Can Schools Really Reopen Safely?

Debby Pope

WHY OPEN SCHOOLS when everyone who believes in science knows it is unsafe? As soon as schools began to open in August, closings began — in some cases within days — due to spikes in coronavirus cases. When we examine why, we need to look at the big picture: capitalism and the prioritization of profits over people.

Because our cities and states barely tax the rich or major corporations (as has been noted recently with the President’s tax writeoffs), most school districts are overly dependent on property taxes and on revenue from sources such as gambling, sales tax etc. Right-wingers and some neoliberals who seek to undermine public education regularly campaign against school bonds and other funding, leaving many school districts without adequate revenue.

As wealthier districts find ways to supplement their funding, the constant struggle for school funding disproportionately hits those who can least afford it. As a result, the older schools in poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods suffer. They don’t get the repairs needed and become dilapidated, sometimes dangerously.

At least as importantly, schools lack services such as nurses, counselors, librarians and social workers. They lack enrichment classes and, at the high school level, course variety. This resource starvation is a key part of what attracts parents to charter schools.

Problems like these are not limited to urban schools. Cash strapped rural districts also suffer from building disrepair, inadequate services, and limited class offerings.

This massive disinvestment in education had an impact on students and teachers long before the pandemic hit last spring. It has given rise to educators fighting for better working and learning conditions.

Some struggles have been led by militant unions, while other fightbacks began more spontaneously, led by teachers in ‘red’ states organizing through Facebook and other social media at a point when they “just couldn’t take it anymore.”

When COVID-19 hit, schools were shut down with almost no preparation and teachers quickly transitioned to teaching online without training or time to prepare. This, of course, exacerbated the problems in an inherently challenging situation.

Issues of internet access and lack of devices for students were coupled with the problems of homelessness, inadequate housing (now their schoolroom as well as their homes), special difficulties faced by students with learning challenges, and more. Problems locating students, maintaining attendance, communicating with parents and providing meals normally served at school compounded the already difficult situation.

After the Summer

Once the 2019-20 school year came to an end, most school districts operated under the now naïve-seeming assumption that everything would be back to normal by the fall.

For the most part, teachers too wanted this to be the case. But as the summer went on and cases spiked in many areas of the country, educators and their unions demanded that contingency plans be put in place for remote learning in the fall. Many found their mayors, governors and school boards stonewalling them.

This reaction came from several sources. Financial pressure from the federal government and from many governors and state legislatures was one.

Enrollment numbers were another major fear factor: What if parents pull their children and send them to private and charter schools, decimating public school enrolment? They also had to face politicians insisting that schools continue with testing, teacher evaluation and other benchmarks as if it were just an ordinary school year.

In some areas school systems polled parents, asking what they wanted for their children. Instead of districts making collective decision based on safety for all, they forced some parents, often under intense personal financial pressure, to choose between what was safe for their children and what would enable them to pay the rent and put food on the table.

In some cases, parents were pressured to make advance decisions for an entire semester, as if they had a crystal ball and could predict what the rate of coronavirus infection would be in their neighborhood three months hence. Although Black and Brown parents are more likely to be essential workers who cannot work from home, 70-80% felt that in-person schools were unsafe for their children.

After conducting polls and discovering that parents were reluctant to send their children back to school, and having to negotiate with the teachers’ unions, some school districts have come up with various “hybrid models.”

In one model, the teacher works with children in school on some days and online other days. This requires the teacher to master two different styles of teaching. Another model, where some teachers are in the classroom and others work online, disadvantage the online teacher with a much larger group of students.

Still another frequently used hybrid model involves students attending school part time and then part time using remote learning. Often these students are divided into groups or pods, attending at different times or on different days. While these plans may appear safer at first, teachers and school staff particularly teachers of art, music, physical education, etc. are exposed to all the students and therefore are potential conduits between groups of children.

Teachers Resist

Teachers led by progressive unions in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Oakland and many smaller cities around the country demanded that schools should only reopen when reasonable safety could be assured. Their demands began with adequate PPE such as masks and sanitizer but go way beyond.

Free high-speed internet access and fully functioning devices for all students, school meals for take-home, a relevant and anti-racist curriculum are among the school-based demands. One of the major battlefronts has been the issue of building ventilation, as most schools have woefully inadequate air filtration.

Another major battleground is class size, particularly in districts attempting hybrid models that have students divided into groups or pods attending at different times or on different days. While these plans may appear safer at first, teachers and school staff remain exposed to all the students, becoming potential conduits between groups of children.

All involved of course are conduits to their homes and to the community as a whole. In schools with full time remote-learning, battles between unions and school districts are taking place on issues of testing, teacher evaluation, and the number of hours that students, especially little ones, can reasonably be expected to spend in front of a screen.

Union Caucuses such as MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) in New York and WE (Working Educators) in Philadelphia have led protests. They have developed innovative tactics including car caravans, street theater and art installations.

In Andover, Massachusetts, when teachers were told to report for a professional development day at their schools, they made the decision to bring their chairs, tables and laptops and work outside. Their union arranged to bring a generator to power laptops and boost Wi-Fi and ordered port-a-johns.

New York City teachers have staged teach-outs where they do their work outdoors. They’ve also utilized Zoom to hold numerous meetings of 1000.

Meanwhile the privatizers are busy at work trying to utilize the pandemic as an opportunity to weaken public schools and teachers’ unions. In some places, remote learning has been contracted out to private companies while the actual teachers are forced to go back into unsafe school buildings either from the start or, at a future date to be determined.

Over the last several years progressive unions and caucuses among education workers have been linking the demands for quality education with demands for a sustainable life for students, their families and their communities. While organized labor has failed for too long to self-organize and to take on the broader fight for the working class, especially Black and Brown workers, teachers understand they cannot teach if children do not feel secure.

This recognition of the crisis has emboldened this section of the labor movement to link up with its natural allies, parents, students and community organizations. Unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago and the United Teachers of Los Angeles have led the way on “common good” demands such as no evictions, rent control, physical and mental health services, and alternatives to policing.

From Florida to Maine and San Diego to Seattle, educators and parents are fighting for the schools and the communities that children need to feel safe so they can learn and that teachers need so they can truly teach.

The fight is underway. The needs are urgent and massive. We are in a crucial period and, in many ways, public education workers have seized the lead by linking the demands for quality education with the fight for a sustainable life for students, their families and their communities.

Labor has failed for too long to self-organize and to take on the broader fight for the working class, especially Black and Brown workers. An emboldened labor movement representing all working people could play a pivotal role in bringing the fight for justice in schools and communities to the next level.

November-December 2020, ATC 209


  1. Translation of above comment: Reading it seems that I am experiencing the same problems of public schools in Brazil!

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