David Brooks is a regular commentator on PBS Newshour every Friday night. He is typically banal but inoffensive. This past Friday, he was both banal and offensive.

Judy Woodruff asked him and his colleague Jonathan Capehart to choose people who deserve something nice or a piece of coal in their Christmas stocking. Brooks said he would give the President’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain a model train set for his stocking, but he would give ”the teachers’ unions” a piece of coal because they bear a large share of the blame for the “long, overly overly long” school closures that affected “student attainment” (he meant test scores, not attainment) and that have impaired the “lifelong prospects of a generation of young people,” widened inequality, and impaired social mobility (view here, at 10:51 minutes in or the last segment of the hour). He didn’t name any other villains, just the unions.

This is wrong on many counts.

The teachers’ unions didn’t cause the closures. The pandemic did.

Many teachers were fearful for their lives. Some were immunocompromised or lived with family members who were vulnerable. They reasonably wanted reassurance that schools would reopen safely, and that’s what the AFT demanded in a series of policy documents—starting in April 2020–calling for a safe reopening. By that, the union meant regular testing and sanitizing, masking, social distancing to the extent possible, and ventilation in classrooms. The Trump administration wanted the schools open with no money for safety measures.

Districts went online not because the unions told them to but because the CDC recommended it, and normal concern for the safety of staff and students prevailed.

No one knew at the time what the right course of action was, so school boards and superintendents erred on the side of caution, to protect the lives of staff and students. Was this unreasonable? As a grandmother, I don’t think so.

Stay open and take chances or close the school and shift to virtual learning? It was a tough decision, and it was not made by the teachers’ unions.

Success Academy in New York City is a high-profile charter chain. Its teachers are not unionized. Its CEO Eva Moskowitz decided to close the schools and go virtual in mid-March 2020. In January 2021, Moskowitz decided to close the schools for the year, go virtual, and shorten the calendar by a month. Other non-union charter schools followed SA’s lead.

During the shutdowns, teachers taught virtually, and some double-tasked by teaching some students online and some in their classes.

The demands and uncertainties of the pandemic, coupled with the absurd attacks on teachers for teaching honestly about U.S. history and the outlandish claims that teachers were”grooming” their students for sexual deviance, were profoundly demoralizing. Many teachers left the profession. The number of new entrants has shrunk. Not a word of sympathy or concern from David Brooks.

As for his assertion that the lives of an entire generation have been blighted because of school closings, that is simply hysterical speculation. Very few students liked virtual learning, nor did teachers. But it was necessary for a time. There is no reason to believe that students were irreparably harmed. They are resilient and will bounce back if their teachers get the resources they need and lower class sizes.

It would be far better to hear Brooks advocate on behalf of teachers on national television rather than trot out the tired rightwing cliche about “evil” teachers unions.

Teachers need support, not disrespect. They have had a much more difficult three years than David Brooks.


For David Brooks’ benefit, here is the AFT reopening plan issued in April 2020.


This post was also written for Judy Woodruff, so that she won’t be blindsided the next time David or any other guest spouts anti-union, anti-teacher propaganda.