“Situations Like This Are Why People Strike”: Interview with a Brooklyn Teacher

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Left Voice speaks with Josh Kahn, a teacher in Brooklyn, about New York’s proposed reopening plan for schools. He says teachers need to organize to fight for the safety of workers and students in the face of a dangerous rush to put kids back in classrooms.

Image: Demonstrators block the driveways of a Detroit school bus terminal to keep buses from running on the first day of summer classes on Monday. David Guralnick / The Detroit News via AP

As the debate over opening schools in September continues, Left Voice continues our series of educator perspectives. If you are an educator or student who would like to share your experience with COVID and/or school re-openings please send an email to [email protected].

Once the Covid-19 pandemic started to become a clear threat, and before schools closed, how were you feeling about reporting to work?

Two weeks before schools closed, at the beginning of that week, I was walking around thinking, what on earth are we doing here? It’s clear that we need to shut this down. And it didn’t happen.

I was not going to go back to school that week [of March 16] regardless of whether they agreed to close it, and I think other people were planning the same way. I was thinking, why are they going to make us keep going to school, you know? And without any consideration for our health, the students’ health, or the million families that are involved in schools in New York.

What did you think of the timing of the school shutdown in March?

At first, there was no way they were going to admit it wasn’t safe and shut the schools down. That’s not the way they operate, clearly, or else they wouldn’t be talking about opening in the fall, because it’s so clear that it’s still not safe. Initially, nobody wanted to do anything to take any precautions.

When they finally did close, they didn’t have a choice. By then it was clear that there was a global pandemic that had hit New York hard and they needed to close it down. The schools were the first thing they really closed, and it was late. They weren’t looking at other countries and what they had to do, for some unknown reason. If you have to control the pandemic by staying inside and wearing a mask when you go outdoors, well, that’s what they needed to tell everybody to do. And they didn’t and they still haven’t. And so here we are in a country that’s exploding instead of recovering over the summer, which it easily could have done.

How are people in your community reacting to the virus?

I’m in Wellfleet, Massachusetts for the summer. I see a lot of people not wearing masks, maybe because this is a vacation area, but I think that’s happening everywhere. People are getting frustrated, and they simply cannot deal with the inconvenience. So they don’t. They walk around without a mask, or, you know, they have one around their chin and then begrudgingly pull it up when they walk past you … or don’t. Part of it’s a learning curve, but it’s getting absurd. It’s like, put a fucking mask on, please.

We have an odd country. One of the unifying factors in the United States is our stubbornness and obstinacy in the face of intelligence. And not everyone doing this right now is a Trumper. Some people are just thinking, “Oh, come on. I don’t feel anything. I don’t know anybody who’s sick.” So that’s what’s going on in less densely populated places, and that’s why it’s going to spread massively. It’s doing that in so many states. And it’s going to come back after people come home from their vacations in August and in September. I think New York’s going to blow up again.

And there’s some mutual aid stuff happening, people can offer each other support — we knocked a bunch of money off our only tenant’s rent — but that’s such a small microcosm. There are groups of colleagues and like-minded thinkers who help each other in maybe even a formalized way, but those are small collectives, you know?

And the government is supposed to be acting as the big collective, and it doesn’t. It feels like we’re pre-FDR again, and it just needs to stop.

What people are comfortable saying and what they are okay watching and supporting, you know, children and other people just being murdered because they happen to live in a particular neighborhood or because they are Black … nobody who lives in this country wants to think that it’s a country of murderers. That’s not what people want to be thinking, but our government is laying it so bare that it’s hard to not see it.

What problems did you experience during distance learning?

So, as middle school teachers, we have a particular and a unique set of difficulties to begin with. It’s the point in child development that’s very confusing and has never been handled particularly well. All of middle school education for this last period has just been upping the rigor and squishing high school down into middle school. What we should be doing instead is allowing for development of things like ethics. We need to be opening kids up to history and stories they wouldn’t ordinarily hear. We don’t look at best practices, as a system.

So that’s what became amplified by distance learning. It’s been so long without much real guidance for teachers that distance learning just made everything far more difficult.

What do you think of the Department of Education’s plan for fall reopening?

It’s absolutely nuts. We’re in the same position now that we were in March.

If schools are closed, it’s an issue for the economy. Everybody gets that. That doesn’t mean you open schools. It’s not safe by a long shot yet. It’s not close to safe. And the people who are making decisions, I decided many, many years ago, were not going to make this type of decision for me. I just can’t trust the Department of Education in New York City, or the mayor, or the chancellor. They just don’t have our best interests at heart. And, unfortunately, I don’t think they have the kids’ best interest at heart. Or anybody’s, really. That’s not the way they make decisions. Their actions make it very clear that compassion is not a consideration for them. Their priority is to maintain control and keep things moving.

My understanding of the plan is that teachers are going to physically go to school. We’re going to have big plastic face shields and formfitting PPEs. And they might even have external fresh-air feeds. But I can’t imagine any of that happening. The maximum number of students in each standard-size classroom is supposed to be nine. Teaching nine children at a time puts us at a third of capacity, less than a third of capacity. So that would mean three or four times as much staff for each subject. It’s not a hard math problem. This doesn’t work.

Basically, kids are going to be in school for one day every week in a weird environment for no good reason. That doesn’t seem to really ameliorate the problem; that doesn’t really fix anything. They have to go online anyway. And half of them can’t, and they don’t want to. And it’s tough to motivate them to do something we know is already a mess, even though we try.

Do you think they would give teachers the PPE that you’re talking about?

No. I mean, they’re acting as though that’s what they’re designing, but I can’t imagine that anybody’s going to be having an external feed air system, you know, or a suit.

But even giving staff PPE: Can you see the DOE coordinating giving out a mask to every teacher? Teachers can barely get basic supplies.

I can’t imagine. They might, but it seems unlikely.

I understand much of what the DOE does, and this seems fairly typical. They don’t have the resources, the teachers, or the space to teach nine students at a time. They just simply don’t. But they know that the online teaching has so many inherent problems that they’re saying, “Well, we have to have kids back in school.”

Yes, damage is done when things like schools are shut down, damage is done when our economy is shut down, but that doesn’t mean that you open up the economy and open up schools before there’s a solution to the health crisis that’s going on all over the globe. And that’s basically what they’re doing over and over again. I didn’t trust [Mayor Bill] De Blasio or [Chancellor Richard] Carranza for a long time to begin with, but how can anybody trust their safety to these people after the way they handled things in March?

Going back now just doesn’t make sense. Everybody sees how well opening the economy worked without taking proper precautions. Why is this discussion even happening? I’m not going back unless it makes sense to go back. I’ve been in the system almost 20 years. Why would they not even consider talking to me? They talked to parents. They asked if parents would like schools to be open. Of course they would. That doesn’t mean it’s safe or can work. Why aren’t they talking to teachers? Why aren’t they talking to administrators?

What provisions are being made in case you get sick?

Now that there are parameters for saying that you have a medical reason to teach online instead of going to a brick-and-mortar space, my doctor is going to get paperwork in order that says I can’t go in, even though my condition is not on the list. It seems fairly obvious that I shouldn’t be in that situation. I’ve had a cardiac reaction to a viral infection two separate times. Obviously, most people shouldn’t get this virus if they can avoid it. But I don’t know what they’re going to say about my application. They’re probably going to say it’s not good enough, but I’m doing the paperwork anyway.

I’m taking this in two-week chunks, and we’re already in our second of those two-week chunks of the summer. And, you know, nothing’s really changed. They just told everybody what they were thinking on July 15. People are going to give their paperwork in the next two weeks, it seems. And then after that, we’ll see what changes.

What do you think needs to be done to make reopenings safe?

Things have to change. This is just an incredibly rare opportunity. The system as it is now doesn’t allow for people to exist and encourage existence and thriving during this most difficult time. It’s like we’re just on our own.

Teachers have government jobs. For the most part, we follow instructions. But I think we’re at the point with the pandemic and its intersection with society that, you know, we can’t just do what they tell us to do anymore. They’re not trustworthy or being smart. And that’s my concern.

I do believe that safety is possible in a pandemic like this. You just have to do all the things you’re supposed to do that you know will keep you safe. Like keeping schools closed. Now, if they don’t allow us to do all those things that keep us safe, then we’re obviously not safe. There are so many problems about transmission and density that teaching in buildings simply doesn’t make any sense to me.

There are a lot of smart people who are thinking about this. And if they refuse to open this up to ideas, they’re ignoring us at their own peril. I see people not wanting to think about it and people who want to have a quick fix. And people are in this frustrated moment, and many will just walk back into work. And there certainly isn’t a movement to say not to do it yet. Although people walked out last week, I saw. That’s inspiring.

I would gladly go to the building and help kids and families who need food, make sure they get food. I’d gladly be part of that organizational process as a teacher right now. I really think that it’s time to make some very simple societal demands, and teachers can be a part of that. We’ve moved in this incredibly frightening authoritarian sort of direction against the majority’s desires.

Can you go back to the idea that this is an opportunity? Can you say a little more about that?

I think it’s an opportunity, this pandemic. Everything has stopped in so many ways. So many people don’t have a job to go to. So many people are freaking. I mean, that’s the other thing that’s not really being addressed here. The economy is not going to be opened up and revived, and even if it is, many jobs don’t exist anymore. And how are people going to eat? I think there’s an opportunity to try to have communication about things, about education, and obviously it’s the time to have conversations about race. The streets are saying that. This slave-catching mentality of the police force has to stop; it is clearly unacceptable.

Eventually there has to be an educational conversation that isn’t just driven by politics and economics. The people who are being offered opportunities in this situation are Pearson and Bill Gates. And those are the opportunities that are going to be exploited. We have to be looking for opportunities for us, for the students, for the families right now, for humanity. We’re all struggling to figure out what life should look like, because we’re at a point where we’re mostly trapped in a room most of the day for a very long time. And so we have the opportunity at least to think and to identify the things that just don’t work. And none of that’s really happening at the higher levels because they’re so concerned about reopening. Why is that the discussion?

I feel like there’s also an opportunity to try to organize teachers, and say that the opportunity that really is here is one of worker unification. And teachers have been trained to resist that. You know, the whole “union of professionals” line that our union leadership has been taking. They want to make sure there’s some hierarchy where we’re at the top of the unions, you know. And that’s an issue with the union leadership, but this is an opportunity I think, to have solidarity with the medical profession. This crosses politics, when we can stand with the medical profession, day laborers, and service-industry workers.

It’s an opportunity to stand with workers in a real meaningful way because we have the power to shut a large part of this thing down. And it doesn’t take long. I mean, it really wouldn’t take long. If we didn’t walk in for a week, it would go somewhere. Shutting the schools down is an opportunity, and if everybody’s scared to do it and we can’t get on the same page, which I’m not sure we’re going to be able to, unfortunately, then it’s going to be a problem. But I think it might be worthwhile to make some efforts in that direction, organizing. Situations like this are why you strike, and this is why everybody should be striking right now.

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Left Voice

Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.