Socialist Alternative

A Complete Failure: Omicron and the Impact on NYC’s Public Education

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On January 4, three -day mayor Eric Adams, when asked by CNN at what point he would close schools, said, “We cannot feed into hysteria.” At the time of writing, the Omicron surge has grown to cataclysmic proportions, with January 3 having over 1 million cases nationally, and NYC once again claiming the throne as the number one COVID hotspot in the country. In the same interview, when confronted on whether he was dismissing the key issue of safety in schools amidst the COVID surge, Adams said, “Yes I can [dismiss the issue]. We need to stop retraumatizing our kids. . . Schools are the safest place for our children. . . We need to open our cities.” Eric Adams, in a few short days, has affirmed what Socialist Alternative wrote back in October 30th, 2021; that he will be firmly on the side of big business and use numerous political tactics to confuse and disarm working class people. 

An Unprecedented Surge. . .

Eric Adams says his position is supported by “the science”. He is correct that, overall, despite the surge in positive COVID cases, hospitalizations are not at the level that they were at the beginning of the pandemic. What we do see, however, is a clear upward trend of hospitalizations, deaths, andcases, with hospitalizations in the city rising to over half of the levels of hospitalization at the worst point of the pandemic here in March of 2020. Moreover, pediatric hospitalizations of children under the age of five are rising under the Omicron surge.

What is also true is that vaccination has provided protection against severe disease, with Omicron breakthrough cases being reported as generally more akin to the common cold. However, for many that are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable, that protection has proven to be limited. Also the sheer scale of this wave has put massive pressure on the health system and the functioning of the wider economy. And there is no reason to believe that this is necessarily the last variant or that others can’t be more lethal.

But aside from the current facts, it’s clear Democrats like Adams and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, along with the Biden administration, desperately want to push people back to work by any means necessary. They are taking a real gamble over the effectiveness of the vaccine to protect against severe disease, the Omicron surge being short-lived, and that no more severe variant develops. 

So in the craze to push everyone back to work, what has Eric Adams done? After a huff-and-puff from United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew over the question of testing, Adams and the UFT leadership reached an agreement where testing would be done on a weekly basis with 10% of consenting students and staff randomly tested, one KN95 mask for all school staff distributed a week, and two at-home tests distributed to all staff every week. In addition, those deemed “close contacts” of students or staff who test positive shall receive two at-home COVID tests. 

How sustainable this very limited policy is without an increase in manufacturing is an open question, as at-home COVID test prices have risen due to a lack of supply. The Biden administration, despite making a promise to give every American an at-home COVID test at the beginning of the surge, has only now announced they have contracted to manufacture half-a-billion tests, with the burden of ordering those tests on working class people. In the same statement, they announced that only 10 million tests will be distributed to all schools across the country! This is utterly pathetic.

What’s now clear is a temporary closure of schools does have a real impact on preventing community transmission. This was why the Chicago Teachers Union was 100% right to end in-person teaching after the holiday and demand that schools not reopen until January 18. Had schools closed back in the middle of December in New York, we would have seen far fewer cases and much less spread among children. Some NYC charter schools, private schools, and school districts such as in the city of Newark decided to temporarily go remote until January 18. 

But the new COVID policy of the NYC DOE essentially renders any definition of who is or isn’t a “close contact” meaningless. And now, schools will only close when the Department of Health has deemed there is widespread transmission, which we surely have with 20,000 new cases a day in the city! What the Democratic Party is essentially telling over one million public school students and families is that they can forget their concerns and get COVID.

Eric Adams, Biden, and much of the ruling class have made the argument that keeping schools open will give more opportunity to reopen cities, thus boosting the economy. NYC is projected to face a $3 billion shortfall and not recover its labor force until 2025, so this is certainly a motivating factor. But given the massive increase in positive cases, tens of thousands of workers, including education workers, inevitably have had to quarantine or call out sick. Many more will need to do so in the weeks ahead. With Biden’s lack of initiative to properly implement any real policy on COVID safety, increasing vaccine and testing manufacturing, this shows a complete abdication to the situation presented by Omicron, but also in preparation for new variants, which are likely to come. Since the ruling class was completely unprepared for this surge, what working class people are given is not “science”, but wishful thinking.

Back to School

If schools are the safest places to be, what are the schools actually like? Attendance during the week of January 3, when schools reopened from the winter break, was in the high sixties. At one point, attendance dipped below 68%, the attendance rate when schools first closed back in March of 2020. On Friday, attendance plummeted to 44% after a snow storm. This is a clear indication of the uneasiness felt by many parents around sending their children to school.

Many schools still face crumbling facilities, lack of updated HVAC systems, and insufficient ventilation. Often schools are faced with bureaucratic nightmares from the NYC Department of Education to getting any of their facilities updated or fixed. In addition, since the change of the CDC recommendation to three foot social distancing, we have seen class sizes balloon to over 30 kids. Photos have recently leaked of students in the Bronx being forced to stay in a gym because only one teacher was available to monitor the kids. It’s not uncommon for schools to force many classes together with one teacher in so-called “mass preps.”

The Biden stimulus money has gone to hiring more staff, with over 2,000 new teachers and paraprofessionals hired. However, staff such as substitute teachers and sub-paraprofessionals are often left to fend for themselves with just the bare minimum of training and online certification. It is also an open question whether or not these staff will be able to stay when the conditions are genuinely safer as Eric Adams has expressed interest in implementing a two-year hiring freeze for city workers and reducing costs.

And even with extra hiring, because of the current Omicron surge, thousands of teachers have tested positive and had to quarantine. This means teachers meant to teach special courses and mixed special education classes are often pulled out to cover for other classes because of the lack of fully trained subs.

As many have pointed out, the state of education is nothing new. Educators and staff are forced to deal with the results of a decades -long war of attrition on public education. The pandemic forced the ruling class to take some action to prevent an all-out collapse of their system, which meant funding new programs for education, but not fundamentally transforming the conditions of education. What this has created under the pandemic is a deeply dysfunctional system where adults and money are thrown in with no clear plan, reducing education to what the ruling class thinks it is: glorified babysitting. When deemed necessary, we could see all of these programs violently rolled back revealing the web of rot beneath the bark of the education tree. Already we are seeing educators wanting to opt out of the public sector entirely as they feel increasingly burnt out, demoralized, and feel a real lack of support to do their job adequately.

What Happens When You Kick the Hornet’s Nest? 

Of course, we cannot resign ourselves to the idea that there is nothing that can be done. Already we are seeing sporadic demonstrations and sick-outs being called by teachers and students. Last Tuesday, hundreds of high school students at Brooklyn Technical High School walked out over unsafe conditions. Several rallies and demonstrations have been called and led by the progressive caucus in UFT, Movement for Rank-and-file Educators (MORE). In some of these demonstrations, teachers have expressed feeling inspired by the recent Chicago Teachers Union vote to go remote over unsafe conditions in Chicago Public Schools. Clearly there’s an appetite from school staff, parents, and students to do something over the unsafe conditions in schools. Unfortunately, in Chicago this wasn cut across by the CTU’s own union leadership as they capitulated to an unsafe deal to return back in -person without achieving any of the original demands.

MORE, in particular, has shown to be the most prominent voice in opposing the current push to keep buildings open no matter how unsafe the conditions are. They have raised numerous demands such as going remote until January 18, a long-term remote option, increasing weekly testing and masks, data transparency, and updating ventilation. They have encouraged their own members to organize their workplaces in whatever way they can, including escalating to a potential sick-out. This is at least an attempt to seriously grapple with the situation that is utterly lacking with the complacent Mulgrew led UNITY caucus leadership.

Socialist Alternative supports all workers asserting their real power if they feel their workplaces are genuinely unsafe. This may include temporary closures and a temporary turn towards remote learning just as the CTU originally voted on. But the key issue that we must face is how do we ensure maximum safety while also ensuring maximum opportunities for learning? This is why Socialist Alternative does not agree with MORE’s call for a long-term remote option, as that has been proven to have adverse impacts on student’s learning. Moreover, Eric Adams and Chancellor David Banks have put forward potentially accepting remote simply as a means to boost attendance. Part of this negotiation includes counting finishing Google Classroom assignments as attendance, which would neither aid in closing learning gaps or decrease workload.  

MORE is 100% correct to identify that a key and immediate obstacle to the NYC educators’ struggle is Michael Mulgrew, his posse, and the conservative UNITY caucus leadership. It is very positive that MORE has come together with other opposition groups in the union around a common platform and a united slate of opposition candidates called United for Change for the forthcoming leadership elections. If we want to create a union that actually fights for the rank-and-file, UFT members should support this slate and program, and do whatever they can to make sure members know and vote in the coming leadership elections this school year. We must force a debate to the whole membership about what kind of union we want and the steps we must take to get there.

While we strongly support the United for Change slate and platform, this does not mean it is perfect. For one thing, it steers clear of a key question, namely the union leadership’s subordination to the corporate Democratic Party. Eric Adams in the same CNN interview stated that he speaks with Michael Mulgrew three times a day. Michael Mulgrew himself has demonstrated he is willing to work with Adams as he did with the de Blasio administration. This has led to numerous false promises to workers, including straight-up betrayals over the health and safety of UFT members. The union leadership at its highest level strikes deals without the democratic input of the membership. This demonstrates how rank-and-file teachers need to fully reclaim control of the union at the chapter, district, and citywide level. Any progressive union leadership should not have any illusions that the bosses and their representatives in Gracie Mansion have the best interests of workers at heart.

This subordination to corporate interests is also reflected in the union’s national leadership. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and former UFT president, has consistently praised Biden for his response to the pandemic and has largely opposed the closure of schools even under completely unsafe conditions. The biggest barrier to labor, at this moment, is the conservative leadership which is committed to maintaining labor peace at all costs. If labor is to truly unlock its potential as the force to change society, it must decisively break with the Democratic Party. Linked to that is the need to then form a new workers party based on a fighting labor movement and social movements.

The Way Forward

What is currently needed is to unite educators, students and parents on a clear platform based on the health, safety, and well-being of all people in school buildings and the communities they serve. The pandemic has revealed public education’s deep dysfunction, massively reinforcing class and racial inequality, while also revealing the potential and opportunity to transform education into something worthy of its name through the unity of educators, students and parents. The United for Change platform points in a positive direction towards this goal. What must continue is a struggle against all undemocratic barriers and blocks on the rank-and-file.

What this means is we cannot rely on the Department of Education to live up to its name. It has thoroughly squandered any and all opportunities to demonstrate in practice that it has anything other than a cynical approach to education, checking off boxes and promoting policies that make themselves look good on paper. What’s required is for the 180,000 strong UFT to take on a genuine class-struggle approach in the realm of education, fighting to fully fund education. What they’ll find is the families they serve will move to have their backs in genuine solidarity.

We demand:

  • Stimulus money towards education should go to real covid relief with hard deadlines on updating ventilation, infrastructure updates, etc. This is to ensure real preparation against any new variants and new pandemics.
  • End mayoral control of schools!
  • No more excuses! Fully fund real COVID relief and updating schools with real, hard deadlines!
  • One laptop per child and installation of genuinely reliable Wi-Fi.
  • No more hiring freezes! For a massive increase of staff with real, comprehensive training programs in order to radically lower class size.
  • Tax Wall Street to fully fund education. Begin to reverse the privatization of education by taking the top top education companies into democratic, public ownership and imposing a moratorium on more charter schools.
  • The Democratic Party has the labor movement in chains! The UFT should decisively break with the Democratic Party!
  • No UFT leader should make more than the most senior teacher! When teachers get a raise, they get a raise!
  • Vote out the whole Unity Caucus which has completely failed the test of leadership and anyone on the 84-person executive board that will not agree to a fighting platform.

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