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A Working-Class Program for Safe School Reopenings

Schools have been at the center of the capitalist strategy to reopen the economy for nearly two years. But the decision to reopen schools shouldn’t be up to the capitalists — it should be decided by the people who live and work within their communities. Here we present a working-class program for safe school reopenings.

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A woman wears a black mask during a protest, the sign says, "our students deserve safe schools"

On Tuesday, January 4, after winter break and in the midst of the new variant surge, Chicago teachers voted overwhelmingly to teach remotely until proper safety measures were put into place. Instead of respecting the decision of the members of the Chicago Teachers Union, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot canceled online classes and locked teachers out of their virtual classrooms to force teachers back into school buildings despite record infection rates, inadequate ventilation, and staff shortages.

This is far from an exception. Reopening the economy is the number one priority of the ruling class, whose aim is to go “back to normal” at any cost. Unsafe school reopenings is one key strategy to achieve this aim, and they will gladly sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of workers to do so.

In 2020, Biden and the Democratic Party, along with their extensive influence in the leadership of unions and the world of NGOs, mobilized a massive campaign to “vote blue no matter who” on an agenda that promised to “believe the science” and take the pandemic seriously. Yet since they have taken office, these politicians have shown that their allegiance lies with capital by pursuing a strategy of reopening no matter what, despite a pandemic that they themselves are responsible for dragging out. From refusing to lift vaccine patents to continually dismissing the urgency of combating the climate crisis, the profit motive clearly stands in opposition to public health.

Democrats are not going to save us. It was Mayor Lori Lightfoot who forced Chicago teachers back in the classroom, ex-governor Andrew Cuomo who called to slash Medicaid funds at the onset of the pandemic, and Joe Biden who has, among other things, let the federal eviction moratorium expire and refused to lift vaccine patents even as new variants emerge, despite having the unilateral authority to do so today. When it comes to reopening and securing profits for pandemic profiteers, Biden has been successful in a way that Donald Trump was not. Beyond individual politicians, the Democratic establishment has time and again shown its true mission: to govern for the rich and the corporations. 

Now, schools remain open while children and teachers fill up hospitals so that capitalist politicians can continue their strategy of reopening the economy. After nearly two years of a prolonged pandemic, workers are being forced to go back to work under unsafe conditions and without sufficient staffing and resources.

While the ruling class has claimed that reopening schools is in the best interest of students, these claims ring hollow upon closer examination. If opening schools were just about serving students, why would they deny remote learning when in-person attendance rates are at record lows? And why would they shove students into auditoriums for lack of enough teachers to hold classes? Even at the height of the pandemic, schools were still facing budget cuts for essential services that working class families rely on. Last year, school districts in California faced budget cuts of up to $30 million and are expecting more this year. 

While the rank and file has organized to fight for safe working conditions, union bureaucracies have feigned leadership while constantly undermining these efforts. During the Trump presidency, Randi Weingarten, president of the second largest teachers’ union in the United States, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gave at least nominal support for the idea of safety strikes against Trump’s reopening plans in 2020. After Biden took office, the line shifted completely to keeping the schools open. In Chicago, teachers were ultimately betrayed by the union bureaucracy, who decided a week after the vote to suspend the teacher action and go back to in school learning, even while teachers knew it was unsafe. Our union leaders consistently show that they are allied with the Democratic Party rather than the rank and file.

In the absence of fighting unions, the working class and youth have been leading the way, mobilizing both within their unions and independently. In multiple U.S. cities, teachers have organized sickouts to protest their working conditions. In New York City, Chicago, and other cities, students organized walk-outs to demand safe learning conditions. In France, teachers, parents, and students banded together in an unprecedented mobilization to stand up to the government’s unsafe school reopening strategy, delivering a clear message; the working class must fight to keep itself safe.

Teachers are in many ways the glue of the working class. Not only are educators deeply rooted in the community, but they are also connected to multiple sectors of the masses through their role as caretakers of workers’ children when they are away at their jobs. This position has always had a politicizing effect on teachers. For example, in 2019, Chicago teachers held an 11-day strike not only over important “shop” issues like higher wages, but also against growing inequality, by demanding an expansion of the affordable housing program in the city. Or Oklahoma teachers, who demanded additional funding for public healthcare systems and for pay raises for state employees, while they were fighting for wage increases for themselves and for other school staff. 

The decision to reopen schools shouldn’t be up to the capitalists — it should be decided by the people who live and work within their communities, who know the capacities of their schools, and who spend hours with their students and co-workers and who wage struggle against the bosses of the schools. 

Teachers, students, and parents are keenly aware that remote learning does not compare to the experience of learning in person for the vast majority of students. Socialization is important for children to learn how to understand other people’s feelings and how to interact with people their age. And  school is an important part of the socialization process. There are undeniably long-term impacts on students’ social and emotional development due to prolonged periods of social isolation over the course of the pandemic. This is why we must put forward a program with the ultimate goal of safe reopenings.

1. Workers decide when their workplaces are safe, not capitalist politicians.

In New York City public schools, the Situation Room was created to manage the ongoing Covid crisis in the city’s nearly 2,000 schools. During the beginning of the Omicron surge in December, the Situation Room was backed up and unable to keep up with the rise in cases. 

While coordinated systems to keep track of cases at multiple geographic levels are essential in mapping and containing the spread of the virus, the lack of worker and community control leaves them vulnerable to the agenda of those in power.

Decision-making bodies who are the only bodies tasked with decisions about reopening and safety protocols should be rooted in the communities they represent. Such decision-making bodies must extend beyond education and into all sectors of the working class; just as teachers should be determining when schools are safe, healthcare workers, logistics workers, and the rest of the working class must be able to do the same.

2. Schools as vaccination and test sites to increase student and community vaccinations and testing 

Schools are centers for communities; they are venues for community events and are used as food distribution centers. Due to the access people have to community schools as a neighborhood space, these buildings will provide more accessible testing and vaccination centers for more people. 

In order to do this, there needs to be a major reinvestment into healthcare to hire more professionals to administer tests and vaccines, increase the availability of physical tests, and reduce wait times for getting tested in light of people being forced to wait hours amongst other sick people to get a Covid test. 

3. Lift vaccine patents and mass produce vaccines.

Despite having countless options to waive vaccine patents or use Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech formulae to increase global vaccine production, Biden has refused. As of September 2021, the United States had thrown out 15 million vaccine doses (more than the entire population of Honduras). Variants like Omicron will continue to develop as long as members of semi-colonial nations remain under-vaccinated due to vaccine imperialism and capitalist profiteering off of privatized vaccines. We demand to liberate the patents, mass produce vaccines, and distribute them globally.

4. Testing, tracing, and isolation.

Vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others, meaning vaccines represent just one part of the fight against Covid-19. Vaccine-only strategies are doomed to fail. We must use a multitude of other tools to address contracting and spreading the virus.

Determining whether it is safe to reopen requires an effective system of testing, tracing and isolation, unlike what is in place today. A functioning system would provide daily testing for all staff and students, as well as at-home tests provided upon request. 

Coupled with testing should be an effective tracing and isolation program, in which all who come into contact with someone infected by Covid are able to isolate until they receive multiple negative test results. 

This requires full data transparency about the spread of Covid. At school, all staff must be informed of possible exposures and be able to give information to other possible close contacts, students and families should be informed about classroom cases, and those who are considered close contacts should be able to quarantine without penalty. 

It is essential that isolation periods are determined in the interest of public health, not by the demands of capitalist profit. Anyone infected with Covid or anyone who comes into contact with someone with Covid should be able to isolate for as long as scientists, not capitalists, say is required without any loss of wages or penalization.

5. Adequate PPE and updated air filtration systems.

It is clear that high-quality masks are essential to fight the pandemic, but these materials come at a cost. Students and staff should not have to buy their own masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). In many cities, teachers have been provided with N-95 masks, but students have not. When schools reopened in the fall of 2020, 86 percent of teachers reported buying their own PPE to protect themselves during in-person learning. That’s on top of the $500 per year on average that teachers already spent on classroom supplies before the pandemic. 

Earlier in the pandemic, it was deemed that air filtration systems in schools needed to be updated and were inadequate in many classrooms. The response from city governments across the country was largely inadequate. New York City bought low-rated air purifiers, deciding on purifiers not according to their ability to filter air, but by the strength of their lobbying campaigns. According to Gothamist, “…building engineers said the Intellipure model does not offer sufficient ventilation on its own in an average-sized classroom, even when placed on its maximum setting.”

The irrational process for purchasing air filtration contracts exemplifies the truth that government officials’ efforts are not actually directed toward achieving maximum safety; they are about getting kids back to school as quickly as possible so that workers can go back to work.

We demand a universal guarantee of free and sufficient N-95 masks and PPE to last the course of the pandemic, as well as updated air filtration systems in every classroom without adequate ventilation.

6. Remote option and technology provided for all.

A viable remote learning option has been a rallying cry for teachers protesting unsafe reopenings. While teachers and students know remote learning is not ideal for most students, temporary classroom and school shutdowns should be one of many plans in place to fight community outbreaks. Remote learning represents an essential component of a multipronged strategy to fight for safe schools. 

One of the reasons that remote options are critiqued is due to technological issues and lack of access. While capitalists cite the digital divide and inequitable access to technology as a reason to reopen schools, they ignore the role that they played in creating these very circumstances. 

One of the factors that contributes to the need for classroom closures is the government’s negligence of schools. This is exemplified by the technological deprivation students continue to face. Throughout the pandemic, governments failed to provide students with learning access; now, governments are using their negligence to justify their unsafe reopening plans.

We demand that governments provide internet-accessible devices, hot spots, and tech support for all students in the schools they are responsible for overseeing. Additionally, teachers and students must be able to access a remote option while they recover and in the case of temporary shutdowns.

7. Every education worker needs a union.

The onslaught of privatization has been a feature of American education for decades. This trend has gutted and flattened the profession of teaching, taking educational decisions out of the hands of teachers and putting them into the hands of corporations, banks, and wealthy philanthropists.

For example, young graduates are recruited as teachers to non-unionized charter schools, where they are recycled in a labor pool characterized by a high turnover rate. Moreover, this privatization has led to increasingly precarious employment within the education sector — cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and custodians, and other education support professionals are outsourced rather than hired in-house. Many of these staff have to take on second and third jobs and do not have the protection of a union.

This neoliberal trend in education has diminished the overall membership of teachers’ unions, creating an education labor force that is divided between unionized and nonunionized workers and weakening its collective power. Further, it has injured the profession of teaching and overall quality of education, leading to unprepared teachers, burnout, and turnover in communities with the highest need.

We also demand repealing anti-worker laws championed by Democrats and Republicans alike, such as the Taylor Law in Democrat-run New York, which prevents public sector workers from using their most powerful weapon against the bosses — their ability to strike. Unions are the largest organizations of the working class to stand up against capitalist interests and fight for safe conditions. We demand that all education workers be able to join unions and freely strike for their rights, including their health and safety.

8. Self-organized assemblies of education staff, students, and communities

While teachers and other education workers have been pitted against communities, students, and other sectors of the working class, we must stand firmly in declaring that all of us share the same enemy: the capitalists and their representatives in the Democratic and Republican Parties. 

Through the commodification of education, schools were defunded at the expense of students, and immediately after, charter schools with non-unionized staff were propped up at the expense of teachers and the gains of their unions. Teachers are forced to work under the same unsafe conditions their students are forced to deal with, so their parents can continue to work in similar unsafe conditions. That is why it is crucial for assemblies of education staff, students, and community members to make themselves the decision-making bodies that decide what is safe and how we fight for what we want.

Furthermore, it is the working class whose children attend these unsafe and neglected public schools. Therefore, the reopening strategy of the state not only directly hurts workers themselves, but also their children. This is why the committees hold greater importance, because this detrimental reopening strategy affects the working class as a whole. And so the unity of the class through democratic committees and assemblies is the only way to properly fight against these measures. To build towards that, we have to push our current organized bodies, such as labor unions, to throw their full support behind organizations like the ones organizing student walkouts for safe schools. 

9. Free, universal childcare

Due to the attack on childcare specifically in the United States, going remote can bring an impossible dilemma for the parents who have to choose between going to work or staying home with their children. In one author’s own experience, they have seen some of their students Zooming from the kitchens their parents work at, likely because they’re parents couldn’t find childcare and were forced to bring their kids.

Many parents can’t afford to call off work and are forced to choose between a chance of their child getting sick and not having enough money to cover rent; with either choice, children and their parents suffer. The fault is with the capitalist state. During talks of his social safety net package, Joe Biden completely slashed any policy of national paid leave and maternity leave, and there is no Covid allowance allocated to working people — forcing them to go to work. Unsafe schools are the only real systemic childcare available. 

Therefore, a central demand must be the implementation of effective paid leave programs and the implementation of a pandemic allowance, so parents don’t fall into financial holes when safety committees decide it is unsafe. 

Furthermore, schools should be sites of food distribution paid for by the state. Many children’s only opportunity to eat is when they attend school. Children should not have to choose between keeping themselves safe and having a meal. Therefore, schools should be used as distribution meals sites in the case of classroom or school closures.

10. Mass teacher training program and debt forgiveness

A major struggle teachers have been facing that has been exacerbated by the pandemic is staffing shortages and the lack of substitute coverage. The root cause of this has been from the overall devaluing of education over the years. Nationwide, there are few fellowship opportunities to effectively train teachers, and the ones that exist are highly unhelpful, often leaving teacher assistants virtually on their own with their jobs as well as the graduate courses they have to take and pay for to be certified. 

Furthermore, teachers with certifications are burnt out. Topped off by a pandemic, they still have to deal with problems such as large class sizes, and coverage for sick teachers on their break. These coverages are far more frequent with variants like Omicron. With this burnout, 40 percent of teachers are now considering quitting their jobs or retiring early. Thanks to the state’s devaluing of education, the teacher crisis will be deepened. 

Therefore, another central demand needs to be for the state to provide student loan forgiveness and a teacher training program that doesn’t overwhelm participants with work and debt and to have more teachers in order to reduce classroom sizes, have more substitutes available, and to lessen the workload on current teachers. 

11. Reduced class sizes

Students do not deserve to learn in classes where their individual needs cannot be met, and teachers do not deserve to drown in endless grading and lesson planning from having more students than they are able to support. Education workers who stay in the profession bear the weight of crowded classrooms as huge swathes of workers leave the profession each year and teacher preparation programs fail to attract new people to the profession. 

While students are packed like sardines into classrooms, children abroad are being bombed by U.S. drones. We must demand that all funds directed toward maintaining imperialist wars abroad be redirected to public schools.

Conclusion

The education system under capitalism has traumatized students — who, we must not forget, later become adults — long before the pandemic. The current crisis is set in the context of a decades-long assault against public education, characterized by an ongoing strategy of privatization, austerity, and segregation.

For capitalists and their politicians, however, these questions about schooling have always had a simple answer: show me the money. For capitalists, schools are where workers drop their kids off during the day while they exploit their parents’ labor for profit. For capitalists, schooling is about conditioning and reproducing laborers to go into industry.

This is why schools are segregated, underfunded, and policed. This is why teachers are overworked, underpaid, and stripped of their autonomy — with many leaving the profession altogether. This is why capitalists have invested countless funds into school privatization reforms that drain money from public schools, artificially divide educatio`n workers, and weaken their unions. This is why bourgeois politicians have unabashedly sacrificed arts education in the name of nationalist and imperialist strategies to be “competitive in the global economy.” This is why testing and “educational support” is a multi-billion dollar industry that profits off students who sit in ramshackle schools without full academic programs, adequate learning materials, ventilation, heating — and even enough teachers.

While capitalists are content to shove students into crowded classrooms with the bare minimum they need to learn, teachers strive (and often succeed) against all odds to nurture critical-thinking, curious, and creative human beings.

Teachers, students, and families have taken massive action in the past. When Oklahoma teachers, inspired by teacher actions in West Virginia, walked off their jobs over working conditions, they led marches of up to 30,000 teachers, students, and parents on the Capitol every day. Even when the labor bureaucracy offered tentative agreements that didn’t satisfy the demands of the teachers, this coalition of families, student activists, and teachers continued these massive marches. We can and must take lessons from these mobilizations. That the way to fight the state’s disastrous reopenings is through our collective power and methods of combat as the working class. 

We want a school system that creates an environment for all kids to flourish as whole human beings. This means we have to organize in our workplaces and in our learning environments. We have to fight against and destroy the capitalists who hold our lives and kids hostage. To liberate ourselves and to liberate education we have to go further and seize the schools under teacher, student and community control. It is the lives of these groups that revolve around the schools; therefore, for it to best serve them, they should be able to have the direct say in how it is managed. 

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Carmin Maffea

Carmin is a revolutionary socialist from New York.

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