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Joe Biden is Leading The Battle to Reopen Schools, But Teachers Are Fighting Back

There is bipartisan unity around reopening schools thanks to the alliance between Joe Biden, local officials, and national union leadership. It’s time for teachers to fight.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

February 9, 2021
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Biden sits far apart from a CBS interviewer.

On Christmas Day, Georgia Elementary School teacher Patrick Key died of complications due to coronavirus. A few days later, the district confirmed the deaths of two more educators: Dana Johnson, an elementary school teacher, and Cynthia Lindsey, a paraprofessional. Three teachers died in less than a month.

This is the price of reopening schools.

Across the country, there are still many regions with consistently high infection and death rates. Even with schools closed, over one in three people in Los Angeles has gotten the virus. And now there is an all out onslaught against teachers unions in order to force through unsafe plans to get teachers and students back in the classroom. It’s coming from the top, with the Biden administration placing school reopenings at the top of its list of priorities for the first 100 days. Local governors, courts, and the press have followed suit, attempting to demonize teachers who are fighting to protect their own safety and the safety of their students and communities. This is the bipartisan unity Biden has promised since Election Day: the unity of Democrat and Republican officials, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. This week, as teachers all over the country fight to protect themselves against unsafe reopening plans, Joe Biden said that school closures constituted a “national emergency.” The message is clear to local officials and the general public: It doesn’t matter if it’s unsafe; it’s time to reopen. 

Beyond politicians and the media, the consensus around reopenings extends to so-called champions of the working class, including the leadership of teachers unions who have turned their backs on rank-and-file teachers and communities suffering the effects of the pandemic. In fact, as Chicago and Philadelphia teachers risk their livelihoods to stay remote until schools are safe, the New York Times ran an article on their front page about the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten’s efforts to force teachers and students back into the classroom. Concern for students is just a cover to gain support for these attacks against educators. School reopenings are a linchpin in getting the entire economy back up and running for the sake of capitalist profits. 

But against all odds, teachers are fighting back. 

While remote learning is difficult, the solution isn’t unsafe and premature school reopenings. Nor is the solution to put students back in overcrowded and poorly ventilated buildings without systematic and mass coronavirus testing. The responsibility to get the pandemic under control is squarely in the hands of the government. It shouldn’t be up to capitalist politicians who already have the vaccine to decide when it’s okay for teachers to come back to the classroom. Teachers, students, and community members should discuss and decide for themselves when it’s safe to reopen.

The Fight to Reopen

The United States has failed spectacularly in its coronavirus response effort. This failure has led to nearly 500,000 deaths, disproportionately devastating Black and Brown communities. And these deaths are the direct effect of the state’s refusal at every level to take proper measures to protect working-class people, including shutting down non-essential labor and paying people to stay at home. From early on in the pandemic, the capitalist class has pushed to reopen businesses and keep the economy open at all costs; it forced non-essential workers to work without adequate safety measures, while at the same time placing all the blame on individual gatherings for the exponential spread of the virus. And even though there have been lulls in the virus, the state refused to use the resources of the wealthiest country in the world to produce the necessary number of tests and invest in sufficient tracing efforts that would be required to keep the virus under control. . And although there are now at least two vaccines available in the United States , private patents are preventing them from being produced and distributed on a mass scale. 

You may be interested in: Individual Responsibility Won’t Stop the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the battle over schools has been in the spotlight, due to the vital role that educators play in the capitalist economy and in the lives of families. After all, not only do schools educate the next generation of workers, but they also provide essential childcare for the working class. As one Bloomberg News headline declared: “Closed Schools Mean Closed Economy.” The Brookings Institution found that a one-month closure of all U.S. schools could cost the economy more than $50 billion in lost productivity, or 0.2 percent of GDP. That’s why, early on, the capitalist class lined up behind Trump’s attempts to force teachers and students back into the classroom — if parents have to stay home to look after their children, then they can’t go back to work to make money for the capitalists. 

In the first wave of the virus, teachers in some cities effectively fought back against the push to reopen: Los Angeles and Chicago teachers, both of whom went on strike in 2019, are among the most notable. National teachers unions spoke out against unsafe reopenings in defiance of Donald Trump and local politicians. 

As one of the largest unionized workforces in the country, teachers are among the few sectors of workers who have been able to stand up to the bosses trying to force them back to work in unsafe conditions. Unlike many workers in the restaurant industry, for example, who are facing similarly unsafe conditions, teachers are able to utilize their right to organize to protect their interests. Their actions to protest capitalists’ efforts to sacrifice their lives for profit is part of a longer history that places teachers squarely in the middle of labor militancy in the United States, especially in the last few years. In Chicago and Los Angeles, the same teachers who are protesting reopenings are the teachers who went on strike in the last couple of years, following the example of teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

Families and students have been put in an impossible position as a result of the disastrous inaction around the pandemic, forced both to go to work and manage remote learning for their children. This is made exponentially more difficult due to the fact that 14 percent of children in the United States did not have internet at home as of April 2020. While wealthy kids’ families are able to hire private tutors, working-class kids are left to fend for themselves or fall behind. Politicians are trying to pin this “lost year” of schooling on “greedy” unions and pit families against teachers, but the real cause of this horrible scenario is a government which for almost a year has refused to adequately respond to the pandemic because of the toll it would take on capitalist profits. 

Furthermore, it is false to claim that all parents want to reopen schools and send their kids back. The false claim made by many that it’s Black and Latinx kids and families who want to open most is just not true. Despite the mass propaganda effort meant to convince the public to open schools, a recent Axios/Ipsos coronavirus poll found that 55 percent of Black parents and 40 percent of Latinx parents reported that they were extremely or very concerned about schools in their community reopening too quickly. In Chicago, only 19 percent of all eligible students returned to the classroom for the three weeks that schools opened last year and more than two-thirds of Black and Latinx families want to stay remote. 

Nevertheless, politicians are pushing for schools to reopen before it is safe to do so. This means a variety of things, depending on the city: it can mean reopening before coronavirus infection rates have been consistently below a certain threshold, before adequate ventilation has been guaranteed in schools, or before the faculty, staff and significant numbers of community members have been vaccinated. 

First it was Trump, who pressured state departments of education to reopen and refused to give federal guidelines on reopening plans; teachers fought heroically to rebuff those efforts. As of now, two thirds of schools are at least partially remote. But now the urgent demand to return to the classroom is coming from Biden and the entire Democratic Party, the same politicians that teachers unions campaigned so hard to elect. Throughout the election, Biden pretended to be a champion of teachers, promoting several events with his wife, Jill Biden, who teaches at a community college, to show that he relates deeply to teachers’ struggles. His first major policy plan was his education plan, and throughout his campaign he claimed that teaching is the “the most important profession in the United States.” 

With Biden in the White House, the push to reopen schools has increased at every level. While he is also promising vaccines, the vaccine rollout has been disastrous, and most teachers have not been vaccinated, much less the families and community members they serve. Like Trump, Biden’s main concern is how school reopenings keep the economy running and bolster rates of capitalist profit. He said as much himself: “Think of all the people who can get back to work, all the mothers and single fathers that are staying home taking care of their children.” Trump pushed reopenings without even pretending to care about teachers’ interests. Biden, on the other hand, is the “good cop”: full of compliments and “empathy” for the plight of teachers, but maintaining the same murderous agenda. 

Demonizing Teachers Unions 

The push for unsafe reopenings has gone hand in hand with the demonization of teachers unions by politicians and the media.

Recently, Forbes ran an article entitled “What Chicago And D.C. School Officials Can Learn From The 1981 Air Traffic Controllers Strike.” The article blithely reminisces on the anti-worker politics of Ronald Reagan who broke the air traffic controllers strike by firing over 11,000 workers. This was among the biggest defeats in the U.S. labor movement and it was the beginning of even more neoliberal attacks on the working class. The piece suggests that schools take the same policy with Chicago and D.C. teachers. The authors say, “Either they [school officials] cravenly cave-in to union extortion, or they do what is right, enforce the law and common sense. The futures of millions of students quite literally hang in the balance … Here’s a hint for those elected officials — take a lesson from Ronald Reagan.” In other words, “Crush the teachers unions.” Forbes is making an unabashed call for federal strike-breaking. 

Similarly, David Brooks of the New York Times argues, 

It’s Black and brown kids who live in cities with progressive mayors and powerful unions, and those are the places where in-school learning has been closed down…Readers, many of us got involved in the Black Lives Matter marches last summer. I guess I would ask you, do Black lives matter to you only when they serve your political purpose? If not, shouldn’t we all be marching to get Black and brown children back safely into schools right now?

This argument echoes the rhetoric used by charter school fanatics during the Obama years who tried to pit unions against communities of color for the purpose of privatizing public schools. Now, they’re using it to send teachers and students into unsafe schools, exposing themselves and their communities to coronavirus. 

Multi-billionaire and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg also says that Biden needs to “stand up teachers unions.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), argues that school reopenings are being blocked by “rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.” In the end, they are all on the same side in bipartisan agreement: teachers unions should get out of the way and let schools reopen.

This kind of demonization of teachers and teachers unions is dangerous for the entire working class. The National Educators Association (NEA) is currently the largest union in the United States and these attacks on teachers are meant to weaken all labor unions’ ability to fight in the coming period. As Forbes knows all too well, breaking the back of one labor struggle can clear the path for more crushing defeats of the working class.

Sold Out Unions 

And what’s worse is that national teachers unions, which strongly denounced Trump, are now applauding Biden. The NEA says, “President Biden’s plan provides great reason for sorely-needed optimism.” But Biden’s plan is essentially the Trump plan: reopen schools. 

AFT’s Randi Weingarten, for example, supported “safety strikes” against reopenings under Trump, but now, under Biden, she is demanding that teachers “face their fears” and accept unsafe reopenings. A recent New York Times profile on Weingarten claims that she “spends 15 hours per day on the phone, she says — with local labor leaders, mayors, the White House, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — trying to figure out how to reopen the three-quarters of school systems that remain fully or partially shuttered.”

In other words, while teachers around the country are organizing with families and communities to discuss strikes and other labor actions to only open when it is safe, their union leadership is spending the whole day on the phone organizing against them. The Times claims that this dynamic “puts Ms. Weingarten, leader of the 1.7-million-member American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union and a close ally of President Biden, in a tight spot.”

Indeed, she’s stuck between the interests of teachers and the interests of Joe Biden, who is governing solely in the interests of capital. As is her role, she’s actively siding with the state against teachers. 

But teachers are still fighting back, despite a lack of support from national teachers unions. After all, the teachers unions have close ties to the Democratic Party and were central endorsers of Biden. This highlights the profound failure of the NEA and the AFT: they spent union funds to get him elected, and now he is directly attacking teachers and pushing unsafe reopenings. This is itself a deep betrayal of the teachers’ movement.

The Battle to reopen Schools 

In many districts, schools have irregularly opened, having had to shut down over and over due to Covid cases in their buildings. Some teachers have paid for unsafe reopenings with their lives. Other teachers have retired at alarming rates — in Michigan one third of educators are thinking about quitting due to the pandemic. Truthout spoke to many of these teachers, like Christine Vehar, a music teacher, who left her position because she lives with her immunocompromised mother. Or people like Cheryl Dubberly who said, “I would not have been able to stay safe because I was responsible for teaching music to the entire school — 500 to 600 kids… This job is not worth my life.” 

It’s unsafe, and teachers know it. 

The battle for reopening schools has been most acute in Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was in a stand-off against “progressive” mayor Lori Lightfoot. Teachers were supposed to return to work last week, but after an intense battle with the CTU, the school district decreed a “cooling off period,” showing the strength of the teachers’ struggle. It seems a tentative agreement has been reached after the union nearly called a strike.

In Philadelphia, teachers organized a sickout and forced the mayor to call off school openings until arbitration is complete. This is underway right now. 

In Washington D.C., the District has asked a judge to stop the Washington Teachers’ Union from engaging in any talks about a potential strike by issuing a temporary restraining order. The district wants to bring teachers and students back to school buildings for the first time since March. Last November, D.C. teachers organized a sickout which kept schools closed.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is arguing that schools should find a way to reopen, despite the fact that Los Angeles is now the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. Newsom proposed to offer $2 billion in incentives for reopening elementary schools, starting this month. In California, none of the school districts are in the “low transmission” range. Teachers unions in many major cities have held off forced reopenings. 

In Cincinnati, teachers lost a battle against reopening schools after a judge threw out a teachers union lawsuit over safety concerns. The city did not reach the agreed upon infection rate levels in order to reopen, and yet the courts forced them to do so.

In Virginia, the Fairfax County superintendent put forward a plan for students to start returning on February 16, but the union says 8 in 10 teachers lack confidence in the plan and less than 10 percent feel safe to return. While Fairfax points to vaccines as the way forward, teachers have had vaccine appointments canceled because of nationwide shortages.

And teachers aren’t alone in the struggle. Families across the country have also organized actions in solidarity with teachers. For example, parents and students from Chicago public schools, as well as Orange County, CA schools, staged a sick-out in solidarity with teachers. 

The Way Forward

Teachers, especially those in Chicago and Philadelphia have shown a willingness to fight, which is an important example for the whole working class. Teachers and other workers are essential, and we can make all of the capitalist politicians and their media tremble. But right now, each of these struggles is separate and disconnected. And each city is being picked off via lawsuits and tentative agreements. 

Rather than organizing to reopen schools, the national education unions should coordinate all teachers’ struggles into a national struggle against unsafe reopenings and for an adequate pandemic policy for the entire working class that puts our needs above those of capitalist profit-making. 

It is essential for teachers to call out their national unions and demand that they stop the push for unsafe reopenings, and that they stop allying with capitalists against the working class. Crucially, it is time for workers to do some soul-searching. The strategy of donating funds and time to the Democrats has only tethered the union to the interests of capital. Joe Biden has made it abundantly clear that he is against teachers. It is time for unions to stop donating funds and energy to the capitalists and their parties. But making this break requires further action within the unions themselves: they must be run by rank-and-file workers who meet, discuss, and decide where their funds are allocated and how to fight for their interests.

And teachers, parents, and community members need to be the ones to decide when and how it is safe to reopen schools, in discussion with scientists and based on testing data. It shouldn’t be up to President Biden or politicians from the safety of their offices. 

And with regard to reopening, there is no option that can reconcile the safety of teachers, students, and the entire working class with the capitalist need to keep the economy totally open. We need to pay non-essential workers to stay home and implement a broad and vast testing and tracing program. We need every possible manufacturer that produces Covid-19 tests to be nationalized and to produce double or triple the number of tests we have now so that every community has a testing site around the block. It also means production and distribution of the vaccine should be nationalized under worker control— we need every factory that can produce a vaccine to be producing it, we need schools to be converted into vaccine centers, and a jobs program around vaccine distribution on one hand and testing and tracing on the other. 

Biden, the Democrats, and the Republicans have another plan: unsafe re-opening of the economy while people continue to die of the pandemic. Teachers cannot and should not accept this. It’s time to fight. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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