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!