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Unsafe in any State: Reopening U.S. Schools Will be a Catastrophe

As schools across the country rush to reopen, many parents and education workers are being forced to make an impossible choice between their health and their economic wellbeing. 

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Utah Teachers protest plans to reopen at the district's office in Salt Lake City. Photo: Rick Bowmer

As millions of parents and children across the country prepare for the new school year, mounting evidence suggests that reopening schools could have dire consequences for families and their communities. According to a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are at least 180,000 children in the United States currently infected with the coronavirus — about half of the more than 480,000 confirmed child cases since the pandemic began almost six months ago. Meanwhile, the CDC is reporting that the percentage of children with the coronavirus has increased steadily since March and that children under 17 now make up almost 9 percent of new U.S. cases. 

These figures would be alarming under any circumstances, but as more and more states across the country race to reopen schools, the risk of new deadly outbreaks is going to increase. Many of these children — and those who contract the virus in the coming weeks — will almost certainly wind up in classrooms with dozens of other students in conditions that are less than ideal to combat the spread of diseases such as Covid-19. The classmates they infect will bring the virus back to their families, caretakers, and friends, almost guaranteeing an increase in new cases and deaths. In fact, this is the exact scenario currently unfolding in Georgia, where face-to-face classes began last month. As of August 17, at least three schools in Cherokee County near Atlanta have shut down and more than 1,700 faculty, students, and staff have been quarantined. 

Although a majority of teachers and parents say they would prefer to keep schools closed until they are safe, hundreds of public school districts, many in states where infection rates are climbing, are still moving forward with plans to begin in-person classes in the coming weeks. This has the potential to unleash a catastrophic wave of new cases far greater than anything we have seen in any country since the pandemic began. Even states such as New York and Massachusetts, which have largely managed to get the virus under control, are still tremendously ill-prepared for the planned return to face-to-face teaching. Most classrooms in New York City and Boston, for instance, lack the necessary ventilation needed for safe use, not to mention adequate amounts of personal protective equipment and medical staff. Indeed, until recently, many schools in New York City lacked even a single dedicated nurse on site.

If reopening schools is both unsafe and unpopular, why then are so many districts — enrolling almost half the students in the country — insisting on returning to some form of face-to-face teaching in the fall? While some advocates have claimed the psychological and academic benefits to children outweigh the risk, the push to reopen schools is not really about learning or the psychological wellbeing of students, but about politics and economics. Capitalist economies cannot function and reproduce themselves without the massive amount of childcare that public schools provide to working parents, and since capitalists are not willing to pay for the resources necessary to keep working people afloat in the interim, the only option left, from their perspective, is to force schools to reopen. After months of lost revenue and productivity, it is clear that the ruling class is eager to get back to the uninterrupted business of exploitation  — whether it is safe or not. It is this desire for profit, more than anything, that is driving the push to reopen schools.  

Catastrophe by Design 

The dilemma of reopening schools illustrates well the contradictions of capitalism. Hailed by orthodox economists as the most rational, resilient, and efficient system of economic production, the pandemic and the problem of school reopenings show just how inflexible, irrational, undemocratic, and inherently exploitative the system really is. 

Historically associated with enlightenment rationality, innovation, and scientific inquiry, capitalism all too often inhibits innovation and encourages an explicit rejection of scientific methods and findings. President Trump’s dismissal of even the most basic scientific principles — while an obvious attempt to appeal to the fears and resentments of his base — is not merely a tic of his right-wing populism. It is driven by the economic and political imperatives of capitalism, which is incapable of adequately and rationally responding to such crises. By condemning even his own scientific advisors, Trump has effectively created enough doubt and dissent among the population to allow many states to reopen schools and businesses long before it is safe. 

Scientific facts that are an inconvenience to profit making are regularly dismissed by the ruling class, but even when the facts are well known and widely accepted by working people, capitalism makes it near impossible to act on such knowledge. The logic of profit seeking and exploitation means that working people often have little choice but to ignore the advice of the scientific community. While a privileged few are able to make safe choices for their children and themselves with little to no sacrifice, most working people have been forced, as they frequently were even before the pandemic, to choose between their health and safety and their economic survival. 

Even in those states where the virus is largely under control and carefully planned school reopenings could be feasible, decades of underfunding — driven by shortsighted and irrational attempts to balance state budgets without interfering with capitalist profits — have left schools unprepared. How does one follow safe school-opening protocol in districts where the average class size is well over thirty? How can you safely reopen classrooms that have no windows or proper ventilation? And how can you expect children to follow proper social-distancing and mask-wearing protocols with so few teachers and support staff?  

Of course, not all school districts are equally unsafe to reopen. Wealthy school districts, which tend to be predominantly white, have much lower infection rates, in part because professional parents are able to work from home, avoiding the risks of exposure service and manufacturing workers face. They also have much better resources to open safely. All of the things other schools lack, such as small student/teacher ratios, large and well-ventilated classrooms and plenty of outdoor space to maintain safe social distancing, sufficient cleaning supplies, and adequate resources to conduct necessary testing, are much more available in wealthy school districts. What’s more, families in wealthier districts are, ironically, also much better prepared for school closings, since they tend to have sufficient resources to continue to provide quality education and childcare.

Meanwhile, working-class parents in poorer school districts have no good options. Many of these parents depend on school reopening for childcare so they can return to work. However, schools in poorer districts, having suffered from years of defunding and neglect, without the benefits of private fundraising and funding from high property taxes, do not have the space, staff, and other resources to guarantee the safety of their students and workers. It is no wonder, then, that parents in these underfunded districts (who tend to be disproportionately people of color) — despite being in dire need of the childcare traditionally provided by public schools — turn out to be less inclined to support school reopening than wealthier white families.

Such rampant inequalities are exacerbated by the fact that, under capitalism, working people — and poor working people of color in particular — have little power over the decisions that most affect them. Data show that the majority of parents and teachers oppose school reopenings. According to a July HuffPost/YouGov survey, less than 20 percent of parents of K-12-age children supported fully reopening schools, and 42 percent preferred that schools remain closed. Only 26 percent expressed support for a hybrid model like the one about to be implemented in New York. 

You may be interested in Shut It Down: Arizona Teachers’ Mass Sick-Out Delay School Reopening

But schools are reopening nonetheless, and we are told it is the best solution for everyone, regardless of what working people believe. It is ironic that in a country where, as the myth goes, individual freedoms are cherished above all else, workers terrified of losing their lives or infecting their loved ones by returning to work are shamed for being unpatriotic, lazy, and timid. The idea that workers must sell their labor, without any input on the matter, just to live has become so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted and rarely question the tyranny of such an arrangement. Now that returning to work may mean a death sentence, this arrangement is suddenly in plain view and no longer accepted as a given. 

Moreover, teachers and other school workers have been largely excluded from decision making regarding school reopening — even though they are the only people with the knowledge and experience to make such decisions. This is because the lack of democracy in the workplace is another feature of capitalism, one that perpetuates unsafe working conditions. So while workers are forced to make sacrifices, they often have little to no influence over the decisions that affect their working conditions. And while the lack of democracy in the workplace is also nothing new, the pandemic has made this characteristic of our system especially egregious. 

Toward a National Teachers Strike 

More than ever, the ruling class is united in its efforts to divide the working class and force working people to pay once again for the crises produced by the very system that exploits them. Impeding organized opposition to school reopenings, even in states and districts where it is obviously unsafe to do so, was contingent on pitting parents and teachers against each other; that strategy, thankfully, has not succeeded. As many more schools plan to open in the coming weeks it is becoming increasingly clear that teachers, other education workers, and parents all want the same thing: safe workplaces and safe and adequate learning conditions for their children. United, they can win these things. 

You may be interested in: The Case for a National Teachers’ Strike

Across the country, teachers and other education workers have been leading this effort, rising up in defiance against unsafe school reopenings and demanding that districts create conditions for effective remote learning. In one Arizona school district, for example, more than 100 teachers called in sick last Friday, forcing the district to postpone its plans to reopen indefinitely. Meanwhile, unions representing teachers in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York have all warned that they are prepared to go on strike to keep schools closed if they are not safe. This is a positive development, but while closing schools in this or that district may help keep some teachers and children safe, doing so will unfortunately also create new problems for working parents, particularly women, many of whom will be forced to leave their jobs, work less, or pay for expensive and unsafe childcare when schools close. 

As Left Voice has argued elsewhere, teachers’ unions, rank-and file-education workers, and parents are in a unique position to force a national discussion about the country’s response to the pandemic and lead a national movement to ensure schools are safe and that parents and working people have the resources they need to survive the pandemic. A coordinated national strike for safe schools around a set of bold demands — including extended and expanded unemployment benefits, universal health care, guaranteed paid work leave for working parents, a national moratorium on evictions, and massive investments in education — could fundamentally change the terrain of class struggle during and after the pandemic. Building for such a national strike movement should have been the priority of teachers’ unions since the pandemic began, and with the lives of so many on the line, there is no time to waste. 

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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Yekaterina Oziashvili

Yekaterina teaches Politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

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