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What Does a “Safe Return” to School Look Like? Ask Teacher Unions.

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Powerful elites are willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of millions to feed their own profits. Teachers are fighting back.

Demands for stu­dents and edu­ca­tors to return to in-per­son school­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic are com­ing from Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, both claim­ing the return is nec­es­sary not just to pro­vide high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, but to save the econ­o­my and get par­ents back to work. The nar­ra­tive con­scious­ly exploits the needs of par­ents who may not have health­care and who rely on pub­lic schools to care for and edu­cate their chil­dren while they work. It pits par­ents, stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against one anoth­er, using (or ignor­ing) sci­en­tif­ic data to suit the polit­i­cal pur­pose of mon­eyed inter­ests?—?the bipar­ti­san project of destroy­ing pub­lic schools. 

When Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy DeVos tweets that par­ents ?“need real options for edu­ca­tion this fall” and #School­ChoiceNow?—?with­out pro­vid­ing the equip­ment, con­di­tions or funds need­ed to make schools safe?—?the real mes­sage is clear. The Right is using the push to reopen as a way to inten­si­fy the pri­va­ti­za­tion and mar­ke­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion, boost prof­its in the edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy sec­tor and erode trust in pub­lic schools. 

In response, teach­ers’ labor activism?—?wide­spread and robust in recent years?—?con­tin­ues to emerge. Teach­ers orga­niz­ing on social media have cam­paigned for var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic stan­dards to trig­ger reopen­ing; #14DaysNoNewCases, for exam­ple, demands that cam­pus­es only reopen after going two weeks with­out Covid-19 infec­tions. The Demand Safe Schools Coali­tion wants class sizes lim­it­ed to 10 to 15 stu­dents, ven­ti­la­tion that meets guide­lines from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, clean and social­ly dis­tant school trans­porta­tion, sup­plies of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and ample Covid-19 test­ing. Activists in dozens of cities ral­lied August 3 for these and oth­er demands, resist­ing hasty, under­fund­ed and unsafe reopen­ings that impose harm, espe­cial­ly on low-income stu­dents of col­or. The cam­paign #Only­When­ItsSafe advo­cates reopen­ing only if it is ?“equi­table and healthy for every­one,” in the words of Boston Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Jes­si­ca Tang. 

For many teach­ers union activists advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice, an ?“equi­table” school is one that can address the full range of human needs required to edu­cate all chil­dren well. Chil­dren who are hun­gry and on the verge of evic­tion?—?or liv­ing in tem­po­rary shel­ters?—?can­not be expect­ed to suc­ceed aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, whether remote­ly or in per­son. An equi­table school, for exam­ple, would sup­port the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in its call to replace police with coun­selors, nurs­es, social work­ers and restora­tive jus­tice per­son­nel. It would also sup­port the can­cel­la­tion of rents and mort­gages, a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions and fore­clo­sures, and direct cash assis­tance for the unem­ployed and those unable to work. The nation’s sec­ond and third largest teach­ers unions, in Chica­go and Los Ange­les, helped orga­nize protests against finan­cial tar­gets like the Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Fed­er­al Reserve, the Board of Trade and big banks, call­ing for inter­est-free loans and high­er tax­es on the rich to fund safe school reopenings. 

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) have ver­bal­ly sup­port­ed some of the movement’s demands. For exam­ple, AFT has endorsed a union local’s right to strike when nec­es­sary to pre­vent reopen­ings that endan­ger lives. But both unions have also embraced the push from Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley for edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy to con­trol learn­ing and prof­it from stu­dent data. The pan­dem­ic CARES Act, endorsed by both unions, encour­ages fun­nel­ing lim­it­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion fund­ing into soft­ware for dis­tance learn­ing, con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions. Ed tech cor­po­ra­tions and lib­er­al think tanks are now push­ing soft­ware for ?“per­son­al­ized learn­ing” and ?“social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment” that col­lects data that can be used for prof­it and sur­veil­lance— while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­tort­ing and appro­pri­at­ing ideals about mak­ing learn­ing indi­vid­ual and car­ing for children’s needs. Though some teach­ers are start­ing to use their local and state unions, like the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, to push back against the NEA and AFT posi­tions, the dan­gers of ed tech in reopen­ing plans and edu­ca­tion remain most­ly unrecognized. 

Pow­er­ful elites are will­ing to sac­ri­fice the lives and futures of mil­lions of peo­ple to feed their own prof­its. Even beyond the life-and-death risk to their per­son­al health, teach­ers’ strug­gles mark resis­tance to the per­pet­u­a­tion of this unequal, unjust society.

For a response to this piece, see ?“All the Options for School­ing Are Bad?—?But We Have to Choose Safe­ty” by Chan­dra Thomas Whitfield.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

About the Author: Jackson Potter is a Chica­go Teach­ers Union trustee, mem­ber of the Big Bar­gain­ing Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards Col­lege Prep.


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