what happens to kids. It proved that last spring at the beginning of the pandemic, when union officials in many school districts worked out emergency changes to existing contracts to increase teacher pay while reducing requirements on educators.

Someday, this pandemic will end. We can expect our public schools to get back to business as usual — with teachers' unions calling the shots and putting the interests of adults ahead of those of kids.


Even after all the horrors we've seen over the past year, that thought is still pretty scary.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at

© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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