COVID-19, Mask and Vaccine Mandates, and Continued Challenges Facing America’s Teachers with Laura Juran

Teacher burnout—and resignations—may be leading to a crisis in education. Join Laura Juran, Chief Counsel and Associate Executive Director of the California Teachers Association, for a discussion about the challenges the nation’s teachers have faced during the pandemic, when they have been on the frontline during an unprecedented health crisis.

This episode originally aired on SiriusXM on February 26, 2022.

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Richard Thompson Ford: From Stanford University and SiriusXM, this is Stanford Legal. I’m Rich Ford.

Joe Bankman: And I’m Joe Bankman. Today, we’re talking with Laura Juran, chief council for the California Teaching Association, about teacher shortages, book bans and how schools and unions are working through the pandemic.

Thompson Ford: You know, Joe, during the pandemic, everyone has been stressed out in a number of ways, but probably no one more than parents of school-aged children. One of the places that stress and anxiety and the extra pressures have really come to ground is in the closing of public schools, moving classes into the virtual mode and online. Then, the conflicts around reopening, how quickly schools should reopen and under what conditions.

So, a lot of that has set up some fairly high profile, but maybe unrepresentative conflicts, between teachers who don’t want to open as early and parents who want the schools open so they can get their kids back to in-class instruction.

Bankman: That’s right, Rich. A lot of that stress, in turn, gets reflected and directed to teachers. Even before the Great Pandemic, teachers were leaving their jobs, I won’t say in droves, but at alarming numbers, creating teacher shortages, really throughout the nation.

Now, that stress and the Great Resignation have accelerated that process. Today, we’re going to talk to our guest who has her finger on the pulse, as it were, of where California teachers are with respect to all of these issues.

Thompson Ford: So, there’ve been in the news of several accounts of dramatic teacher walkouts from schools. The way it’s often portrayed is that the teachers have walked out, the parents are upset, they can’t send their kids to school. And, it’s a clash between teachers leaving the classroom out of concerns about COVID transmission and the parents who need to send their kids to school. But Laura, you are on the front lines of a lot of these controversies. Could you give us some context about what’s going on with these teacher walkouts?

Laura Juran: Yes, absolutely, Rich. Thank you. I think that portrayal you’ve described is inaccurate, by and large. Yes, there have been a couple of cases earlier in the pandemic, where a lot of educators were frustrated with the lack of safety measures in place to deal with COVID. But, by and large, school districts in California and the unions that represent the employees in those schools have actually bargained well together, to make schools as safe as they could be during this pandemic.

I think, Rich, if I can provide a little bit of context, when the COVID pandemic hit, it’s important to remember that, in California schools, we educate over six million students in over 10,000 schools, in over 1000 school districts. On a dime, teachers had to convert to remote learning, engage students in a totally different platform that was far from ideal. That no one thought was ideal, during a very stressful time.

Schools had to figure out how to get Wi-Fi to kids. Schools had to figure out how to get school lunches to kids. The pandemic, don’t forget, of course, hit people of color the most hard. In California, about 78% of public school children are kids of color. So, it was a tremendous challenge. The science was evolving and it really was an incredibly difficult challenge.

It didn’t help that the federal government and, arguably, state governments had not invested sufficiently in public health before the pandemic. Which left us a little, I think, flatfooted as a society, to deal with the challenge of the pandemic. It’s just, I think that context is important to understand the challenge that everyone was facing. By and large, there were actually many things I think that the state, government and school districts in California did well.

Bankman: Thank you, Laura. I think that educating six million students, I mean, we think of our own office environments, but much less challenging. Because, for one thing, they’re all adults. We have slightly longer attention spans, at least some of us. We don’t have to deal with our colleagues and their parents at the same time. Can you give us a feel-good story, about how would you reframe what we’ve done in California and what the school teachers and their union managed to do?

Juran: Yes. Again, we have over a thousand school districts in California and my organization, the California Teachers Association has over a thousand chapters representing employees. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a framework put in place, a labor management framework, signed on by a broad coalition of education, stakeholders, management, labor and even state agencies. Around trying to negotiate around the pandemic.

By and large, in the vast majority of cases in California, agreements were negotiated to try and get PPE in place. Again, I think there was a misconception in the media that, somehow, teachers’ unions were keeping schools closed last year. The reality was that teachers wanted schools to be opened safely. They were advocating for safety measures, and this is what, of course, unions have long done for workers in the workplace.

I mean, we can all agree that we want to have safe school environments for kids. So, in one example, it might be in San Diego. The San Diego Education Association represents the educators in the San Diego Unified School District. They sat down at the table with UC San Diego medical experts, public health folks. They got a community of folks together and hammered out a framework for making the schools safe.

They were actually collecting data too, that was useful around transmission rates and testing protocols and so on. That was pretty effective and it’s a good story. It’s not one you hear a lot about in the media.

Thompson Ford: It’s interesting that the media account, with the walkouts and the clashes between teachers and students that’s taken up so much air time, the teachers are on the front line of a lot of anger and anxiety surrounding COVID generally. It seems that teachers have always been under great deal of pressure, but now, maybe they’re under more pressure than ever. How’s that affecting retention of teachers? How is that the quality of the job for teachers?

Juran: Unfortunately, it’s affecting the job really negatively, and the profession in a very adverse way. Let me say that we had a bit of a, we’re talking now about the Great Resignation among the workforce in general. But, there was sort of a great resignation of teachers before the pandemic.

There were a lot of reasons for that. In part, this goes back over 10 years, where, after the Great Recession, there were a lot of layoffs of educators. But frankly, there hasn’t been enough done to make the profession officially attractive in the first place, to recruit folks to go into teacher preparation programs.

In the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, there was a 35% drop in teacher preparation programs, in enrollees. It’s a combination of relatively low pay, particularly given the debt one takes on to get a master’s degree and get credentialed. Stressful working conditions, even in the best of times, before the pandemic. And, a lack of respect, I think, for educators in too many cases.

What we’re finding now is, for example, there was a national survey of teachers around the country. 55% of teachers have said that they are more likely to leave the profession now or retire early, specifically as a result of the pandemic. That was double the number that said the same thing in summer of 2020.

Thompson Ford: Yeah. As a consequence of that, are we looking at something like a shortage of teachers? I mean, typically, if you’ve got a profession where the job is hard, then the pay needs to be higher in order to make up for that and to attract people to the profession. Yet, teachers’ salaries haven’t gone up a whole lot, have they?

Juran: No, they have not. We saw the RedforEd movement around the country before the pandemic, where a lot of teachers around the country said they were really fed up with inadequate pay for very difficult working conditions. There have been some improvements and teachers’ unions obviously do what they can to try and improve that situation and push for better working conditions, which are students learning conditions, you know?

I mean, we all know that students need caring, well-qualified, well-trained educators in their schools. Research, of course, is also clear that teacher shortages depress student achievement, right? Because when you have more churn in the system, less-qualified teachers tend to leave the profession more. At twice or even three times the rates of well-prepared teachers.

That kind of churn is not good for student achievement. It’s a serious issue and there are many organizations I’d recommend. The Learning Policy Institute has published a number of studies around the teacher shortages and how it’s reached a real crescendo now, as a result of the pandemic.

Bankman: Of course, when we don’t have enough workers in some industries, all of us who are consumers know you just pay more. The restaurant raises its prices, and if you don’t like it, you don’t eat there, but that’s the way it is. To pay teachers more, we need to raise taxes and that’s kind of the third rail of American politics in general. So, the market, to the extent there’s a market, it doesn’t adjust in the same way for public servants.

Juran: That is true. The reality though, is public education is essential to our democracy. It is absolutely essential. If we don’t have an educated workforce and we don’t train and educate our kids to participate fully in our society and our democracy, we’re in trouble. I think we all agree on that. So, investing in public education is a unique obligation and in fact, a constitutional obligation, under the state constitutions.

There’s a fascinating book that Derek Black wrote, called Schoolhouse Burning, which talks about that history of every state constitution actually requiring the state to provide a system of common schools to educate our kids. Those are investments that are constitutionally required and critical if we want to maintain a healthy democracy.

Thompson Ford: In a sense, what’s been going on post-COVID has just exacerbated a trend that was already in place pre-COVID. With teachers being overburdened, underpaid, burnt out. Post-COVID, what can we do in order to improve the situation? Hopefully, COVID’s on its way out and things will get back to normal, but you’re saying normal wasn’t that great. What are the reforms that we can make in order to make our schools better and our teachers happier?

Juran: I think we need to invest in our public institutions. That includes public health authorities and efforts, as well as public education. I think there’s a lot we can do that’s not just about compensation. Which is, I think, important. As Joe pointed out, as just a matter, frankly, of common sense.

If people have other options to make more money, particularly when they have advanced degrees, why are they going to choose teaching when it’s so difficult? But, you can make the conditions, also, more supportive of teachers, you can respect their professional judgment. I think we’re unfortunately seeing, I mean, we’ve seen this before, this is not new. But, this sense that teachers, they don’t have our kids best interests at heart, or somehow are indoctrinating children in ways that parents aren’t agreeing with, or what have you.

I think showing teachers more, providing them more support and also, frankly, providing kids more support. If you have just more adults in the system, say mental health counselors, for example, for kids. We’re seeing one example that I think is a bright spot, is the community schools model. Which is also not new, but there’s a real renewed effort around investing in what are called community schools.

California has invested a lot of money, now, to its credit, in establishing community schools. Which are intended to connect with other nonprofits and other organizations in a community, to provide wraparound services for kids. Particularly for the kids who face the most obstacles. I think that’s a real bright spot as well. If those kinds of efforts are put in place, teaching would be more attractive. It’d be easier to not just attract folks to the profession, but help retain them once they’re there.

Bankman: You know, Laura, a lot of people look at the school system and they say the problems are the unions. I know we’ve touched upon that a little bit. One of the false claims seems to be that the unions have led to walkouts, which is just empirically not true. There haven’t been that many walkouts. In fact, our schools managed to keep going in the ways a lot of our businesses didn’t.

Another complaint you sometimes hear is that it’s too hard to get rid of bad teachers. We’ve heard that there’s even been some litigation on that. Sometimes people blame the unions for that. Can you talk about the unions, teachers, meritocracy? How would you respond to those broad claims?

Juran: Those claims are inaccurate and that litigation failed as well. Part of the narrative around the “bad teacher” is part of a bigger conversation that we probably don’t have time for. Around attacking public schools and attacking unions, because they’re seen as supportive of the Democratic Party. That’s kind of a big conversation, but I think that narrative, though, is actually false.

I mean, people go into teaching because they care about kids, because they want to provide a quality education to kids and they care about our futures. Our future as a society. That’s the reality, and I think focusing on mistakes that teachers make or some teachers that are not performing well is a real distraction from the real problems.

The teacher shortage is a way bigger problem than focusing on 2% of the profession that could be performing better, for example. Even before the pandemic, in Oakland Unified, which is a district that serves a lot of kids who face a lot of obstacles, 75% of teachers in Oakland Unified leave within five years. This is before the pandemic. That’s the real problem.

I think that is what we need to be focusing on. This distraction around teachers’ unions, and teachers’ unions have long supported providing supports for kids, equity in schools. I can give you a ton of examples. We supported the local control funding formula in California, which is intended to provide equitable funding to schools and provide greater resources to schools that serve a lot of high-needs kids. Lots of examples like that.

Teachers’ unions and other unions, generally, I strongly maintain are a real force for good. One example from the pandemic, which is a tiny example, is that unions pushed for supplemental paid sick leave for all workers. Now, not once, but twice, the California legislature passed legislation providing supplemental paid sick leave for folks who need to be out of work because of COVID. Because they have COVID or they’re caring for some with COVID.

Unions push for those kinds of measures, which help, not just the employees we represent, but employees all over California. Help our communities writ large. I think at the pandemic, again, shows how important it is that unions can play an important role. I’m sure you’re hearing about, in terms of the Great Resignation, there’s actually renewed interest, even in the private sector, in unionizing. Because a lot of workers are realizing that they want to turn to their unions, or they already have, or maybe consider unionizing. Because unions are a collective voice in the workplace and can push for safety measures and other measures that helpful for, really, everyone.

We’ve seen, just even here in California, we actually have organized new charter schools at higher rates during the pandemic. We actually did our first virtual organizing with the Downtown College Prep Charter. We’ve organized charters down in Southern California. So, we actually have an uptick in membership as a result of this pandemic, believe it or not.

I think that’s, again, because workers now feel empowered, many are fed up. We’re seeing this with the Great Resignation, we’re seeing it, obviously, in the teaching profession. Unions are a place that workers are going.

Thompson Ford: We’ll be back with Laura Juran to say more about the plight of teachers during the pandemic and beyond. Next on SiriusXM Business Radio, Channel 132.

Bankman: We’re back here with Laura Juran. Laura, we were talking about the stressors on teachers and the Great Resignation. Is the politicization of public education? What of those stressors? If so, how would you describe that?

Juran: Yes, absolutely. I think that what we’re seeing now reflects, in part, the stress of the pandemic, right? How we politicize what is really a public health emergency with this pandemic. Let me just say first, what teachers want on this. I mean, teachers want to teach the truth. Teachers want to have a rich and diverse curriculum that accurately reflects this nation’s history.

That includes being honest about race and racism in this country. So that we, as a society, can reckon with our mistakes and make a more just present and future for our society. Teachers want students to learn critical thinking skills, particularly older students, right? They want students to be exposed to a diverse set of viewpoints. Again, particularly for older students.

Parents, actually, in many ways, agree with that. We all sort of agree that teachers should be providing a rich and diverse curriculum that is honest. But what we have, I think we’re in a situation where some politicians are tapping into a real sense of uncertainty. The stress that the pandemic has really exacerbated. Some politicians are trying to tap into that to try and ban teaching about race. Censor the trained professionals who are in our classrooms every day and have to do this work.

The reason why, I think, this really came up now, I mean the CRT controversy and the like, I think it was probably driven by George Floyd’s killing and the ground swell of support that we saw in the wake of that for a racial reckoning. That happened while we’re all enduring this tremendous stress around this pandemic. It’s also not just about race, Joe and Rich. It’s also, we’re seeing laws that ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity.

We’re seeing, I think at my last count, I think at least 10 states have passed laws that prohibit transgender students from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity. So, this is happening in a couple of different ways and it’s putting even more stress on educators in the system. Educators are facing a lot of harassment, from parents, social media.

I mean, I can give you examples from members of ours. I mean, everything from, we had a member who had a Black Lives Matter sign in her virtual background while teaching. A parent recorded it and she was just taken apart on social media. We’ve had members who’ve been attacked for trying to talk at conferences about how they try and support LGBTQ youth who are unsafe. That has been misconstrued as some kind of Marxist indoctrination of our kids. I think it’s very undermining of the system, and worrisome.

Bankman: Laura, all the attacks you’ve mentioned so far, broadly speaking, seem attacks from what we would simplistically call the Right. Is it just the Right or teachers having to negotiate with dissatisfied parents and stakeholders of all sides?

Juran: I think there are dissatisfied parents on all sides, on issues related to specifically last year, whether schools should be open for in-person instruction. I think there was a lot of understandable frustration around how the state and districts and the federal government for that matter, were managing the pandemic. Those frustrations we see across the board. I think particularly the controversies around, which I think is a manufactured controversy, Critical Race Theory.

The book bans that we’re seeing from the Right and politicians on the Right. Who think that this motivates their base or otherwise actually undermines public schools. I mean, there is an agenda out there. This is generally on the Right, to privatize schools. There’s an effort and interest that some folks on the right have, to criticize public institutions, criticize public schools. Because they do support things like vouchers and other privatization efforts.

This is not just guesswork on my part. I mean, you have folks who are pushing these agendas actually saying out loud why our parents should just leave these schools? That is an agenda that we’re seeing wit this privatization agenda. I think it’s unfortunate, the way some folks have tried to use the pandemic to push an agenda, which I think is very counterproductive to where we need to be going as a society.

Thompson Ford: Right. So, on the one hand, the schools have become a political football for other ideological conflicts. But, at the same time, there’s this agenda to just undermine public education. In that sense, all of this seems to come together. The teacher dissatisfaction, the getting parents dissatisfied with the public schools. Well, all of that disserves public education, but it certainly does serve the agenda of people who’d like to undermine it or replace it with vouchers and private schools.

Juran: That’s exactly right. The book bans are the same. I mean, we’re not really seeing that so much here in California. Although we do have examples in particular districts where some groups have rallied at a school board meeting about Toni Morrison being read in schools and things. But, the kind of book bans that we’re seeing legislatively from towns or states in places like Tennessee, that too is, I think, part of this effort to capitalize on a lot of stress and frustration with the pandemic.

To try and capitalize on that to undermine public education. Which I think is a concern, again, as I’ve said before. Public education is fundamental to our democracy. It’s critical, I think. In general, I feel like we need to build up more trust in our public institutions and public education being arguably the most important of our public institutions,

Bankman: Laura, if somebody wanted to explore some of these issues on their own, we always like to give people some sites. I want to ask you that, where you’d recommend they go. I know you’ve mentioned one or two sites already. The other thing I want to ask you is about volunteer opportunities. Because sometimes, some of our listeners might have extra time and you might learn a lot and have a great experience getting involved in a school.

Juran: I appreciate that. I think, in terms of resources, again, I think there’s a lot that’s been published on the teacher shortage right now. It really is, I don’t think I’m exaggerating by describing it as a crisis. I think this is a real problem. If we don’t have a stable workforce in our schools, we’re not going to be able to equip kids and educate kids. Make them ready to be full functioning adults. It’s critical.

As I said, the Learning Policy Institute, which is an organization that Linda Darling-Hammond spearheaded, they’re doing terrific work. They published a ton of reports around the teacher shortage. Not just the data to establish the crisis, but then to talk about the solutions. So, I would highly recommend that as a resource, for example.

On volunteer opportunities, there are a lot at the local levels. I would, there, go to your local school district and there are ways to get involved. As I said, I mentioned the community school model earlier. We’re seeing more around that and schools are partnering in that model with nonprofits in the community. Even to provide medical and dental services in schools and the like.

The public school districts invite a lot of parental and community input. So, go to school board meetings. If you’re someone who is concerned about efforts to ban discussions of race in schools, be a voice and support of teaching truth. Go to your school board meetings and speak to that.

Thompson Ford: We’d like to thank Laura Juran. I’m Rich Ford for Joe Bankman and this is Stanford Legal on SiriusXM Business Radio, Channel 132.