In a cartoon posted on Rep. Kevin McCarthy's blog last week, a woman lounges under a tropical sun, adjusting her reflector to even out her tan. There are wisps of clouds in a blue sky, palm trees and a cocktail. In the next panel is a young boy staring quizzically at a learning tablet in the darkness.
The caption: "While students are stuck at home, teachers unions enjoy the good life at their expense."
McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, shared the cartoon in a blog titled "Three Reasons to Open Schools Now" last Monday, but the House minority leader began to receive backlash from his own constituents when he posted the blog to Facebook on Thursday.
"My reaction was, 'Excuse me?'" said Katie Hollman, a middle school teacher in the Bakersfield City School District. "This is my 17th year of teaching, and it’s the hardest year I’ve ever taught."
Hollman said days have been long for both her and her husband, who is also a teacher. At the beginning of the year, they had to learn a suite of new programs, including Zoom, and new programs for roll call and grading just as a baseline. They have juggled double duty trying to teach their classes while keeping an eye on their little one.
"How dare you say I’m on vacation now," she said.
On Monday morning, McCarthy took down the Facebook post and in the afternoon, he released an apology.
"This pandemic has placed enormous strains on everyone involved in education, especially our teachers who are working harder than ever, in different settings, at all different times of the day, in support of their students," McCarthy wrote. "That is why I would like to apologize regarding a recent post of an article and image that many have told me unfairly associated some teachers unions with all of our teachers."
Hollman has been a supporter of McCarthy, and she said she appreciated the apology, but it came too late.
"What took you so long?" she said. "It blew up on day one."
On Tuesday, a spokesperson from McCarthy's office wrote in an email, "Broadly speaking and from early on in the pandemic, Congressman McCarthy has advocated for the safe reopening of our economy and getting our kids back in the classroom."
The cartoon was an apparent dig at a Chicago Teachers Union board member who was fighting against a reopening plan while vacationing in the Caribbean over the holiday break. McCarthy mentions the case in his blog with a link to an article from the conservative publication The Washington Examiner.
There's a perception that teachers unions are Democratic institutions, but that's not true locally.
Approximately 90 percent of teachers in Kern County are unionized and the majority are Republicans, according to Jesse Aguilar, a California Teachers Association board member who represents unionized teachers in Kern, Tulare, Kings, Inyo and Mono counties, as well as the High Desert.
"If you’re a Republican teacher and you’ve been told by your congressman that you’re on vacation and that you don’t have the best interests of students in mind — that upset a lot of people," Aguilar said.
Tracy Dixon, a teacher in BCSD, said the "disrespectful" and "out-of-touch" cartoon angered her enough that she plans to switch her political affiliation and is researching third parties.
"One less registered Republican lives in this house," she wrote in an email to The Californian.
Aguilar called McCarthy's post "offensive" and "out-of-touch."
"I think that stems from the fact that he hasn’t met with educators and asked them what they’re doing," he said. "They’ll tell you they’ve never worked harder. They’d rather be in the classroom. It’s a better way to teach. It’s a better way for students to learn."
But Aguilar said that, like the rest of the public, teachers are also struggling during the pandemic. They're taking care of family members, and some have struggled with serious bouts of COVID-19 and even died themselves.
"The fact that the representative doesn’t realize this is beyond me," Aguilar said. "I think it was a cynical attempt to politicize the pandemic."
McCarthy's apology tried to refocus his attention to unions rather than teachers.
"Who does he think are in teachers unions?" asked Pamela Tarango, a teacher at Downtown Elementary.
Hollman said teachers and unions want the district to open but in a way that takes into account safety and also the equity of the community.
"The union wants it to be open safely," Hollman said.
McCarthy's apology post also took aim at "lockdowns" and said that students' "physical and mental well-being — must be prioritized in any legislation Congress addresses soon on COVID."
Aguilar, who worked at East Bakersfield High School for 24 years, said mental well-being has been a long-standing issue before COVID-19 shone a light on it and agreed it should be a priority. But he took issue with the divisive rhetoric that is out of touch with what is happening on the ground.
"If he agrees these things are an issue, let’s work together and fix it," he said. "A national health crisis is no time to work hard to divide people."
He said McCarthy could be a leader and work hard to push mask-wearing, safety measures in the community and funding that would make school reopening and tackling mental health issues possible.
Timothy Monreal, a CSUB professor of education, works with teachers who are on Zoom 12 hours a day, have retrained and gone above and beyond to help students and families — even putting together fundraisers to help cover rent. He encourages McCarthy to reach out to educators on the ground.
"I can't speak for all educators, but I personally appreciate Representative McCarthy's apology," he wrote in an email to The Californian. "As he said, our children are most important to our communities and futures. I hope the representative and his office prioritize listening to and working with local teachers to ensure they have the support to safely provide the best education possible."