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Unsafe for Now: Fight for a Safe School Reopening

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The COVID pandemic has shaken up society from head to toe. Nothing has been left untouched as nearly 25 million Americans have been infected and over 400,000 have died. Soaring cases should rule out school reopenings, but America’s 40 million students need a plan for getting back in the classroom.

Many schools are empty as teachers use all their talents and skills to try to teach our increasingly depressed, struggling children online. Others have been forced back and are teaching in unsafe conditions. Parents are overwhelmed. Women, and women of color in particular, are leaving the workforce at an unprecedented rate due to a lack of sufficient childcare. Everything about 2020 sucked for workers and working class families.

All of the problems facing working class kids have been accentuated and accelerated by the pandemic. Tens of millions of Americans are behind on their rents, their credit card bills, and medical bills. The number of Americans depending on food banks has doubled.

Teachers have always had to deal with child poverty, with kids learning on empty stomachs, or affected by shootings and all the other poverty-related social crises. However, the current situation is on a new scale.

Last year saw a 31% rise in mental health related ER visits for 12-17 years olds compared to 2019. Gun violence has exploded. Children suffering sleeping problems, nightmares, aggression, and bedwetting have increased. Lockdowns and anxiety has seen a spike in domestic violence against women and children.

A New Day

The election of Biden-Harris has lifted hopes that the pandemic will now be contained and life might return to some level of normalcy. However, our children deserve better than the old normal, where too many kids were left behind, where privateers chopped away at the roots of public schools, and where our schools were dramatically under resourced. 

For the past 100 years, the main defenders of children’s right to the education they deserve has been the teachers unions. Some two million unionized teachers, along with support staff, have held together schools that have been defunded for decades. Teachers went on strike for smaller class sizes and more funding for their kids. Parents overwhelmingly stood by their teachers when they struck, feeding them, marching with them, knowing that their support was critical to teacher victories. And when teachers won, children benefitted.

Vaccine Rollout

During the pandemic, big business wanted schools to immediately re-open, as this was necessary to bring parents back to work. Big business’ priorities have led Democratic and Republican administrators around by the nose, and essentially prolonged this pandemic way beyond what anyone ever expected. They do not care about the safety of our kids, parents or workers.

Many areas around the country need to go back on full lockdown, which must be accompanied by full pay for all locked down workers. Half measures or reopening schools in a less than safe way will only drag on this fatal pandemic.

A safe re-opening strategy will require clarification of two elements: control and funding. Teachers must work with parents for a plan that is considered safe, not simply for teachers and students, but for the wider community. The kind of funding that is necessary to reopen schools when COVID numbers recede will require a complete re-thinking of education and a reboot of school infrastructure. Biden has promised $170 billion for school reopening. This is far more than we saw under Trump, but we need a real plan for how this money is to be spent. We need to make demands like class size being capped at twenty for genuine social distancing to be possible. This could include the take-over of empty office building space. Given that so many kids have fallen behind, this twenty student cap should be made permanent, which would be a massive step forward for the poorest public schools that crowd 30 to 40 students into classrooms. We need a plan to revamp HVAC systems in school buildings to ensure proper ventilation in the buildings. And this is just the bare minimum. In order to make it possible for a child to learn, we need to hire far more teachers and support staff, we need new and more supplies in every classroom, and we need technology for students who may not have access at home.

Part of making school reopenings on a widespread scale possible means a mass vaccination campaign in the schools. The New York teachers union has taken a proactive approach, organizing lists of its members to be able to ensure that vaccination of teachers goes swiftly as soon as teachers’ time comes for the jab. 

School workers, parents and communities, together with health experts, should ultimately decide when and how schools reopen. The possibility of a return to school for students, under safe conditions, will be a huge sigh of relief for millions of parents and students alike.

No Progress without Teacher-Parent Unity

The battle between parents fighting to get their kids back to school and teachers organized around the Refuse to Return campaign has been exploited by big business and its media in every town and city in America. Now that the vaccine has arrived alongside promises of more money from Biden, teachers and parents must work to rebuild the unity of the past: for the survival of public education, for the pay and conditions of school workers, for the quality of education our children deserve and for the future of the inevitable struggles working class people will all have to face together. 

A united movement of teachers, parents, and working class communities can push forward demands for more spending now and build on the mood to tax the rich. President Biden’s opposition to raising taxes on the rich to the pre-Trump levels ignores the huge pandemic shift in wealth to the top. The dozen or so top Billionaires in 2020 increased their wealth by almost $1 trillion. Biden and the Democrats in Congress can pass sweeping tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. But if history is any teacher, we know they’ll resist that at every turn. America can afford the schools our children deserve. But we won’t get it until we unite and fight for it.

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