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Unsafe School Reopenings Aren’t About Kids. They’re About Capitalist Profits.

As Omicron surges across the country, capitalists are trying to get things “back to normal” at all costs. Unsafe school reopenings have nothing to do with students; they have everything to do with keeping the capitalist economy running.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

January 8, 2022
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Photo by katiegodowski_photography

The United States just hit a record-breaking 1 million confirmed coronavirus infections. The real rate of infections is likely much higher.

Over 850,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, and daily deaths from the virus are nearing 2,000. Hospitalizations are skyrocketing, and in some places they are as high as they were in January 2021. During the recent Delta surge, more than 500 children died from Covid-19, and hospitalizations of children have increased during the spread of the Omicron variant.

And yet Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, appeared on Fox News Sunday saying, “Our expectation is for schools to be open full time for students for in-person learning.” And amid a massive crisis in schools, Biden took to the TV on Tuesday to “encourage” schools to stay open. The head of the White House Covid-19 response team, Jeffrey Zients, recently declared, “The president couldn’t be clearer — schools in this country should remain open.” In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, with the blessing of both Democrats and Republicans, has gone to war with teachers who voted to teach remotely.

The unsafe reopenings have caused chaos in schools and created terrible learning conditions. Despite the rhetoric, the push for unsafe reopenings has nothing to do with keeping kids safe or with their education. Unsafe reopenings are a desperate attempt to keep the economy functioning at full capacity and the government’s refusal to send stimulus or support in the midst of a raging pandemic. Unsafe reopenings of schools are a mechanism to keep workers at work to produce profit for their bosses while at the same time refusing to invest in the necessary changes to ensure safety in schools. 

Stories of Chaos from around the Country

In New York City, an average 32.64 percent of Covid tests were positive over the last seven days. Yet, on Monday, the biggest school district in the United States opened with sparse safety precautions. The newly elected mayor, Eric Adams, cynically said, “We are really excited about the opening of our schools,” and made the absurd claim that “the safest place for our children is a school building.”

Meanwhile, promises of testing 20 percent of teachers have not been kept; many schools tested less than 10 percent of their students.

Teachers were also promised N95 masks, but they only get one a week, even though safety regulations demand one a day. And students weren’t given any masks, so many are still wearing ineffective cloth masks. And ventilation is still a problem in classrooms: in 25-degree weather, teachers are forced to teach with the windows open, bundled up in winter coats and gloves.

Further, mass absences of students and teachers are being reported. On Monday, the New York City Department of Education reported that student attendance was 67 percent (in March 2020, it was 68 percent). One hundred and forty-one schools had less than half of their students show up. Only three schools had over 90 percent attendance.

It is best to hear directly from teachers:

So, we had over 80 percent of our staff out today. Our district’s superintendent was made aware of this and told my principal that she couldn’t contact the parents. Central staff were deployed to the school (not sure if asked or told) to “sub” — none of them were licensed teachers, so they weren’t able to be alone with students. The handful of teachers who were in the building had to be with them. 30-40 students were in mixed classrooms together; going against many IEP mandates. Around 200 additional students were absent. What is the point of all of this? Why wasn’t the school allowed to go remote? Why aren’t we temporarily going remote to end this surge? Side note: At my kids school in Bay Ridge BOTH of my kids were exposed to positive classmates — one on Monday, one today.

One student wrote on reddit:

“90% of the bathrooms were full of students swabbing their noses and taking their tests. I had one kid ask me — with his mask down, by the way — whether a “faint line was positive,” proceeding to show me his positive COVID test. I told him to go [to] the nurse. One student tested positive IN THE AUDITORIUM, and a few students started screaming and ran away from him. There was now a lack of available seats given there was a COVID-positive student within the middle of the auditorium. They’re now planning on having teachers give up their free periods to act as substitute teachers because the auditorium is simply not safe enough.

Classes that I did attend were quiet and empty. Students are staying home because of risk of COVID without testing positive (as they should) and some of my classes had 10+ students absent. Nearly every class has listed myself and others are close contacts.

– I should note that in study hall and with subs we literally learn nothing. I spent about 3 hours sitting around today doing nothing.”

By Friday student attendance in the biggest public school system in the country was only 44.5%. Less than half of kids were at school.

On Tuesday, Boston schools reopened with roughly one in 10 staff out sick. Teachers and students were given take home rapid tests, but some of the Covid tests distributed were expired. And some of the masks distributed to teachers were not effective N95 masks; they screen out only 46 percent of contaminants.

Meanwhile, Boston hospital workers spoke about their overcrowded and understaffed workplaces. “We are overwhelmed,” read a joint statement from the Massachusetts College of Emergency Physicians and Massachusetts Emergency Nurses Association. “Our Emergency Departments are at critical capacity and things will get worse.” Opening schools will contribute to overcrowding hospitals, as the virus spreads.

In Michigan, some districts, including Detroit, have switched to online learning amid a 40 percent positivity rate. But schools are expected to open in person on January 10 without a clear safety plan. Last year the Michigan legislature tried to deal with mass absences by passing a law that allows nonteaching staff, like cafeteria workers and bus drivers, to act as substitute teachers. As omicron surges, we can expect that these workers will be forced to sub more and more often.

In some cases, teachers were only able to work in safe conditions by taking collective action. At Valley Forge elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, teachers were being forced to teach remotely in their classrooms. But the heat wasn’t working in the building, and the district insisted that teachers work in their classrooms. The teachers unanimously decided to go on a work stoppage, demanding to work from home until heating issues were addressed. We can only wonder how many schools are experiencing similar issues. 

The Battle in Chicago

Chicago schools opened on Monday to mass absences from teachers, students, and staff. As a result, 73 percent of Chicago teachers voted to teach remotely until schools could be opened safely amid the Omicron surge.

Instead, Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot and the district decided to close all Chicago schools. Teachers were locked out of their Google classrooms and thus barred from teaching remotely. Lightfoot also claimed that teachers who don’t go to work on Wednesday will be placed on “no pay” status. Now Lightfoot is taking legal action against the teachers, filing an unfair labor practices complaint.

Chicago teachers have been the subject of scorn and ire from Democrats and Republicans alike. “I will not allow [the Chicago Teachers Union] to take our children hostage,” Lightfoot said during a news conference Wednesday. “I will not allow them to compromise the future of this generation of CPS students.”

Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said, “Don’t they go to Dunkin Donuts, the supermarket, the barbershop? Are they separating themselves from the rest of society, or are they just too lazy to go to work? And that’s what this is. This is an illegal walkout. … Call it a day and replace them!”

But most teachers would rather teach in person. However, the city of Chicago and the federal government have not created safe conditions for teachers, students or staff. 

The Chicago school district’s proposal is wildly unsafe. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The district said a school would move to virtual instruction if at least 40 percent of its classroom teachers are absent for two consecutive days because of infection and the school-wide teacher absence rate because of infection is 30 percent or higher with the use of substitutes or internal staff.”

Two consecutive days with even 30 percent of teachers out in already overcrowded schools would make it impossible to teach and learn, and would force kids into overcrowded classrooms. It is a brazen attempt to disregard safety regulations to keep the economy running.

Burned-Out, Overworked Teachers

Even before the pandemic, schools were understaffed and teachers were overworked. This resulted in massive strikes in 2018 and 2019 in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, as well as in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere. In some Oklahoma districts, schools ran only four days a week because the district said it couldn’t afford to open the fifth day. In Los Angeles, class sizes can be up to 40 students.

None of the politicians who are now wringing their hands about student learning and welfare seem to care about the dire conditions of public schools for low-income kids and kids of color before the pandemic.

And now teachers are being stretched to the breaking point. On one hand, teachers are on the front line of addressing the needs of kids who have experienced a worldwide pandemic for nearly two years of their young lives. Kids who lost family members, struggled with uncertainty and isolation, or overcrowding in their homes. Most schools lack sufficient guidance counselors to address kids’ struggles, so it is left to teachers who are also living through their own experiences and traumas from the pandemic.

Now, in addition to this already difficult work, with Omicron raging, many teachers will be absent. Around the country, there are substitute teacher shortages. When teachers are out, other teachers and staff at the school have to cover their classes, in addition to the regular work. Anna North from Vox interviewed a Washington teacher, Sobia Sheikh, who said, “Every day we’d get emails: Hey, we need someone to cover fourth period, sixth period, seventh period.”  As North explains, “At her school, counselors, each one already responsible for helping 400 to 500 students dealing with the stress, anxiety, and depression brought on by the pandemic, were pulled into the classroom to serve as substitute teachers.”

Schools just don’t have the infrastructure to deal with massive teacher absences of the type that are occurring all over the country.

And on top of that, the media and politicians are at war with teachers — calling them lazy for demanding the most basic safety precautions.

And teachers all over the country are quitting at massive rates. Forbes reported that 48 percent of teachers considered leaving their jobs in the last 30 days.

Burned-Out, Overworked Parents

But working-class families are also struggling.

“I cry a lot,” Juliana Gamble, parent of two, told the New York Times. “I feel a total loss of control of my life.”

Kate Hurley, mother of two small children in Minneapolis, said, “When we started the pandemic, parenting and teaching while working remotely was hard. … Now we are tired and drained and nearly two years in. Doing it all over again feels insurmountable.”

The crisis in schools has put parents in an impossible position. Should kids go to school and risk getting Covid? Would they be able to get childcare if kids go remote and they still have to show up at work?

Over the last year, women in particular have left the workforce in droves, many due to the childcare crisis opened by the pandemic and remote schooling. And that was at the height of the pandemic — where there were extended unemployment benefits and two stimulus checks. Now there is no help for families. The child tax credit has expired. There aren’t any plans for stimulus checks or any help. The government is trying to starve people back to work amid what is being called a labor shortage, but is actually a shortage of safe and well-paid jobs.

This situation is set up to pit working-class families who rely on schools for childcare against teachers who demand safe working conditions and safe schools for their students. If this happens, it’s the capitalists who come out on top.

Bipartisan Agreement: Unsafe School Reopenings 

Republicans and Democrats alike are united behind the program of unsafe school reopenings. From Biden to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the line is that no matter how high the infection rate gets, schools must remain open. They claim opening schools at all costs is for the good of the children, but that is not the real reason. Democrats and Republicans have both underfunded schools for decades; they aren’t worried about education. These are the same politicians who increase police budgets but leave schools without nurses in the middle of a pandemic, or guidance counselors to address the mental health needs of children who survived a pandemic. Both parties are supporting laws that allow people without any teacher training to act as substitutes, amid the teacher shortage and the pandemic.

This isn’t about the kids. 

This is about the economy and getting “back to normal” no matter what. This is about the fact that 4.3 million people — a record number — quit their jobs in November. It’s about the fact that the new political line by the capitalists is “herd immunity” — meaning “let the working class get Covid” so that the economy can stay open. It’s about the fact that all capitalist profits come from workers’ labor, so they need us at work.

It is important to note that this is the politics of Democrats just as much as Republicans. Just look at Lightfoot, and we can see that the “lesser evil” politics is a myth; both parties are putting profit over kids’ and teachers’ lives. 

The truth is that if in-person learning isn’t safe, kids can’t learn and teachers can’t teach. Teachers are the ones who best understand the costs of isolation and remote learning for some students. But conditions must be put in place to teach safely in school. 

The Chicago teachers who voted for safe working conditions are a clear example of the way forward. We must demand safe schools and safe reopenings, which include mass testing, mass distributions of N95 masks, increasing ventilation, and selective closures in periods of high transmission. Our demands must also include wage increases for teachers and a mass teacher training program to vastly increase the number of trained teachers in classrooms, reducing class sizes during the pandemic and beyond. 

Even further, we must demand a real plan to actually stop the pandemic, which includes lifting the vaccine patents around the world and taking measures to stop the pandemic that we already know work: testing, tracing, and masking. The capitalists won’t do this of their own accord. We, the working class and oppressed, must stand up, take the streets, and fight. Our lives are worth more than their profits.

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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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