Upon returning to the United States six months ago, I was broke, ineligible for unemployment insurance, and housing precarious. When I finally landed a job as an assistant teacher, I thought I would find some comfort; however, I hadn’t realized I was inheriting deplorable conditions, brought about by decades of neoliberal attacks on public education, that would drive me into the ground physically and mentally. As bad as these conditions were, the onset of the new Delta and Omicron variants of Covid-19 have made them exponentially worse.
In the 2000s, teachers were one of the main targets of the neoliberal offensive. In New York City, for example, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg repeatedly challenged the gains of teacher unions, such as job security for workers with seniority. Beginning in June 2008, Bloomberg also slashed the budget for education seven times. These budget cuts created permanently closed schools, overcrowding in schools that remained open, lost jobs, and teachers still with jobs being forced to pay out of pocket for school supplies.
Fast forward to more than a decade later, there is a teacher shortage in New York City as well as nationally; charter schools — and their non-unionized workforces — are on the rise and harsh conditions across the board for those working in education.
My job as a first-year teacher’s assistant (TA) in a charter school with no union is, ironically, located in one of those permanently closed elementary schools. This initial experience as an educator thus takes place in the skeleton of the education system. It’s as mentally draining as my time as a union organizer, and as precarious as when I worked at a cafe.
My job opened up after two other TAs quit after just their second week. Much of my work has little to nothing to do with teaching, or has me leading students in blocks of subjects for which I am not qualified. On a given day, my tasks include carrying heavy bags up three flights of stairs for the kid’s breakfast; directing students to eat and throw away their breakfast as I spark conversation with them; cleaning up after them; assisting with math studies; taking students outside for recess; teaching computer science (something I never studied myself); carrying more heavy bags up the same stairs, this time with lunch; guiding students in a reading block in which I give tips on how to read better (such as how to find a problem and solution in a story); another math lesson; helping them pack up at the end of school; dismissing them, and inputting data of about 105 students, such as whether they did their previous day’s homework or wore their uniforms.
There are so many tasks each day that I am forced to choose whether to use my “prep” time for eating, making a lesson, or reading work-related emails. And the job is also very precarious. I am monitored and evaluated on all these tasks— most of which have nothing to do with teaching — to gauge whether I will be rehired or laid off for the following school year.
This precarity is the result of no union representation and the school’s desire to exploit its workforce as much as possible. Any protest or critique I might raise could cause me to lose my job next year, which also means I’d be without health insurance. This charter school takes full advantage of that, using it to treat us as lower-tier workers.
We are paid $10,000 to $20,000 less than teachers. We are just laborers making up for understaffing. We’re so afraid of losing our jobs that the bosses count on us still working even if we’re exposed to Covid.
I’m certain I’ve been exposed to Covid far more often than the two times I’ve been informed about exposures. The first instance was a few days before Thanksgiving. The school principal called me with superficial urgency and worry in her voice to tell me that a student in my class had tested positive for Covid and that the entire class would go remote. I was surprised and angry, and I rushed to think about how I could ask whether the school would be closed and I would be going remote for the first time from home. How should I prepare myself? Before I could ask, she said, “Your entire class is going remote. But we need you to come in to fulfill your TIR [TA] and coding [computer science] responsibilities.”
These particular “responsibilities” somehow made me exempt from a needed quarantine. There could be only one explanation: the school’s exploitation of workers has been elevated to the point of rejecting science. My role as the computer science “teacher” had me visiting every classroom in a given grade; furthermore, the children break out of their main classrooms every day and mix into others with kids from other classes. In other words, if just one child in a grade gets sick, every teacher and student is exposed due to the switching of classes by both. Not shutting down the building endangered the entire faculty, staff, and student body.
Fast forward to the present. The Omicron variant has led to higher infection rates in the midst of an open economy and an undervaccinated world population due to vaccine imperialism. Meanwhile, my school continues its deadly practice. There have been 10 confirmed cases recently, three of five second-grade classes had to go remote, and even more students have had to go home with Covid symptoms. Some teachers with acute Covid symptoms are fearful about calling in sick due to fear of retribution by the school administration.
Nevertheless, the school remained open until winter break — even though none of my coworkers felt safe working.
It is clear that the bosses and the state won’t lift a finger to truly stop the spread of the virus. They are committed to maintaining our exploitation. We shouldn’t have to pay for this crisis with our lives, and we shouldn’t fear retribution if we choose to take care of ourselves out of retribution. The only possible way out of this crisis is for workers to organize ourselves, not only to demand our workplaces be shut down, but to demand expanded testing, job and income security, and an international vaccination campaign.