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How Chicago Teachers Are Resisting the City’s Dangerous School Reopenings

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This week, the first wave of children, teachers and clinicians in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system were required to appear at their schools for the first time in nearly a year. While Covid-19 cases and deaths have only increased (and increased dramatically) across the country since last spring, CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insist on reopening schools. What’s worse, teachers who fear for their safety and the safety of their students and coworkers are being locked out of their employee accounts and having their pay docked if they refuse to return from teaching remotely. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk to Paula Ladin and Mariana Ruiz, two CPS special-ed educators, about the city’s dangerous, reckless and unnecessary reopening plan and the impact it is already having on students, teachers, their families and their communities.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.


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Cleveland Heights Teachers Strike in the Snow, Beating Austerity with Solidarity

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Teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, walked out on strike December 2 for the first time since 1983.

Why now? The state was trying to privatize public education. The local school board was trying to balance the budget on our backs. Add to that a once-in-a-century pandemic.

A well-organized membership was determined not to bend to the pressure from all of the above.

PUSH TO PRIVATIZE

Ohio’s legislature, like others, enacted its own version of privatization with a piece of legislation passed in 2013 called Ed Choice.

This law uses a test-and-punish report card to label a school district as failing. Families living in that district can then take public money as a tuition voucher for a private or religious school of their choice.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district already had a high concentration of families sending their kids to private and religious schools. Now these families are draining the district of much-needed state funding—creating a budget crisis.

It’s all straight from the playbook of the privatization purveyors. First, starve public schools of funds. This erodes the quality of education, prompting an exodus of students out of the district. This brings pressure to lay off union teaching staff and demand pay cuts. The cycle repeats. 

LOCAL AGENTS OF AUSTERITY

Our union was well aware of the descending storm. That’s why, with the help of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, we led the efforts to change the Ed Choice law. We got no help from our elected school board, and so far our lobbying has yielded no results.

Then in the spring, the Board of Education dropped a hammer, demanding contract concessions unlike any our negotiators had ever seen.

Claiming poverty and citing an impending budget crisis, the board proposed to eliminate experience step increases, something we’ve always had. It demanded a 250 percent increase in what we pay for health insurance and a 1 percent reduction in the board’s share of our state pension. These concessions added up to a $3,000 to $5,000 annual cut in pay.

The board claimed the cuts would bring our health insurance “in line” with surrounding districts. But over the past decade, our union had made concession after concession on wages to keep our health care costs from spiraling. It was a point of pride that we had maintained a decent health care package over the years—even at the expense of a wage rate that fell behind the cost of living.

OUT FOR BLOOD

The extreme demands hit members like a bombshell. But most people thought the district would bargain down. Our negotiators got the district to back off the experience steps.

On our health care, though, it seemed to be out for blood. Apparently the board was listening to a small, vocal minority of anti-tax activists who were misleading the public into believing that our health plans were the reason the district was heading into fiscal crisis.

In June our union formed a strike committee and began organizing for a strike, though the possibility still seemed remote.

Throughout the summer we were also distracted by the global pandemic. The district was planning to start the new school year in person, even though the pandemic showed no signs of diminishing. Teachers lobbied, with community support, and convinced the district to go fully online. But still the impasse in bargaining was causing great consternation.

AT AN IMPASSE

In September the district announced its last, best contract offer. Our strike committee organized an in-person contract rejection vote. Members drove through in their cars; union volunteers handed them ballots. It was a way to bring people together while we couldn’t meet in large groups.

The final tally was 97.5 percent to reject the contract—more than enough to authorize the union to call a strike. We hoped this overwhelming rejection would bring the board to its senses. But instead it decided to impose its offer, an unprecedented step in our local’s history.

This blatant show of disrespect incensed our members, especially after the board told the press that the union was the one refusing to bargain in good faith. Soon after, the board agreed to another round of negotiations—but these were postponed when both sides agreed to wait until after the November 3 election, when a new local tax levy would be on the ballot.

In the meantime, the union strike committee continued to organize in earnest, meeting weekly via Zoom.

PREPARING TO STRIKE

The election came and went; the tax levy passed narrowly. Negotiations reopened—and still the board refused to budge from its final offer.

After a series of vociferous Zoom meetings with the membership, our union president filed a 10-day strike notice. A couple days later the school board president, with crocodile tears in her eyes, made the shocking announcement that the district would be suspending our health insurance on day one of the strike.

This move, though we discovered it was not unprecedented, was highly unusual for a public sector strike. Advisors from the Teachers (AFT) told us they had never seen this happen to one of their locals before. As it turned out, it was a terrible public relations move for the board. We got an outpouring of support from community members outraged at the cruelty of eliminating health insurance during a pandemic.

Meanwhile our organizing efforts had become urgent. Each school building had formed its own strike committee, taking direction from the union-wide committee.

The building where I work, the high school, has a relatively large membership of 140. We decided to divide into strike teams by department, each with a captain. Since we were doing distance learning, we couldn’t see members in person daily, so the strike captains set up text and email chains and made phone calls to keep members informed, organize picket-line shift schedules, cement members’ commitment to the strike, and identify possible scabs.

Well before the 10-day notice, the union-wide committee had strike captains distribute electronic pledge cards asking members where they stood on the impending strike—were they supportive, would they picket, and would they promise not to cross the picket line? We also sent out forms to select your preferred picketing shift.

STRIKING IN THE SNOW

Then complications arose. First, COVID-19 cases surged in Ohio, and the governor handed down new mandates closing public facilities and limiting assemblies to 10 people. We lost access to the library branches we had planned to use for restrooms and as warming stations. In the last week before the strike, our committees had to find new restrooms and revamp the picket schedules to shorten shifts.

The day before the strike, Northeast Ohio was blasted by a massive snowstorm. With some schools now off limits due to the snow and loss of parking spaces, we had to change plans again. We called for members to picket at two locations: the high school and the Board of Education. We also had to postpone a planned in-car rally, because the location was still buried in snow.

Nonetheless, as the sun rose on “D-Day,” our members came out in massive numbers in the bitter cold and snow. Teachers started the first day of picketing with snow shovels and blowers to clear the sidewalks.

After three and a half hours, word reached the lines that that a settlement had been reached, one that our executive board could recommend. We went home for Zoom meetings to debate the merits of the offer. Two days later, members voted it up by more than 90 percent.

THEY FOUND THE MONEY

The contract is decent. Although it has us paying more for our premiums and opens the door to co-pays, these concessions are much less than the ones in the board’s egregious “final” offer. They are concessions we can live with, and they are partly offset by a modest raise and additional days off. 

We got a two-year contract instead of one year, so we don’t have to fight this battle again in a few months. And in a huge win, we safeguarded tenure for five more years—staving off the arbitrary and punitive evaluation system the district was pushing.

Somehow, at the end, the school board had found the money to offer a dignified contract.

It showed that a well-organized group of workers can reject austerity. One member put it well when she said the so-called final offer was nothing less than a “race to the bottom and we weren’t having it.” Our unity proved unshakeable—even when we were confronted with having our health care cut off, a move designed to scare members into crossing the picket lines.

Walking off the picket lines one fellow strike captain, a music teacher, told me that we need to maintain what we built. We need to develop a union culture where we have one another’s backs and band together to protect ourselves in the workplace—even in between contract negotiations.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tony Bifulco is a history teacher and was the lead strike captain for Cleveland Heights High School.


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Democrats’ lackluster performance in Senate spells trouble for labor

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With the Democrats’ failure to win an outright majority in the Senate and Republicans making surprising gains in the House, Joe Biden’s sweeping promises to expand American labor rights just got a lot harder to fulfill.

Proposals pushed by Democratic lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, expand workers’ ability to form unions and rewrite years of U.S. law form the cornerstone of Biden’s labor agenda. But if Republican Mitch McConnell stays in charge of the Senate, it’s unlikely that any push for collective bargaining rights or wage hikes would advance even if Biden wins the presidency.

“I am concerned about it,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview.

Unions had high hopes for the election, spending $188 million backing Democratic candidates and voting for Biden in larger numbers than the general electorate did. They were also a major source of grassroots organizing power for the party.

Yet Democrats failed to win in many Senate battlegrounds this week, and both parties are still short of a majority in the chamber. Georgia is now the key to control of the Senate, with both of the state’s races appearing likely to head to runoffs in early January.

Despite the disappointing results, Weingarten and other union leaders say they’re not giving up. She says there will be “a real fight” to enact Democrats’ PRO Act in a GOP-controlled Senate, a bill that Biden has backed as a major priority of his administration that would vastly expand workers’ ability to form unions.

But passing that legislation and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 may be unachievable with GOP control of the Senate. House Democrats’ faced major headwinds from red-state members of their own caucus when pushing for the Raise the Wage Act, which the chamber passed July 18.

Enacting the most progressive reforms largely hinged “on taking over the Senate and either winning enough votes to make the filibuster unimportant or dealing with the filibuster,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who serves on the Health Education and Labor Committee, said.

A Biden administration could still get a lot done if it “puts the right people” in the Labor Department, Levin said, “but there’s no fundamental reform.”

Biden will also have to weigh how much political capital he wants to risk with the powerful business lobby — which has billed the Democrats’ proposals as potential job killers and warned that putting any more liability on businesses could stymie the economic recovery from the coronavirus.

Some in the business community pointed to 2009, when newly elected President Barack Obama fell silent on a key labor-backed bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, despite endorsing it in the 2008 campaign and calling it a top priority.

Even with a 60-vote Democratic Senate supermajority, the party couldn’t pass the bill, which would have allowed unions to represent workers based on the informal collection of signed authorization forms, known as card check, instead of an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.

The labor movement will keep pushing for its agenda, despite the shaky odds of full Democratic control of Congress, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“We’ll figure out a way to get it done eventually,” Trumka said on a press call Thursday. “And we’ll have popular support. There are a number of legislative vehicles that we use; we will try everything we can.”

Weingarten said she is optimistic about Biden’s chances to find some bipartisanship in a divided Washington. “Given who Joe Biden is,” she said, “he uniquely will help demonstrate to these hard-core Republican senators and to the business community that long-term it’s in everyone’s interest to rebuild the middle class.“

Other labor leaders agreed that they don’t plan to tamp down their expectations of Biden’s labor agenda even if Republicans win control of the Senate, a result that won’t be known until January with the likely Georgia runoff elections.

“We are going to stay fiercely committed to demanding that the House, Senate and president take dramatic, bold action on curbing the pandemic and creating good jobs that people can feed their families on, and by tackling racial and inequality and the climate crisis,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, told POLITICO.

Major unions like SEIU organized canvassing drives and texting campaigns in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada. Union members overall were more likely to support Biden than voters generally, with 57 percent of union households backing him compared to 51 percent of non-union households, according to The New York Times’ exit polling.

But labor leaders say President Donald Trump aided the GOP’s performance by giving working people a message — albeit a false one — that they wanted to hear: Covid-19 will end after Election Day.

“If you’re tired of COVID, and you’re fatigued by COVID, and you’re anxious to get back to your job and your work or your small business is teetering, you want to believe that,” Weingarten said.

“You can’t underestimate the social isolation that has happened in America, since the start of this terrible pandemic,” she said.

Other leaders blamed Democrats’ performance in congressional races on freshman lawmakers, who are usually the most vulnerable in their efforts to get reelected.

“Democrats can also always do a better job of talking about kitchen table economics,” said Trumka. “I tell them that every single time that I meet with them, but many of the losses that we saw on the House side, were in districts with first-time Democratic seats.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said a Biden presidency could be the last chance for unions to secure an expansion of labor rights before restrictions on collective bargaining drown out their influence.

“As organized labor declines in numbers and percentage of the workforce, it has less political clout,” said Reich, who served under President Bill Clinton. “So it’s a death spiral.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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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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Teachers have public support for COVID-19 safety strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Teachers in some areas have said they might go on strike rather than going back to in-person teaching if they felt it would be unsafe—and a majority of Americans would support them, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll found. A third of people said they would strongly support teachers, and another 22% said they would somewhat support teachers.

Just 21% of people said schools should completely reopen in person, with another 26% saying schools should partially reopen in person, and 38% saying schools should be closed or online-only. A 47% plurality said that the risks of reopening schools are greater than the consequences of keeping them closed, and 45% said teachers should not be required to teach in person. Regardless of what teachers or the public think, schools have already reopened in many places and teachers are dying.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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In-person school won’t be safe, and it won’t be a return to the old normal, teachers say

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A new poll of teachers shows just how much of the burden is being pushed off on them. More than four out of five of the teachers said they were worried about in-person teaching, with 77% fearful for their own health. In that context, it’s kind of amazing that just two out of three said they thought schools should be primarily remote—some number of people afraid for their safety are still ready to go back to in-person teaching.

But the teachers’ responses to the NPR/Ipsos poll, and interviews they gave to accompany it, show how much more complicated the issue is for them. Large majorities of teachers were concerned about the education experience students would have in school, with 73% concerned about their ability to effectively teach and connect with students while wearing a mask and 84% saying it would be difficult to enforce social distancing. In other words, in-person learning would not be anything like a return to normal, in ways that worry these teachers.

To be sure, 55% of the teachers said they can’t teach effectively enough online, and 84% cited inequities associated with online learning. But one Philadelphia teacher pointed out that in-person teaching under these circumstances could also contribute to racial inequities.

“As a white teacher who works with predominantly Black students,” Charlie McGeehan wrote to NPR in an email, “I think a lot about the ways that I exert control in my classroom—and how that manifests white supremacy and racism. … [I’m] considering going back to a school environment where I’m asked to constantly police how far away students are from each other, whether or not they are wearing masks, where they’re allowed to go during the day, etc. If this is the type of classroom I’m going to have to facilitate, is in-person learning worth all the risks?”

Teachers in other areas will be coping with Trump’s politicization of mask-wearing as they try to get their students to comply.

The poll was conducted July 21-24, and since then there’s been plenty of news to confirm the teachers’ worries about the safety of in-person classes at this time. Some districts have moved recently to all-remote learning at least for the beginning of the school year, with teachers helping to push that in Chicago by threatening to strike over the issue. But in other areas, state and local education officials continue to push in-person learning despite the fact that not just teachers but a majority of parents are opposed.

And this didn’t need to happen.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Gwinnett County, Georgia, joins the list of early school reopening COVID-19 messes

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Gwinnett County, Georgia, didn’t even make it to the beginning of the school year before it had serious coronavirus problems amid Gov. Brian Kemp’s push to reopen schools in person. Teachers started in-person planning for the school year on Wednesday. By Thursday, 260 school district employees were out because of positive coronavirus tests or contact with a case.

The school district’s position is that hey, it’s all community spread, not exposure in the schools themselves. But that’s not a great sign, either, and “In-person training and meetings are taking place without areas being wiped down or disinfected in between and masks aren’t being worn at all times, said several teachers who didn’t disclose their names when contacting the AJC. Others added that their school still hadn’t received any hand sanitizer,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. In other words, the conditions are there for in-school spread. It just hasn’t had time to fully develop. Yet.

Gwinnett County isn’t the only place to encounter problems immediately upon reopening or moving toward reopening. “We knew it was a when, not if,” one Indiana superintendent said after a student tested positive on the first day of school. That positive test began the process of tracing which other students that student had come into contact with and quarantining them.

The same story played out in Mississippi, where 12 to 14 students were in quarantine after coming into contact with an infected classmate.

And a Georgia summer camp had 260 infections. Not just people in quarantine after possible exposure, but 260 infections. Out of 600 campers and counselors.

Teachers and parents have warned against turning the schools into a giant COVID-19 experiment by forcing in-person reopening. The thing is, the experiment has already happened and we can see the results here. In-person school requires a massive reduction in community spread of the virus—which means closing bars and gyms and more—and a massive investment in schools, not just in longtime priorities like class size but in things we now know are important to slow the spread of the coronavirus like improvements in ventilation and air quality. And at this point, those things are not even on the horizon, so we have our answer on schools: It’s not safe to reopen in person. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Major teachers union will back ‘safety strikes’ to block unsafe school reopening

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The American Federation of Teachers will support its members if they decide to strike over the rush to reopen schools without regard for safety, the union announced Tuesday. The union has been pushing for increased federal funding to help schools reopen safely, but with Mitch McConnell’s Senate taking its sweet time and Donald Trump demanding in-person schooling regardless of safety, teachers can’t just sit and wait.

“Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve,” the resolution from the 1.7 million-member union’s executive council reads, “including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.”

The AFT’s guidelines for safe reopening in person include the ability of schools to implement social distancing, ventilation and other upgrades to schools, adequate hand-washing facilities, and mask-wearing. But additionally, the union calls for communities to meet safety standards and not reopen schools until “The average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent,” as well as having in place contact tracing and “a statewide, city- and/or community-level authority empowered to trigger closure in the event of a spike in infection or when public health standards aren’t being met.” 

The current Senate Republican proposal includes just $70 billion of the hundreds of billions of dollars in funding experts say are needed to make schools safe, and Republicans are requiring in-person classes for access to much of that already inadequate funding. So schools that aren’t safe to open because they require additional funding to make them safe would be entirely screwed. As is the Republican way.

“Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus?” AFT President Randi Weingarten asked in a speech to the union’s convention, being held online. “Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?”

”Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76 percent of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten noted. But recent events have changed that—and it’s beyond clear that the proper safeguards will not be in place if Trump has anything to do with it.

Teachers continue to fight it out state by state, trying to find a way to educate kids without risking the lives of teachers and students alike. The Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his reckless push to reopen. After pressure from Massachusetts teachers unions, the state’s schools will open 10 days late to give time to prepare for whatever it is education will look like. “We had 24 hours to plan for crisis learning remotely in the spring, and not a single minute in the last 13 weeks to stop and reflect and evaluate and revise it,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said. The 10-day pause is intended to provide that time—but teachers in the state are still pushing for other key provisions to make the coming year safe. In New York City, the Movement of Rank and File Educators is threatening a sickout if the city doesn’t ensure safety. In California, teachers unions were pushing back against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pressure to reopen in person—until Newsom ordered schools in much of the state to open remotely until things are safer.

Schools are massively important not just to kids but to the economy as a whole. Yet Republicans have put everything else ahead of them, making it essentially impossible to safely open schools in much of the country. This required a giant investment months ago to make school buildings safer, and a giant effort to reduce community transmission of coronavirus so that well-ventilated schools with social distancing and mask-wearing have even a small prayer of avoiding outbreaks. It shouldn’t be on teachers to make federal and state and local lawmakers bend to what the science is already telling them.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on July 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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