CDC shifts under pressure, weakens safety standards for school reopening, parents and educators resist

Reds in Ed
July 31, 2020

Teachers Demand COVID-19 Containment Before Return to Campuses

Reds in Ed
July 13, 2020

When it comes to the risks to opening schools, in the words of San Jose, CA teacher Jodi Disario, “I think I need to draw the line at dying.” But that is the risk students, teachers and school staff are facing due to lack of government action to contain COVID-19 and lack of logistical preparation to reopen schools safely. 

In an internal document leaked last week, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that reopening schools poses a high risk for an even larger surge of COVID-19 cases. In spite of that, in state after state, elected officials pass the buck from one agency to the other to avoid accountability for students’ and workers’ lives. 

Now, as the Trump Administration threatens to withhold federal education funding if schools do not reopen at full capacity, teachers are showing that we will be the ones protecting students and workers. Teacher unions are emerging as a force with the will and power to help lead the U.S. out of the  COVID-19 surge gripping the country, and the pandemic itself.

Both national teacher unions and local affiliates are calling for no return to campuses until it is safe to do so. United Teachers of Los Angeles as well as teachers in Oakland, CA and Fairfax, Virginia called for starting the school year with distance learning. In Sacramento, David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association stated, “We hope we don’t have to go there, but if it comes to it, we do retain the right to refuse to work under unsafe conditions.” In response to teacher and community demands, districts across the country are announcing plans to begin the year online-only including in California (Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and San Bernardino) as well as Atlanta, GA and Miami-Dade, FL. It is expected San Francisco will begin the year with online-only instruction. 

Even as schools are currently closed, the United States is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 not seen anywhere else in the world, largely due to states reopening too early. At the time of writing this, there are 3.29 million confirmed cases in the U.S., and there have been 137,000 deaths in the U.S., 25 percent of the world’s total despite the U.S. having just 4 percent of the world’s population. On July 9, officials reported 59,880 new cases in one day, surpassing the single-day record for the sixth time in the last 10 days. In Texas, where less than 10 percent of daycares are open, there have been 1,695 positive cases at 1,078 child care centers — two-third of the cases were child care workers, the rest children. In Oregon, the number of children under the age of 5 infected increased by five times, and now matches the rate of infections in those over 80. Summer camps in Missouri, Georgia and Alabama have been closed due to widespread infection of children and employees.

Early last week, the CDC issued new guidelines for the safe reopening of schools which were immediately attacked by Trump, Pence and DeVos as “too expensive.” Trump and DeVos threatened to withhold federal funding to public schools if they do not fully reopen in person – something they do not have the medical expertise to recommend or legal authority to do. Most federal education funding goes to Title 1 schools, schools where the majority of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, so Trump and DeVos’s threat was to harm poor children and the workers who care for them in the middle of a pandemic. DeVos has called for diverting funds from schools that do not return to campuses to vouchers for private schools, again something she does not have the power to do. She would immediately be taken to court by education unions, which are completely confident they would win. 

A recent study by Kaiser Family Foundation found that 25 percent of teachers have underlying health conditions or are at an age that puts them at high risk of complications from COVID-19. Consistent with this, recent polls show 1 in 5 public school teachers will not return to work until COVID-19 is contained due to health and safety concerns. Years of defunding have led to overcrowded and decaying facilities in the public school system. An unsafe reopening during a pandemic which is killing people of color at twice the rate as whites will be a catastrophe. 

Returning to schools when it is unsafe, while forcing hundreds of thousands of public school teachers out of the profession, would be a boon to the school privatization schemes Trump and DeVos support. It would deal a major blow to public education. As always though, they have not included workers’ power in their calculations.  

Workers are fighting back for lives, and the right to public education

On July 11, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, the School Superintendents Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement demanding “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts… Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

The NEA further stated, “The absolute preconditions for opening are: scientific consensus that the virus has been sufficiently contained and the local health infrastructure can effectively address current and future outbreaks; and, a plan to continue to contain the virus that includes robust COVID19 testing, effective contract tracing, and isolation within the school community, and in coordination with broader community and state efforts.”

Parents need wider access to safe childcare, but schools have not received funding to make this a reality, and are grappling with budget cuts due to lack of funding from states. Parents also have not been provided with adequate income protections allowing for safe supervision of children if they are forced to work out of the home to meet basic needs. Trump, DeVos and others have waged a concerted effort to pit parents and teachers against each other in a bid to force an unsafe reopening of schools, but this effort is breaking down as parents learn that schools are not prepared to meet Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 safety guidelines of ensuring social distancing, small student groupings, personal protective equipment and adequate hygiene infrastructure. As the COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S. continues to break world records, COVID-19 tests continue to be rationed by healthcare providers, ICUs become full and medical and school systems are severely strained, it is becoming clearer to workers that a united struggle to meet people’s needs, instead of maximizing corporate profits, is the solution to the pandemic.

Reds in Eds is in full solidarity with all education workers and their unions struggling to protect lives and public education. We demand:

1. No return to campuses until 14 days pass with no new infections in a county. Widespread COVID-19 testing, tracing of infections, and funding making it possible for those infected to isolate.

2. Funding for job and paycheck protection, as well as adequate family care and sick leave. Access to safe child care that meets CDC safety guidelines. 

3. Continued food service for children. Universal access to the internet, a computer for every child to access distance learning, and other essential needs like counseling and health screenings. 

4. Funding for schools to reopen safely when data indicates it is safe to return. Assurances from school districts that CDC COVID-19 guidelines will be met when students and workers return to campus: 6 ft social distancing allowed by reduced class sizes, hiring additional staff to allow for smaller student groups, temporary classrooms; on-site daily health screenings including temperature checks of students and staff; PPE: masks, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, facial tissue, gloves;  gowns and face shields  when needed; adequate air filtration;  other logistical materials in line with CDC guidelines like hand washing stations, additional sanitation; availability of testing and contact tracing.

5. Defund police in our schools, use the money to pay for more school counselors, social workers and nurses to provide services to students addressing systemic racism and the pandemic.

Teachers will not risk their lives or allow harm to come to their students or the wider community by returning to school sites before it is safe to do. The buck stops with us. Education workers’ unions will continue to lead the way in the fight to contain COVID19, making it safe to return to campuses for students and workers. Speak out, take action!

Under the Lash: Trump Says He’ll Cut Funding if Schools Don’t Reopen

Listen now to Chicago Teachers Union member and activist Nick Stender featured in this interview with updates on schools and COVID-19.

July 9, 2020

Fully fund public education during the pandemic!
reds in ed statement

april 21, 2020

Education workers and their unions have been fighting for our students and their families, many public school parents are themselves essential workers, recognizing the deep connection between learning and working conditions. We are organizing in the midst of a pandemic that has deepened already existing inequalities.

Reds in Ed stands in solidarity with all essential workers — in health care, agriculture, retail, culinary services, distribution, transportation, janitorial, and childcare and more — who are working to sustain everyone’s survival while organizing for safe working conditions.

Teachers’ unions fought hard to keep students and education workers safe as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Many students receive essential services like food assistance, medical care and mental health care through public schools. These services, dangerously underfunded even before the pandemic, have now become patchwork systems that struggle to try to meet the great needs of students, families and communities.

The pandemic has exposed and deepened inequities in the U.S. capitalist system. Banks and corporations have been bailed out while some districts are already announcing proposed budget cuts and staffing cuts. In Hawaii, a 20 percent pay cut for teachers has been proposed by the Governor and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio is seeking cuts to education. It is our schools and communities that need to be bailed out, not the extremely wealthy.

Teachers’ unions fight to protect students

In early March, shortly after community spread was reported in the United States, many teachers’ unions were critical to making school closures happen. Education workers spoke at school at school board meetings, and advocated for closures to protect student and workers’ health. Unions negotiated the closures for many hours. Though over 50 education workers and 50 transportation workers had died in NYC of COVID-19 by mid April, many more lives could have been lost if the schools had not closed when they did. 

While advocating for closures, the unions also insisted that schools and districts keep providing resources to families. Fifty-one percent of public school students, over 25 million children, qualify for free and reduced lunch. School districts in multiple states have halted providing food to students deepening inequities and the crisis. Regardless, education workers have been making sure their students get food in a myriad of ways. Before food distribution was secured in San Francisco, United Educators of San Francisco signed up almost 1000 volunteers to distribute food to families. Our unions have been instrumental in making sure districts continue to provide food services.

Teachers’ unions in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and other places across the country have reached binding agreements with school districts ensuring flexible schedules for students and fair working conditions for teachers. Teachers will have the ability to ensure lessons meet students emotional and social needs. Unions have also won protections against students being harmed by grading policies and lack of access. Many districts and unions are still negotiating these agreements.

Teachers unions remain vigilant in the struggle to stop the defunding and privatization of public education. In Alaska, a sole source contract of $525,000 was signed with Florida Virtual School, who is notorious for mismanagement. With no input from teachers, the out-of-state agency established an online school that will remain after the pandemic.

Education workers during the pandemic have also taken the initiative and made sure that the essential services for student health, including mental health, continue as best they can. Despite the preceding widespread cuts to nursing and mental health staff, counselors, nurses and social workers are working overtime to engage with families and provide necessary material support.

Some school districts have announced potential layoffs, a threat to further harm students, and undermine public education, in a time of increased crisis. The cuts are proposed to pressure education workers to accept contract violations, weaken our unions and create unsafe learning conditions. Teachers have an obligation to ensure safe learning and working conditions, and hold employers accountable in the fight against COVID-19 as well.

Inequities Deepen During Pandemic

Despite the necessity of closing the schools for public health, school closures revealed the deep inequities omnipresent in the U.S. school system. The school location provides not only learning opportunities and community but food, material support and technological access many families just don’t have. The introduction of distance learning deepened inequities among students and communities. A patchwork system of school districts distributing limited computers and hotspots for internet access followed school closures. Most school districts are not able to provide a computer for all families. Many families are still without a device or internet access. For those with access, many districts have not provided training to use online platforms or have not provided translated materials. According to the last U.S. Census, 21 percent of people speak a primary language that is not English, and eight percent of them do not consider themselves fluent in English.

In Los Angeles, some teachers are reporting only 50 percent of students are engaging at all. Teachers report similar participation across the country, with even less participation in low-income communities with little to no internet services.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 1.5 million public school students were homeless, higher than in the previous 12 years. Students who are homeless, live in poverty or are in foster care are having a more difficult time accessing distance learning, if they are able to at all. Many of our students are also living with parents working on the front lines, parents working full time and not able to offer support, taking care of younger siblings and more. Learning in a school building with the pressures of poverty and oppression is hard, distance learning that much more impossible.

Access for students with disabilities during distance learning is another major issue. Public schools had just a few weeks to try to develop systems that would be inclusive of the 14 percent of students, or 7 million who receive services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These services have been chronically underfunded. Now, trying to deliver these services remotely is especially challenging for students’ families and teachers.

Distance learning is not equitable education. It is a patchwork of band-aid measures. Still, many districts without strong union agreements are micromanaging teacher hours, requiring unreasonable lesson quantities to be posted, playing games with students’ graduation requirements, grading unreasonably and more! It is the education workers and the most mobilized unions that are standing in the way of policies that punish our students for the crisis.

Bailout Schools & Communities, not Banks & Corporations

The CARES Act transfers $454 billion to the banks and corporations to bail them out, and that amount can legally be expanded to $4.5 trillion. Children, families and communities must be bailed out instead. One-third of people in the United States could not pay rent in April. As of April 24, 26 million people had filed for unemployment in a 5-week period. Millions more have lost their jobs but couldn’t apply for unemployment. Before 2020, the rate of unemployment among Black workers was twice that of white workers. Rates of Latino and Asian unemployment were also higher. Communities of color are the hardest hit by the crisis in public health and the economy. Immediate relief for workers is needed in the form of rent and debt cancellation.

If schools physically open up in the fall, funds must be channeled to prioritize students’ safety, health and equitable education. All school-based workers including bus drivers must be provided with personal protective equipment and systems to mitigate virus spread must be in place and maintained. To fight COVID-19 and maintain healthy populations every school must have a nurse, counselors, psychologists and social workers. Safety standards issued by OSHA call for gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant for workers in school settings. More custodial and transportation staff must be hired in order for new mitigation systems to be successful.

No funds should be spent facilitating the presence of police in public schools. The open spigot of trillions of dollars for corporations can instead be used for our schools and communities. But, there are other massive sources of funds that can be used to provide for education. U.S. military spending makes up 54 percent of the federal budget, while only 6 percent goes to education. Eighty billion dollars is spent every year to imprison working class people, the majority for nonviolent crimes. The capitalist government has prioritized prisons and war over our students, families and education workers. 

Our society has the wealth to beat COVID-19, provide quality public education to all, and meet everyone’s basic needs. Our economy does not need to be anchored in endless imperialist war and racist oppression instead of investing in our future, the youth. The key to the change we need is in building struggle to defend public education and ultimately to win a society that provides for the needs of the masses, not the tiny clique of the wealthy. To change course, control of the wealth must be removed from the banks and the wealthiest 1%, and directed to our children, schools and communities. Reds in Ed invites education workers–from teachers to paraprofessionals to cafeteria workers and secretaries– and communities to join together in this struggle. Visit, subscribe to the Reds in Ed newsletter, and take action!

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