Young children in school

School Teachers: Strike for Our Lives Against Disaster Capitalism!

Despite record-breaking highs of COVID-19 new cases this summer, Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have pushed hard for schools to reopen in person this fall. On July 10, Trump tweeted:

Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning. Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!

A few weeks later, the president’s wish came true. As schools began to reopen across several states in early August, pictures of hallways packed with students, many without masks, went viral. Unsurprisingly, this led to a new surge of contagion. In the past week, more than 2,000 students, teachers, and staff members have been quarantined as a result of at least 230 new confirmed cases across five states, according to a CNN report. This has contributed to a staggering 90% increase in COVID-19 infections among children in the US over the last four weeks.

This nightmare scenario for students, teachers, and parents across the country is just the latest offensive by the capitalists in the class war that has underlied the coronavirus pandemic from the start. The ruling class has made it clear to the world that keeping the economy open—and profits flowing—is more important than the lives of the workers who generate those profits—or the lives of their children.

Teachers and unions around the country have been quick to point out the blatant hypocrisy and the many dangers surrounding the unsafe reopening of schools. As school administrators and board members decide the fate of schools this fall, their meetings are overwhelmingly taking place over Zoom. Many have pointed out that if Major League Baseball cannot keep its players safe with its near limitless resources, medical staff, and testing capacity, how will already underfunded public schools be able to provide school staff with the PPE and testing they need to keep children safe?

Sanitizing school during COVID-19
Many logistical questions have yet to be answered for states and districts pressing for a physical reopening or “hybrid” model. / Image: Senior Airman Seraiah Wolf, AETC

Many logistical questions have yet to be answered for states and districts pressing for a physical reopening or “hybrid” model. In the coming weeks and months, even the best-laid plans will never be able to account for all the variables out of the control of teachers and staff. Many schools have faulty HVAC systems and many rooms are not well ventilated. The short intervals between classes will not be enough for teachers or maintenance to fully sanitize classrooms. Anyone who has ever worked with kids—which clearly excludes the bourgeois politicians pushing these measures—knows that it will be a Herculean task to get students to wear masks and maintain social distance throughout the day.

As a public school teacher, I am quite frankly afraid that my students, colleagues, and family members will die unnecessarily. As recent school reopenings have taught us, a hybrid model just defers the distance learning until the avoidable deaths and illnesses have already happened. Inevitably, when overworked school staff are unable to prevent these things from happening, right-wing politicians will place the blame right back on the educators and support staff who are working tirelessly to teach our children safely in these conditions.

Even bourgeois media sources have been forced to recognize the grim implications of reopening schools at the height of a pandemic. An article in The Atlantic points out the incident of the summer camp in Georgia where half of the participants became infected with COVID-19 within days, as well as an Indiana school that reported its first case of infection merely hours after reopening. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics pointed out that “replication of SARS-CoV-2 in older children leads to similar levels of viral nucleic acid as adults, but significantly greater amounts of viral nucleic acid are detected in children younger than five years.” This begs the question: if science and recent experience both point against a reopening of schools, why do so many bourgeois politicians insist on reopening?

As an argument for reopening schools, some clever pundits have attempted to frame it as a response to the issue of inequality of access which was made apparent during distance learning last spring. It is absolutely true that the chaotic shift to virtual classes has been a disaster in its own right, given the complete lack of resources at the disposal of teachers and students—many of whom have to worry about having enough to eat—let alone a laptop and a stable wifi connection. For students who were already living in precarious conditions, the shift to distance learning only compounded their risk of falling behind academically.

But the disproportionate burden placed on workers and the poor due to school closures is not an argument for reopening, which further endangers families who already face the threats of hunger and eviction. Rather, this is another harsh condemnation of capitalism—a system which gambles with the lives of the youth and destroys the livelihood of tens of millions, rather than investing massively in paid time off, quality childcare, and urgent resources for students and teachers.

After decades of stripping education budgets and squeezing every last drop of blood out of teachers while slashing their benefits, the coming years of crisis promise an even greater intensification of these attacks. Almost every state has seen its revenues plummet, with reductions of at least 20% in 34 states. This is a recipe for austerity, as the ruling class inevitably attempts to force the burden onto the working class.

But combined with the recent wave of education strikes, the experiences of 2020 have been a school of mass struggle—and the new generation of workers and youth are gearing up for a monumental fightback.

The daily experience of capitalism’s underlying inequality has done far more to radicalize the young generation than TikTok ever could. This is also true of the struggle against racism and its economic foundations, which are also manifested in the education system. Awareness of police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline led teachers and students to demand that schools in Minneapolis sever their contracts with the police department in the early days of the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Around the country, the Black Lives Matter movement could itself see another massive wave, linking up organically with the resistance to unsafe school reopenings.

#RedForEd Arizona Teachers' Strike Rally
Combined with the recent wave of education strikes, the experiences of 2020 have been a school of mass struggle. The new generation of workers are gearing up for a big fightback. / Image: Arizona Education Association, Flickr

When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced at the beginning of August that schools would resume in-person teaching within a few weeks, the Chicago Teachers Union responded by convening an emergency meeting to call a strike vote. Within hours of the announcement, the mayor made an abrupt about-face, declaring that Chicago’s public schools would go fully remote in the fall. This episode concisely sums up the power of a bold class-struggle response by labor, as well as the fear of the ruling class at the prospect of unleashing another explosive wave of strikes across the country.

Educators have increasingly made the connection between the pressure put on them to increase student achievement via high-stakes standardized tests, and the material conditions of class society, which that act as a barrier to student achievement (e.g., segregated housing, starvation wages, lack of mental health care, etc.). As an example, last fall, 32,000 striking Chicago teachers demanded affordable housing for the families they serve. In Los Angeles, the teachers’ union has demanded that the police be defunded and that money be channeled instead into education and public health as part of their reopening demands. Similarly, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a militant caucus of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, has taken a more combative approach. They have criticized the passive stance of the UFT leadership and promoted “Organizing 101” workshops in preparation for the fight back against unsafe reopenings.

The safe reopening of schools would require funding that every teacher knows is simply not present after years of cuts and austerity. It is a simple fact that, all things being equal, more funding leads to better educational and life outcomes for children. And in the times of COVID-19, more funding is directly tied to preserving human lives.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released a document detailing the cost of safely reopening, which they calculated at $116.5 billion. The federal government’s budget for education for 2020 was a mere $64 billion—a 10% cut from the previous year. By comparison, the Department of Defense’s discretionary budget is more than ten times that amount. Many big cities spend 25% or more of their budgets on the police, with cities like Chicago and Oakland spending 40%. This is par for the course for capitalism, a system that prioritizes protecting private property with violence and repression, instead of investing in education and other social needs.

Compounding the social crisis and the pressure put on the schools, tens of millions of people have been laid off over the last few months. At the same time, the net worth of 643 US billionaires has increased by $1.6 trillion. So the next time someone says that there “isn’t enough money” for things like education, we should point out that there is more than enough money in society to meet everyone’s needs—the problem is that it is currently controlled by a literal handful of the population.

Recently, Betsy DeVos claimed that CDC guidelines allow for “flexibility” when it comes to reopening schools. This, despite leaked CDC documents which warn that fully reopening schools and universities poses the “greatest risk” for spreading the virus. Democratic and Republican politicians have collaborated to create reopening plans that “compromise” between keeping the economy open and protecting the lives of students and teachers. However, such a “compromise” will lead inevitably to the unnecessary deaths of untold numbers of teachers, students, and community members.

Trump and DeVos second wave COVID-19
Betsy DeVos claimed that CDC guidelines allow for “flexibility” when it comes to reopening schools. / Image: Own Work

For decades, the teachers’ unions have spent millions of dollars backing the Democratic Party, mobilizing their membership to “Vote Blue No Matter Who.” Yet it is precisely in cities like Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and Minneapolis, which are totally controlled by the Democratic Party, that we see the starkest contrast between underfunded schools and inflated police budgets.

As we have seen, plans for unsafe reopening have been met with resistance by some teachers’ unions and militant tendencies within those unions, such as the CTU’s CORE and the UFT’s MORE caucus. Teachers in cities across the country have demonstrated en masse for the safe reopening of schools, and there have even been murmurs of a national strike. The union leadership should seize upon this mood and build broad-based support among the parents who are being pushed onto the frontlines along with education workers. The West Virginia teachers showed the way forward: they prepared parents for the strike and relied heavily on their support for morale and numbers on the picket lines. The teachers were also prepared to go where their leaders would not and refused to be held back by a leadership looking for an early and easy compromise with the state.

At the time of writing, the major teachers’ unions are putting their weight behind the HEROES Act and other legislative and electoral measures—relying on the goodwill of those in power to address glaring funding deficiencies. This class-collaborationist model is typical of the union leadership in recent US history. What is needed, instead, is bold, decisive leadership that will use class-struggle tactics and mobilize the membership to fight for the collective interests of all workers—especially now when our lives are quite literally on the line.

The ruling class is pushing workers in the education sector to make sacrifices in order to keep the economy running. After all, how can millions of working-class parents return to work to be exploited by their bosses if they don’t have somewhere safe for their children to be during the day? But this also means that school staff have the power to shut the schools down altogether. In fact, it was the threat of such a shutdown that finally forced the closure of New York City’s schools back in March.

Teachers are already overworked and underpaid—teachers earn 19% less than other professionals with similar educational backgrounds. Other school staff—education support professionals and paraprofessionals make an average of just $24,095 per year, despite many schools requiring a bachelor’s degree for these positions. Now, on top of the myriad responsibilities that teachers field in their 60-hour work-weeks, they are expected to lay their lives on the line in order to keep the economy open.

To this we say:

  • For school reopenings guided by science and public health professionals—not capitalist profits!
  • For fully funded public schools and social programs to facilitate equitable distance learning!
  • For an immediate moratorium on standardized testing and new charter schools!
  • For democratic teacher- and school-staff control over when and how to reopen the schools!
  • One preventable death is too many—an injury to one is an injury to all!
  • If the capitalist politicians and district leaders refuse to wait until conditions are truly safe to reopen the schools, then teachers must strike for our lives and the lives of our students and communities!

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