As of October 30, 370,000 Chicago students had been out of school for 10 days as the second-longest teacher strike in the city’s history raged on.
Contract negotiations are bitter, teachers have been arrested, and parents and students alike are panicking over the real-life consequences of a strike. From lack of childcare to canceled sports and college-entrance testing, the effects are far-reaching when teacher’s unions and districts cannot reach an agreeable contract. Some Chicago workplaces have offered “strike camps” for employees without child-care options, as ABC7 has reported, but previous strikes show that entire communities are spread thin when teachers walk out of school.
In 2018, so-called “yellow fever” hit West Virginia as public-school educators went on strike for nine days. A quarter of a million students — many low income — were out of school while negotiations over salary and healthcare dragged on.
Romper recently spoke with two teachers in the state at the time. Jamie McNiel, a Pennsylvania resident, commuted an hour into West Virginia each day to teach at a Harrison County, W.V., elementary school. Teachers working just 30 miles away in Pennsylvania were making $20,000 more per year than her, but the teaching market in the Pittsburgh metro region is oversaturated and, like many educators in the area, McNiel was forced to go elsewhere. She taught yoga in the evenings to pay for gas for her long commute. Many of her fellow teachers worked two and three jobs just to make ends meet.
McNiel has a master’s degree (and the accompanying student loans) as she and her coworkers struggled to fill multiple roles in a high-poverty, under-resourced district. “We aren’t just teachers. We are counselors and nurses,” she tells Romper. “Many days our school didn’t even have a school nurse, and due to the opioid epidemic in our district we were stretched really thin dealing with a lot of students in crisis.”
Strikes can be hard on parents, as McNiel acknowledges. For many of their students, school is the only place they eat each day. School is also child care for parents in low-wage jobs who have no vacation time, and the strike left some parents scrambling for sitters or losing their jobs altogether. “It’s a double-edged sword, knowing fighting for quality in education is hurting the very families are fighting for,” she says.
It’s exhausting being out in the weather and it’s frankly a little infuriating that you have to fight so hard and be away from your students just to be heard and respected.
Tonya Stuart Rinehart is also a teacher in West Virginia and current vice president of the local branch of the American Federation of Teachers. She is also on the steering committee for the West Virginia United Caucus. At the time of the 2018 strike, she wasn’t as active or informed as she now is (recently speaking before the West Virginia House of Delegates to advocate for her students).
Not only a teacher in the district, she’s a parent: two of her three children were affected by the strike. Rinehart knows how hard a strike is for parents and their kids. Teachers worry about what kids are missing out on, and what they could get sucked into during a forced truancy period, especially teens. For kids already struggling with attendance issues, an extended break from school during a strike can tip the scales toward dropping out altogether.
At the same time, she wants people to know those kids are why teachers are striking. “We knew if we fought for better benefits then we could attract quality educators to fill around 700 vacancies in the state,” she says. “Therefore our kids would benefit in the long run during a short-term sacrifice.”
Parents supported the teachers, bringing them food and water to the picket line, showing social media support, and calling state legislators on the teachers’ behalf. McNiel, who also stood the picket line for eight of the nine days of the strike, notes that some people did drive by yelling at the protestors, but she also understands how many layers of complexity there are to a strike. Both teachers had a wide range of feelings leading up to, during, and after the strike, as did their colleagues.
“There’s a ton of anxiety,” Rinehart tells Romper, around “always wanting to make sure our students are taken care of. Then there’s not knowing what each day will bring from the legislature and how that might change what we are doing. It’s exhausting being out in the weather and it’s frankly a little infuriating that you have to fight so hard and be away from your students just to be heard and respected.”
The teachers were excited to get back into the classroom and see their students at the end of the strike, when a tenuous agreement was met. A pay raise was given, but a verbal promise from the governor in regards to health benefits has yet to be fulfilled.
This past February, West Virginia schools went on strike again — this time for basic funding and services. Teachers also fought against the allocation of public funds to charter schools.
As a society we undervalue teachers. A lot of it comes back onto parents' own negative experiences in school.
Ultimately, the school system lost another qualified teacher in the battle over basic rights when McNiel took a private-school job closer to her home, for less pay, starting in the 2018-19 school year. “I had actually secured the job before the strike even started, but walked the picket line anyways as a matter of principle,” she says. “As a society we undervalue teachers. A lot of it comes back onto parents' own negative experiences in school, and a lot of it is misconceptions about the job. People think we work these great hours, with summers and holidays off, and they don’t see what we do. Decisions are made by those high up who haven’t been in the trenches in years.”
Stuart Rinehart feels that massive structural changes are needed to the education structure, or strikes like West Virginia and Chicago will continue to occur, negatively affecting both staff and families. “Education professionals are exhausted. We are dealing with more expectations from above us — administrators, superintendents, and up the line — while our roles continue to change based upon students experiences and backgrounds as they enter our classrooms.”
Teachers are expected to hit academic achievement goals (often tied to school funding), while at the same time battling a lack of resources and investment in students. Yet educators across the country like Stuart Rinehart and McNiel will continue to fight for those students locally as they advocate for change nationally.
Rinehart, as a parent, has no concern about her own children being affected by the strike. “My kids are going to be fine,” she says. “They have good futures ahead of them. They also need to see what it’s like to fight for what is right and for the needs of others, who for whatever reason don’t get the same opportunities as they do.”