Trump’s Call to Reopen Schools Endangers Students, Staff, and Families

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Furiously attempting to “reopen the economy,” both Republicans and Democrats are insisting that schools return to face to face teaching while simultaneously slashing the funding that would allow them to do so safely. Once again, the plan is to sacrifice the health of poor and working-class kids, teachers, and their families for a capitalist economy. 

Photo: Drew Angerer

In the midst of a pandemic that has left millions of Americans reeling, Republicans and Democrats alike are rushing to re-open schools across the country, most with little regard for the safety and health of students, faculty, and staff.  Part of a broader push to reopen the economy, the return to in-person teaching is yet another attempt by the capitalist ruling class to force people back to work rather than provide them with the relief they need to weather out the pandemic in safety. The urgency stems from the unwillingness of a capitalist government to offer any relief to working people other than a single, moderate stimulus check.

While this decision has, no doubt, been met with some relief by a number of panicked and struggling parents who rely on schools as childcare and need to go back to work, the fact is that re-opening school’s now is not safe for students or their teachers, who are effectively being sacrificed at the altar of profit. Some parents will be economically forced to send their children into an unsafe situation. 

Teachers are being presented as selfishly being concerned only for their own safety, despite the fact that ultimately, the interests of teachers, parents, and children are the same. Despite the nationwide wave of strikes by overworked, underpaid teachers in 2018, the idea that they are responsible for making up for — and saving kids from — all of the problems of capitalist society continues. And the inequities laid bare by the pandemic are no exception.

Trump and Science Denial

As Coronavirus cases soar in the U.S., mainly in states that did not institute plans to protect public health, President Trump has demanded that schools reopen, calling the basic preventative guidelines recommended by the CDC “very tough and expensive,” and issuing a veiled threat to force them to change.

With this, he reminds us that the Republicans have no regard for the scientific studies that would allow people to live in safety — the only thing that matters to them is the economy. Yesterday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence echoed Trump’s call, announcing that the C.D.C. will be revising its guidelines, citing that the current recommendations are “too tough.” Science, according to the Trump administration, can be changed to suit the budgetary requirements of capitalism.

Some state governors and city officials, however, have said that they are not willing to comply. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo took on Trump’s statements in a press conference, stating: “The president does not have any authority to open schools. We will open the schools if it is safe to open the schools. Everybody wants the schools open.” Firmer statements about the fall were made by Public Health officials for Los Angeles County and the Schools Superintendent of Miami-Dade, who said that they have no plans to reopen at the end of the summer. 

Sorry, Safety is Too Expensive

Despite this sudden professed concern for the safety and well-being of students on the part of many Democratic Party politicians, the fact remains that their decades of state and city cuts to education have left schools woefully unprepared for this situation. And, due to the nationwide system of funding education through local property taxes, cuts have always had a vastly disproportionate impact on poor and working-class communities, mainly communities of Black and Brown people who tend to struggle economically at a much higher rate as they are faced with rampant inequality. This has become even more pronounced during the pandemic.

Trump’s callous and bald-faced statements — that children’s safety is just too expensive — were compounded by threats to cut off federal funding to school districts already being slashed to the bone by budget cuts. “[Opening schools] is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” Trump tweeted.

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If carried out, such cuts would wind up targeting the most vulnerable students, as the majority of federal funding for education supports children below the poverty line, children with disabilities, and the children of recent immigrants. Although Trump would likely be challenged in court, the New York Times reports that the danger is real, stating: “The Education Department may be able to reroute or withhold some emergency coronavirus relief funding that school districts say they desperately need to fund staff, programming and the public health measures recommended by the C.D.C. And the president could veto additional funds that schools want from Congress this summer.” Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos, a huge proponent of union-breaking school privatization models that allow private interests to control and profit from children’s education, reminded us of this agenda: “Why shouldn’t [school funding] go directly to parents to find an option for their student if the school they are assigned to refuses to open?” 

Of course many parents and educators are also eager to return to face to face teaching, since they know well the problems with online education. Indeed, the one thing that almost everyone in the country can agree on is that distance learning doesn’t work. But it’s worth examining exactly why it failed so thoroughly. 

In New York City, the inequities in education, already painfully apparent to teachers and parents, were exacerbated by the school closures. Promises to supply low-income students with free wi-fi access and devices sufficient for distance learning were unfulfilled. Deals with Apple allowed the corporation to get public money and offload older devices at huge profits, but these devices were completely inadequate for the vast majority of students. Other kids had to figure out schedules with their siblings to share devices, causing intense stress for children already coping with living in a pandemic lockdown. Some high school students had to do a full course load on their phones.

Mayor Bill De Blasio — who refused to close schools until forced to do so by public demand and, finally, by Governor Andrew Cuomo — will be submitting a plan to Cuomo this month that does abide by CDC guidelines. Students will engage in a blend of in-person and distance learning, since schools can’t accommodate all students and abide by current CDC guidelines. He gave an incredibly vague outline of the plan during a press conference yesterday, leaving parents anxious about the final plan.

But this is disingenuous, as most U.S. cities cannot possibly follow CDC guidelines given the current conditions in schools. The advisory says students should stay at least six feet apart to avoid spreading the virus, which limits the number of people in any classroom at any time to nine. 

This rules out the possibility of students attending every day, because class sizes in cities around the country are massive — before the Los Angeles teachers strike last year, class sizes could be as high as 46 students, and there was a loophole in the contract that allowed the district to ignore class size limits in cases of “financial necessity,” created, of course, by systematic defunding. After the strike, the new contract said that average class size must be reduced to 38, but there were still no limits. This keeps kids shoulder-to-shoulder in crowded classrooms. 

The class size limit in New York City is 34 for academic classes and 50 for arts classes — restrictions that are regularly ignored with little to no immediate remedy when schools cannot create smaller classes due to lack of space. This past school year, over 35,000 kids in kindergarten through third grade were in classes of 30 students or more. Based on these numbers, there is no way to accommodate even close to the number of students in NYC, even if they only attended school two days a week.

So while schools with a higher percentage of students with parents who work from home will be a bit better off, they still won’t be able to handle the number of students coming in.

Basic safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus were completely lacking before the pandemic peaked, and this has led to a complete lack of trust that the city will get it together and get basic sanitation supplies to teachers and custodians. Before he was forced to shut down schools, De Blasio had said without a trace of irony that “supplies like soap and paper towels should never be an issue. ‘This is not the 1970s – our school system has the resources to provide every school with towels and soap, and does…” Gothamist commented: “That came as a surprise to parents who routinely fundraise for those supplies, and for teachers who often find soap dispensers empty.”

Teachers and Families Endangered

While many people erroneously believe that children cannot get the Coronavirus, the CDC has made it very clear that while few children show symptoms, they are absolutely capable of spreading the virus quickly, especially to elderly, immunocompromised, or diabetic family members, or family members with other conditions. Lower income kids are also the most likely to live in crowded or multi-generational households and with parents who have developed these medical conditions due to lack of adequate health care thanks to a for-profit healthcare system. Meanwhile, anyone who has ever dealt with a small child knows that it will be completely impossible to convince them to keep masks on, further increasing the  spread of the virus

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has made an agreement with the city to offer medical exemptions to those at a much higher risk, which will allow them to work from home, seemingly indicating that both the union leadership and the city acknowledge just how dangerous the disease can be. It is completely clear, however, that there will be no accommodations for those with at-risk family members, for whom contact with an infected individual could be a death sentence. There is also no clarity on exactly which or how many conditions will be considered adequate to allow compromised teachers to work from home. Inevitably, some teachers at serious risk of COVID-related complications will be forced to return to work with no PPE other than the fabric masks they buy themselves. 

To add insult to injury, an email informed DOE staff that Teachers Choice, the individualized funding that allows teachers to fill in the gaps left by a lack of supplies in neglected schools, has been eliminated in the new budget, which means teachers will have to choose between buying basic supplies for students — including cleaning supplies not provided by schools — or their classrooms will be even more dangerous. And all this is on top of the massive cuts to the DOE in the newly-passed city budget. It’s the city’s way of offloading responsibility for the budget crisis onto teachers, after already requiring teachers to work through the seven day spring break with no compensation other than four sick days.

And given the fact that the DOE tried to prevent reports of cases of COVID-19 and that they refused to release the numbers of DOE staff who died of related complications until almost a month after schools closed, teachers have every reason to be cynical about the possibilities of real protection.

Parents are faced with an impossible choice. Risk losing their jobs in an already failing economy, or push to send their children to school in conditions they know are unsafe. Parents are getting desperate, and once again, it will be the working class who are forced to put our lives, safety, and health on the line in the service of the system that already endangers us every day. We must demand full funding for education before schools reopen and meaningful economic support for working parents while the lockdown continues. This crisis cannot be balanced on the backs of our public school children, their teachers, and their families.

About author

Francesca Gomes

Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.