Educators and families fundamentally want the same thing out of our public education system: students to be safe and to succeed in school. The criminal mishandling of this pandemic by Trump and his cronies has pitted the short term interests of educators against the needs of families.
At this point many school districts have announced that they will be 100% remote at the start of the school year. In the past few weeks, many educators have rallied behind the slogan #RefuseToReturn. Educators are right to be wary of the rushed and unsafe push to reopen schools. At the same time, many families, seeing the impact remote learning has had on their children, are desperately hoping for an in-person option this fall. Educators and families must unite around their shared interest in a public school system that would truly work for students, educators, and families, while also keeping us safe this fall.
It Didn’t Have To Be This Way
There are now more than four million coronavirus cases in the U.S. and almost 145,000 deaths since March. Trump’s horrendous mismanagement of this crisis has left educators, students, and their families grappling with what school will look like in the fall. Even before the virus arrived in the U.S., our for-profit healthcare system denied millions of people healthcare. This discriminatory system set the stage for the destruction caused by COVID-19, especially in communities of color and among the working class more broadly.
Had there been a coordinated, well-organized response that prioritized people’s health and safety over corporate profits, we would be in a dramatically safer position. Trump is adamant that we reopen the economy by whatever means necessary, and in order to do this, people need to go back to work. For people to go back to work, children need to be back in school.
If learning remains remote, students will continue to struggle with isolation and the very real challenges of digital learning. If we reopen physical schools without the proper safety measures in place, we risk triggering a deadly new wave of coronavirus cases. Just as the bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to its deadliness, the chronic underfunding of our public schools has set working class people up for an impossible choice: reopening unsafely in person, or going remote in the fall.
Pre-existing Crisis in Schools
Public schools were struck with the coronavirus crisis when they were already in desperate need of funding. In our outdated facilities there are inadequate ventilation systems and windows that won’t open. The last time asbestos risk was assessed, the federal government determined that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers were potentially exposed to the deadly material. The water crisis of Flint, Michigan is a tragic example of the profound damage caused to young people when their environment is poisoned; 30,000 schoolchildren were exposed to lead, a neurotoxin.
Educators have been saying for decades that class sizes are too large, with many educators seeing hundreds of students each day. There was a learning gap even before the pandemic, often described as an opportunity gap.
This points to the fact that disparities result from inadequate resources, not differences in children’s ability to learn. Because property values are tied to school funding, some districts — particularly those with predominantly Black and Latino students — have always had less funding per student. During the Great Recession, more than 350,000 jobs were lost in the field of education and a decade later, 29 states still provide less total school funding per student than in 2009. We never recovered from the last recession. The challenge of schools reopening cannot be separated from the unforgivable way public schools have been denied critical resources for decades.
No Option Is Zero Risk
There is no option that is without risk to the health and safety of students and school staff. With entirely remote learning, students will struggle academically, socially, and developmentally. Many caregivers who cannot work from home will have to choose between leaving their child to navigate remote learning alone or losing their income. Many families, including those of teachers, will have to make significant sacrifices due to the lack of childcare. Parents with the financial means will have options to pay for childcare and tutoring. The public school system, as horrifically unequal as it is, ensures at least a certain minimum access to education for all. Without in-person schooling, inequities in kids’ opportunities for education are likely to worsen.
However, a return to any in person learning without the necessary safety measures would be deadly. While research shows that young children are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID-19, it is less clear at this stage what role those students will play in spreading it. A study of 65,000 people in South Korea found that students ages 10-19 spread the virus “at least as well as adults do.”
Under a hybrid scenario (a combination of in-person and remote learning), learning and social time will undoubtedly be lost to the necessary but extensive enforcement of safety protocols. If schools reopen without the resources to carry these out effectively, students, educators, and the families of both, are in real danger.
Crisis Learning: The Drawbacks of Remote Learning
This past Spring, a massive burden was suddenly thrust onto families, many of whom had no choice but to continue going into work while their children struggled with remote learning. In addition to students falling behind academically, there are millions of students who rely on schools for counseling, crisis support, meals, and daytime shelter. Students were isolated from their peers, and missed out on important social emotional services. Understandably, many parents are dreading remote learning, even as many of those same parents are fearful of their kids returning to in-person school.
The transition to remote learning in the spring was also chaotic for educators, many of whom had difficulty connecting with their students, especially those students who did not have adequate access to technology. Educators had no time to prepare for remote learning, and had to adapt their curriculum while teaching it to adjust to an online platform. Remote learning in the fall would pose new challenges, including building relationships online with new students and families. These relationships are critical for any degree of success in remote or in-person schooling.
Educators, Families, and Health Experts Should Decide When/How We Go Back
Despite the limitations of remote learning, in places where the virus is raging and case numbers are increasing, physical schools are simply not safe. While they are closed, districts should be fully investing in the safety measures that will make buildings safe. This should include a massive jobs program to revamp school infrastructure–more than half of our public schools nationally needed repairs even before this pandemic. This can be paid for by taxing the rich and corporations. If districts and states fail to invest in these measures, schools will not be safe for students, families, or educators to return.
Whether we return entirely remote or in person, we must tax the rich to solve the decades-long crisis of underfunded public schools. With statewide budget shortfalls in most states, we must tax big business to get the funding we’ve needed all along. The Tax Amazon movement in Seattle shows that it is possible to tax big business when there is a strong, working class, multi-racial movement.
New revenue should be used to guarantee high-speed internet in every home, a device for every student, and an expansion of meals-on-wheels programs for families. Those who stay home with their children should receive paid leave. New revenue also needs to be used to extend robust unemployment benefits and a cancellation of rent to help working families ride out this crisis.
Students prioritized for in-person learning should be the most at risk students and those of essential workers who cannot stay home. However, the most at risk students can’t be guinea pigs for the broader school population. Schools should not reopen physically until pre-determined scientific metrics are met and discussed by families, educators, and health experts. Many forms of hybrid models are being discussed, including a week-remote, week-in-person model, and a model that rotates between days in school and days remote every week.
Any reopening plans need to be made based on local conditions and by democratic safety committees made up of teachers, parents, students, and health experts. When these committees determine that public health metrics justify physical buildings reopening, necessary resources must be provided.
- Personal Protective Equipment provided for all staff and students. Studies have shown masks dramatically reduce the likelihood of infection.
- A system set up to regularly sanitize classrooms and a mass hiring of custodial staff trained in cleaning protocols.
- Use of temporary, outdoor structures while outdated ventilation systems in school are replaced.
- A cohort, or pod, system where students remain with the same students and educators and do not interact with other groups. Educators could support small groups of students that would alternate in-school days.
- Careful social distancing procedures within schools–no direct parent contact with school staff except in emergencies.
- Under a scenario where educators get sick or must quarantine, they should not have to use their time off. Educators who are at a greater personal risk should be supported in a transition to remote teaching or allowed paid leave.
- Class sizes should not exceed 10 students. We must hire new educators to fill in for those that are immunocompromised and older. These teachers should stay employed by the public schools so we can permanently reduce class sizes.
- Regular testing with rapid results should be available to everyone who enters a school building. Investments should be made into labs to improve their capacity and result time.
Role of The Labor Movement and Unions
With the 2018 teacher strike wave, we’ve seen the beginning of a resurgence of a fighting labor movement, particularly among educators. This crisis illustrates who actually makes society run, and who is most capable of curbing a pandemic: imagine if the healthcare workers organizing for PPE and warehouse workers organizing for deep cleaning of facilities had played a role in planning the response to this pandemic.
Now we are seeing the important role that educator unions can play in fighting for safe, fully funded schools. UTLA has put forward a series of conditions that have to be met before they will return to in person teaching, and put forward additional broader demands, including Medicare for all.
The Demand Safer Schools Coalition has been launched and includes the Boston Teachers Union, the Chicago Teachers Union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Democratic Socialists of America among others. This coalition is calling for a national day of action on August 3. Educator unions should make concerted attempts to involve parents in these coalitions and in broader discussions about reopening. Sections of the political establishment will try to cynically pit parents and educators against one another in order to distract from what is in the best interests of both groups: a massive investment in public schools paid for by taxing the rich. Educators and families will need to fight together for a complete overhaul of our public education infrastructure, to not reopen schools until the scientific data supports it, for police free schools, for a moratorium on charter schools, and for a tax on billionaires and Wall Street. We also need to fight against rotten attempts by privatizers to take advantage of the crisis facing public schools. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced months ago his intention to team up with Bill and Melinda Gates – notorious charter advocates – to “reimagine schools.” This is code for attempts to drive through brutal privatization, something we must defend against.
Educator unions should call for school and district-based community meetings to unite families and educators. They should also form building-based health and safety committees, including parents and health experts, to determine when facilities are safe for students again. These will need to be connected to local and statewide coordinating bodies.
We need to build fighting unions that can win schools that are not only safe in the fall, but are fully funded going forward. Unions should be actively taking up demands to defund the police to fund education, but this won’t be enough. We need to tax the rich to fully fund education.
The Problem is Capitalism
The reality is that the very system of capitalism is detrimental to children’s development. Capitalism keeps millions of people in low-paying, exploitative jobs, and makes us pay excessive amounts for healthcare and housing. Studies show that childhood trauma resulting from poverty directly inhibits children’s working memory, which is critical for learning, and is linked to the longstanding opportunity gap. This points to the fact that educators and parents have a stake in fighting for a system that works for our young people.
The current system of capitalism necessitates making decisions based on profit, leaving huge swaths of the world in poverty. This profit-motive is precisely why the so-called education reform movement has championed privatization of our public schools for so long: they would rather turn a profit than do what is best for our children, educators, and communities.
Educators and families are up against not just cuts and privatization, but the broader system of capitalism, making it that much more important that we are organized behind broad-based demands. Education workers and parents have a lot to win for our schools and our students. Trump and those driving a top-down approach to recklessly reopen schools will attempt to pit parents and educators against each other. The only way forward is for the united working class to fight for the fully funded, safe public schools our students and educators deserve.
- Committees of educators, parents, and students must be set up to decide how schools reopen. If safety requirements are not met educators should be prepared to strike.
- No layoffs! No cuts! Tax the rich & cut police budgets by at least 50% to fund education!
- No faith in corporate politicians! The Democrats and Republicans alike are failing educators in pushing for the schools that our students need. We need a new party beholden to working people!
- Access to high quality, free internet!
- Our school infrastructure is crumbling. We need a massive jobs program to revamp school infrastructure!
- Educator unions should rapidly launch organizing drives in charter schools and non-union schools.
- Link with public sector unions facing vicious cuts to fight for the working and living conditions we need!