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“No One Is Coming to Save Us”: Brooklyn Teachers Organize Sickout

Teachers at a Brooklyn middle school organized a sickout in response to the surge in Omicron cases. We interviewed one teacher who emphasizes the importance of education workers having the agency to determine whether their workplaces are safe.

Left Voice

January 10, 2022
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Teachers protested against unsafe conditions in schools on January 5 outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Photo: Jeff Bachner / New York Daily News

Where do you work and what do you teach?

I am a special education teacher at MS 136 Charles O. Dewey Middle School, and I teach seventh-grade math.

What has Covid been like at your school and in your community?

There are three levels: the teachers, the community, and then the students. Broadly speaking, in the community we have 50-50 vaccination rates. The majority of folks have at least one jab, mostly because of the mandates. There are a lot of people in the community who are kind of hesitant for whatever reason, or maybe they don’t have access.

Inside the school, they just made the vaccine available for 11-year-olds, so not a lot of the sixth graders are vaccinated. Seventh and eighth grade have had access for a little bit longer. Broadly speaking, Covid is one of those things where they believe whatever their parents tell them. I’ve heard offhand comments and conspiracy theory claims about the vaccine and why they have to get it. They’ve gotten used to masks and prefer coming to school over remote, but they’re worried about it — there’s a kind of storm cloud feeling about Covid. One student who lost a parent to it just stopped coming to school during the surge.

For us teachers, it’s always at the front of our minds, teachers who are worried about how school will work, but the majority are worried about their physical health. No one at the top seems to be caring.

How has your union responded to the surge in cases? What was your expectation, and have they met that expectation?

For me personally, as a new teacher, my expectations were pretty low. I come from a workforce that was super individualized. I was a bartender, and basically, you came to work or you lost your shift. Losing a good shift meant that you couldn’t pay rent, you know? But in my experience [as a teacher] so far, my expectation has been kind of heightened because I came with an understanding of unions and why they exist.

I think the [UFT] has done a pretty poor job. My expectation was that they would keep us safe, and the other teachers in my school expected that as well. For someone [Michael Mulgrew] who’s been in power for a while and whose faction [Unity] has controlled the union for some time, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of clout with the mayor or the DOE. So the union is kind of ineffectual, even though it seems on the surface to have a lot of connections and a lot of clout.

There had already been a surge before we went on break, and we had a minimal number of students in school. There should have been some action taken to protect us from coming back into a Covid surge after the vacation. There was no discussion of that.

If that would be a school-by-school basis, that’s fine with me. If my school gets closed, but other ones stay open because they’re safe, I’d be fine. Each work site is unique and is in different neighborhoods. There could be a rolling 30 percent average here in Sunset Park, but in Flushing or downtown Manhattan, maybe there’s like, like 2 percent, and they’re masking and social distancing and students are safe, then sure, you don’t have to shut the whole system down. But this point has been lost in our union — that there’s a way to advocate for your workers by advocating for our agency. My expectation would be that they give us that power and give us that agency to make those choices about safety.

The Chicago teachers at least got to vote on it. That would have been awesome.

The teachers at your school organized a sick-out. Can you tell me more about that? How did you decide to do this, and what was the participation like?

It all started with some chapter leaders getting together on New Year’s Eve and seeing the way the numbers were going. We realized there’s been no conversation about any action by our union. So the MORE Caucus of the UFT put forward the idea of a sick-out. It would be a way for teachers to get together and take action to try to create some disruption to the system so that they’d have to address [the safety issues]. And hopefully by doing that, we could get some attention to the fact that there’s two systems at play right here — you have DOE central, which has been remote since the beginning of December, and then you have schools, which are essentially open at any cost.

So union members in our school had an emergency meeting, and it was pretty clear some action had to be taken. There were various concerns teachers had: “I have an immunocompromised child,” “I have a kid that’s under 12,” you know? And we know that even if you’re vaccinated, you could be spreading it too, and no one was talking about that. The news wasn’t talking about that. The DOE, the chancellor, the mayor — no one said anything about any of that.

I mean, literally every single one of our teachers has been exposed to a positive case this week. Every single person received extra test kits and went through the DOE’s Covid protocol. So it’s not like it was beyond the pale that, you know, these teachers would potentially [have to take sick time]. This is real, you know, so why are we here? Why are we in school? Why are we forcing everyone to go to school? If the protocols, if the truth is like all these teachers and all these kids are probably positive or exposed to positive cases and possibly spreading it to other people, why are we here right now?

About 97 percent of us voted. There were nine teachers who decided to go in. But everyone else agreed that something had to be done and that this was the most appropriate action. We were potentially putting a few things on the line if we were to continue it for multiple days. It could be a breach of contract. So some people were concerned about that, but I think the risks were outweighed by what was possible.

They were punishing kids by stuffing them into potentially super-spreader situations. So to disrupt that, we decided to do our sick-out. And so it was to disrupt the power system and this inequity, and to minimize the risk to students, families, the community, and the teachers too.

We told our admin that we were going to do this. Not every chapter would probably do that, but we did, because our line of communication is pretty open. She’s pretty supportive and sympathetic to what we’re trying to do. And that helps her too, right? It helps her keep the place safe and keep the students safe. So we communicated and sent her a mass email at three o’clock. When we got out of school [on Monday], we all just scheduled an email that we weren’t going to be in school the next day.

At this point the principal tried to close the school. So this is where the power structure really gets ugly. Our mass sick-out, with her help, was in service of closing the school. But she could not do that because the DOE refused. The superintendent, Anita Skop, basically said, “No, no, no, no, not on my watch. You’re staying open.”

And then [our principal] sent it to central, who sent managers to the school to assist the principal and [substitute teachers] to the school to keep it open. But they didn’t take it as an opportunity to show leadership and take action on this really deadly virus. They just wanted to cover their asses. It was just damage control as soon as they found out this many people were gonna be gone.

And so when that day came and, and we were all gone, Amanda [the principal] was forced to open the school. Students were allowed to come to school, and 41 teachers were missing. Only nine teachers with licenses were there. So these high-up figures from the DOE brought these managers, these bureaucrats, people who had never been teachers, and they came with no teaching license. So they couldn’t even be in the room alone with students. They were not substitutes. These are people who were a complete waste of space in terms of helping get the school to educate. About 68 percent of students were there. So it was a completely wasted day.

There’s been a lot of interest in how this happened, and there’s also a little sense of intrigue, like, What is up with this DOE coverup? Why did these DOE actors feel the need to force the school open? If there’s any reason to close, it’s having this many teachers out, a surge in Covid cases, and attendance down dramatically. But they opened it anyway. This is untenable. It’s dangerous.

I wanna push back on people saying that students shouldn’t have to go through remote learning. I agree that there is a deep social need to be with other humans. We’re social creatures. But you can’t deny that after two years of being on Zoom calls and remote classes and all this stuff that this isn’t at all part of their normal experience now. And so for a short period of time, knowing that it’s not forever, we can start to figure out how long the closures are and make sure that kids go online, which they know how to do. You can give them incentives and engage them in ways that are actually effective. And then bring them back in person. We just know more now.

How have parents and students responded to the sick-out?

I’m really glad you brought that up because one of the things that DOE, from on high, said to our admin is that you cannot communicate with parents about this. So our admin was not allowed to create a robocall, letting them know that students may come to school, but teachers will not be there. They were not allowed to communicate to the parents that the Covid surge was affecting teachers so that parents could make decisions about their children’s learning. This points to another issue of too much power centralized in the DOE — they can tell us what we can and cannot say, and our admin could lose their position. I’m not sure what the consequences would have been if she told them, but the rule is very dictatorial, right?

Can you talk about why it’s important that education workers organize to keep their schools safe right now?

No one else is coming to save us. And unless we discuss with each other what it is that we want and those shared beliefs that our school should be a safe place to learn, we can get thrown under the bus in service of whatever those in power decide is important. And if you believe that the school should be a safe place, and that you should have protection for the workers and the students, then you’re gonna have to talk to each other and you’re gonna have to make some decisions to take some risks.

Without talking to each other and organizing from a place of love and empathy, then we won’t see the kinds of changes and the power put into the hands of the people that deserve it. We just won’t see that.

What would a safe reopening of schools look like to you? What is needed to keep staff, students, and the community safe?

We’re talking about, you know, hundreds of thousands of people here in Sunset Park who depend on the school system to work. Admin needs to communicate with the teachers, and they need to have the power to make decisions with community input as well. There’s too much centralized power in the DOE and the mayor’s office to dictate to all schools across the largest school system in America. There needs to be much more community input, much more school input, in the decisions because it affects teachers, students, and families. So keeping schools safe requires us to have the agency to make those decisions, to keep it safe.

Teachers in Chicago recently voted to stay remote during the Omicron surge, but they were locked out of their virtual classrooms by the district. As an NYC teacher, do you have a message for them?

My message is one of solidarity with my Chicago family. They made a decision that was very difficult, and I am so supportive and very excited to see the city back on its heels because teachers are the driving force of the cities of Chicago and New York, and everywhere else. So give the teachers what they need to be successful so that the students of the next generation can be successful.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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