Teachers Must Set the Terms for How and When Schools Reopen

Detroit teachers rallied against police brutality on June 7 outside the headquarters of the city's police department. Some teachers unions are demanding that resources be redistributed from police to schools. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com.

In a matter of days in mid-March, educators were expected to move classes online, work from home, and manage their own fear and uncertainty—all while worried for students whom they suddenly couldn’t see, talk to, or reassure.

Even veteran organizers were at a loss for what steps to take, except to focus on the immediate problems. How do we move classes online? Will students who depend on school for meals have enough to eat? What about the students with no internet?

Educators were managing awful conditions and not yet ready to shape those conditions, overwhelmed by the crisis at hand.

As life under the pandemic settled into something like a routine, educators could see the coming storm. Dangers to health when schools re-open. Austerity budgets and job cuts. And then, one more video of police murdering a Black person—and the uprising that followed.

I asked educators: What needs to happen in order for schools to reopen? Do we have the power to make sure we reopen under those conditions? What are you or your union doing to build that power? Here’s what they told me.

HEALTH AND SAFETY FIRST

While the CDC has released guidelines for the safe return to school, and the Teachers union (AFT) has done the same, it’s hard to see how these guidelines can be met without a huge influx of money.

While both sets of guidelines suggest flexibility based on the degree of the virus's community spread, they require physical distancing, limits on size of gatherings, and testing and contact tracing when there is any community spread.

Health and safety was an issue before the pandemic. Too many schools are already over-crowded and in poor repair. “We have schools that don’t have hot water, no air conditioning, and ventilation systems that aren’t working properly,” said Deborah McCarthy, former president of the Hull (Massachusetts) Education Association and a fifth-grade teacher.

Teacher after teacher told me the safety guidelines would require smaller classes, more classroom space, and more educators. “We are going to need more buildings-and-grounds staff and more cleaning supplies. We already don’t have enough of either,” reported Karla Payes, a psychiatric social worker in Los Angeles.

And then there are the specific concerns of educators like Quentin Washington in Chicago. What happens when health concerns directly interfere with the purpose of your class—not to mention the natural inclinations of children? A music teacher in a pre K-8 school, Washington sees hundreds of students in a week. Each student touches an instrument or sings and fills the air with aerosols.

“I know for me,” he said, “I want temperature checks and personal protective equipment (PPE). No kids in class without face masks and gloves.” And how do you play an instrument in gloves? How do you say “you can’t touch your friend, you can’t high-five your friend”?

In New York and other large cities, logistical questions abound. If class sizes are limited by putting students on a split schedule of some in the morning and some in the afternoon, or alternating days, how will that work for buses and other transportation? How many shifts of buses will be needed? What does it look like to move buses through a city not twice in a day, but four times? Logistics are complicated, as Payes points out, by the fact that many older students are responsible for caring for younger siblings.

WHAT DOES LEARNING LOOK LIKE?

The move to remote learning makes more urgent a question that educators have been demanding a voice in for years: what does and should learning look like? A test-driven curriculum has limited teacher autonomy and narrowed the focus to what can be tested. Educators have been clamoring for the autonomy to center students' social and emotional well-being and for a curriculum that reflects their lives. Chicago first-grade teacher Michelle Gunderson said, “We need to start framing our return to work as what schools could be.”

Payes said that even before the pandemic she was seeing an overwhelming number of students who had been traumatized by poverty and racism. Now, coming off of the shelter-in-place and in the midst of today’s uprising, “all of these students are going to need more support.” Attention to students’ emotional needs and the necessity of relationships with caring adults beyond the family—something educators and parents have always said to each other—can now be clearly seen as essential and not simply ancillary.

Arizona recently released a photo of the prototypical classroom for the fall. Desks were spaced apart and divided on all sides by plastic sheets. “I teach with a focus on developing relationships and building a classroom community,” said McCarthy. “I don’t know how to do that kept separate and wearing a mask. I can’t see talking about George Floyd with everyone six feet apart.”

As most districts quickly abandoned their scheduled standardized tests, the move to remote learning cracked open the lie that standardized tests are necessary to teaching and learning. The yearly ritual that had absorbed so much energy simply stopped—and teaching and learning went on. Educators see this as an opportunity to dismantle the testing regime.

The Los Angeles union (UTLA) was already building a campaign for a New Deal for Public Schools before the pandemic. The idea is to teach the “whole child,” which means more funds for counselors, nurses, and librarians, smaller classes, and schools where children and staff are safe from emotional and physical violence. These safer schools require more staff and “restorative justice” program that address problems through talking and understanding, not punishment. The whole child approach includes the arts, music, and a curriculum that reflects the diversity of our society.

For years, educators have been demanding a curriculum that speaks to Black lives and ethnic studies. The Black Lives Matter uprising highlights the need for an anti-racism curriculum and the freedom to teach it.

“Testing has to go,” says Alexandria Zink, an English teacher in Weston, Massachusetts. “Curriculum needs to be diversified. Many communities believe that education is weaponized to promote white supremacy. We need spaces that are inclusive and life-giving.” Educators see the disruption of the pandemic as an opportunity to assert their voices in determining what they teach and how they teach it—voices that have been largely silenced in the age of so-called education reform.

THE COMING AUSTERITY

These struggles are taking place against the backdrop of enormous city and state budget cuts. The economic crisis that caused the unemployment of 40 million workers has ravaged state tax revenues. Across the country, public sector jobs are being cut. Rather than fight the federal government for more money or revise tax codes to generate revenue from corporations and the rich, school districts are cutting jobs and, as usual, starting with the lowest paid and most vulnerable.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, 300 educators were given pink slips. This is part of a growing national pattern. Cuts are looming from Massachusetts to Detroit to California. Reuters reports, “In April alone, 469,000 public school employees lost their jobs, including kindergarten to twelfth-grade teachers and other school employees.”

At the same time, meeting the guidelines for a return to school will cost money. In Massachusetts, state guidelines for PPE include a note that districts will have to pay for it.

THE TANGLE OF REMOTE LEARNING

In any talk about what’s necessary to reopen schools, the conversation turns to what happens if we don’t. Working remotely has meant many things: reaching out to students with assignments and holding office hours, or having daily check-ins with whole classes or smaller groups of students, or teaching on the same bell schedule teachers had when at school.

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Those who’ve always wanted to privatize public education through remote learning have now had the bad luck to have people actually experience it. That remote learning isn’t education became clear to parents during the pandemic, as they struggled to support their children and saw them getting more screen time than parents ever wanted.

In New York, when Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was time to invite Bill Gates to reimagine education, the pushback was immediate and powerful from parents, teachers, and student advocacy groups.

Still, given the health issues of reopening schools, remote learning remains a possible makeshift solution. Kevin Prosen of the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE) caucus in the New York teachers union said, “You want to provide for kids (with remote learning), but not let people think this is working, that we can teach this way.”

Many see remote teaching as a temporary solution, others are not comfortable even with that. Matt Bach, president of the Andover (Massachusetts) Education Association, says teachers should insist on a return to schools and on the funding needed for safety—more physical space, more educators, smaller class sizes. “We need to stop saying that 10 students in a classroom is impossible,” Bach said, “and start saying that is the way it should always have been.”

WHO DECIDES?

Washington tells me he won’t go back into the school if he does not feel safe. Educators in one Virginia local voted not to return until there is a vaccine. The health-and-safety questions look like personal decisions. But how are unions or rank-and-file caucuses framing them as union decisions?

When the executive board of the Hull Education Association in Massachusetts was not invited to the superintendent’s planning committee on reopening, they formed their own committee. “You have to push back at the power dynamics. If they try to exclude you, start your own table,” said McCarthy.

She is a leader in the South Shore Education Justice Alliance, which is holding virtual town halls with teachers, students, and parents to talk about how remote learning went, what that means for the future of remote learning, and what students and educators need to safely return to school.

Similarly, in the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Staff, newly elected President Alejandra Garza-Lopez and her leadership team are bringing together teacher locals in the county with parents, students, and community groups to make their own plans for reopening, and then present those to the superintendent. “It is important that we start with parents and students,” Garza-Lopez said. “We are pushing this from a public health perspective.”

Of course, in order to assert and win collective rights as the decision makers, we need to build power. The Chicago Teachers Union, which is coming off a winning strike last fall, is going into negotiations over reopening just like a contract campaign.

The union is holding meetings where members discuss where lines will be drawn and what actions will be necessary to win their demands. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, which holds leadership in CTU, is holding an interactive panel to hear various perspectives on reopening. Similar work is happening in Los Angeles, where UTLA is revitalizing the contract action teams that mobilized members for their January 2019 strike.

But not every local has the power yet to plan for possible mass work actions, and some rank-and-file caucuses are just getting started. In Virginia, a group beginning to form a statewide caucus is holding organizing webinars and building a communication network. In Massachusetts, the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus has been leading webinars to combat the seeming inevitability of “austerity” and promote bold demands by locals: more educators, smaller class sizes, and more space for teaching.

THE BLACK LIVES MATTER UPRISING

The Black Lives Matter uprising has generated new urgency in decisions about school reopening. How will we educate about these struggles? What curriculum decisions are to be made and how do we assure who owns these decisions? How do educator unionists enter the uprising for Black Lives Matter while also taking up reopening, austerity, and remote learning?

The same questions educators were asking before George Floyd was murdered are even more relevant now: Will schools be safe? Who will decide what we teach, and what is the purpose of school? Will schools be fully funded?

“This is the reset button we've been waiting for,” said Detroit English teacher Torie Anderson, who organized a June 7 Black Lives Matter rally of rank-and-file teachers.

Where to start? The MORE caucus in New York City, where the governor is talking about $8.2 billion in cuts to state aid to localities, is organizing with students and parents to demand taking funds from the $6 billion police budget and giving the money to schools.

MORE kicked off the campaign June 6 with a rally at the union office denouncing leaders for refusing to take up Black Lives Matter resolutions in the union’s past three delegate meetings, just one sign of the leadership’s failure to take up racial justice as a union and public schools issue. They followed with a march through the streets that included educators, students. and parents.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, where 300 educators received pink slips for the fall, organizing is underway for a potential unionwide work stoppage in the next week. The 300 educators represent a large number of recent hires who were part of a campaign to diversify the staff, so layoffs would undo that effort. Parents who went to school to collect items for their children were greeted outside by an array of empty chairs, each with a pink piece of paper holding the name of a fired teacher.

Certainly, the thousands of people out on the streets in big cities and small towns are showing us that people are ready for and already learning from collective actions in the fight against racism and police violence. Luke Amphlett of the San Antonio union leadership notes that, when students and educators are called back to school, “there is an actual moment, where people will actually have to go back—this will create a rupture between what have been ‘common sense’ answers and a new space of possibility.”

Then we will know what people are ready for.

Educators, said Washington, are deciding what is non-negotiable. He and many others I spoke to were clear: “I am ready to not go back.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #496. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Teachers Must Set the Terms for How and When Schools Reopen In a matter of days in mid-March, educators were expected to move classes online, work from home, and manage their own fear and uncertainty—all while worried for students whom they suddenly couldn’t see, talk to, or reassure. Even veteran organizers were at a loss for what steps to take, except to focus on the immediate problems. How do we move classes online? Will students who depend on schoo...