By STEVE R. JOHNSON
Under increasing pressure from state and federal authorities, schoolteachers across the United States are embroiled in a life and death struggle over the terms and conditions of re-opening the nation’s schools for the 2020-2021 year.
The national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), support schools reopening, but on condition that strict measures are in place to ensure the safety of teachers, school workers and children – not to mention the more vulnerable parents and relatives with whom students are in daily contact upon returning home. NEA president-elect Becky Pringle and AFT President Randi Weingarten have warned of the potentially deadly consequences of any initiative to prematurely return to school that ignores the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers pose conditions for safe return to work
The teacher unions stress the necessity of daily COVID-19 testing, social distancing in classrooms, lunchrooms, hallways and school yards, qualitative improvements of damaged or inadequate school ventilation systems and a myriad of other factors that any sane society would implement in the face of an unprecedented pandemic that has infected six million in the U.S. and killed 188,000. Teachers are well aware that in some 80 percent of today’s COVID-19 infections the person is largely asymptomatic.
The costs associated with any realistic and safe return to classrooms, including major physical repair or replacement of obsolete systems, are enormous. Needless to say, no state or federal funds are envisioned on the part of leading “back to school” advocates, to pay these costs.
COVID-19 infected students regularly detected
With regard to virtually all school re-openings conducted to date, many COVID-19 infections have been detected in students, teachers and school workers almost immediately – in many cases leading to the quick abandonment of re-opening plans. So frequent has been the discovery of newly infected students and teachers that some reactionary state and local officials have blurted out demands advising or ordering school districts, “Not to panic,” and “Return to work regardless of the positive COVID-19 tests,” regardless of the consequences. This same logic has tragically contributed to the worldwide second wave of COVID-19 infections. The capitalist heads of state and their regional counterparts are motivated above all by restarting economies to resume profit making – the cost in human lives be damned.
School teachers and unions resist
A growing number of teachers and teacher unions oppose any generalized school re-openings outright and instead have been able to negotiate various forms of online instruction for a majority of teachers and students. Such agreements have been reached in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. In other cities the status of school openings is mixed. Some schools, usually in areas with the lowest infection rates, are open five days a week with direct instruction. Others are open a few days for direct instruction coupled with online instruction for the remainder of the week. On average, however, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington estimates that 50 percent of the nation’s schools will open for the 2020–2021 school year with online instruction only.
Although schools are controlled by states and local jurisdictions and funded by a variety of property and related local taxes, the federal government does allocate some modest funds, usually in the range of five percent, of the total school budgets. Nevertheless, federal officials have put intense pressure on schools to reopen. Many schools were closed from mid-March until the end of the school year in May-June. President Trump’s insistence on school re-opening has been based on spurious “scientific” arguments, chief among them that students and young people more generally, populations where the great majority who have been infected with the COVID-19 virus are asymptomatic, cannot spread the disease. Recent reports have not only demonstrated that asymptomatic people cannot only spread the disease but that asymptomatic coronavirus-infected youth often harbor levels of the virus in their nasal passages that are up to 100 times more concentrated than in the general population.
Homeland Security presses for return to work
An August 18 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement declared that teachers were “critical infrastructure workers,” and that even if they been exposed to the coronavirus but showed no symptoms, they were deemed able to return to classrooms without submitting to the otherwise required 14-day quarantine period recommended by public health agencies. Although the DHS declaration is not a federal directive, it is feared that school districts might use it to establish rules requiring teachers who have been in contact with coronavirus-infected people to nevertheless immediately return to school.
Return to work and the second wave
The results of school reopenings internationally are telling. In Israel, schools reopened in May, after a national quarantine for much of the spring. COVID-19 cases quickly spiraled out of control, infecting student, parents, families and entire communities. The same outcome has been reported in South Korea as well as in most all nations where any “return to work” reopening measures were implemented, whether in schools or more generally. The U.S., with the highest COVID-19 infection and death statistics in the world, is a case in point. 22,000 daily new cases were reported just a few months ago. After partial re-opening, figures reached 70,000 new cases daily!
The absurdity of public officials warning against small backyard barbecues with family members on the one hand and advocating a nationwide back-to-school drive involving hundreds of millions of people on the other, is almost beyond belief. Then again, behind the back-to-school drive is capitalism’s drive to free up workers, mostly women, from childcare and related responsibilities, to resume work to enhance capitalist profits. Once again, human life itself is subordinate to the imperatives of capitalist profit.
Emerging battle in New York City
Most teachers today don’t see it that way. This is reflected in the emerging battle in New York City, the nation’s largest school district, with over 1.3 million students. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio pressed hard to force teachers back to the classroom, with the threat of imposing the union-busting Taylor Law as his club. The notorious 1960s era Taylor Law bans public worker strikes, including for teachers, and imposes massive fines against workers and union officials, and even imprisonment, for violations. One provision of the law imposes a fine of two days’ pay for every day on strike! “Overtime in reverse!” as some call it.
As we go to press, it appears that an immediate strike has been averted with Mayor de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers, Local 2 leadership agreeing to postpone the city’s planned early September opening for ten days. During that time, the city has agreed to comply with a series of union safety demands including mandatory testing of students, teachers and schools workers, provision and use of face masks, implementation of proper social distancing regulations, provisions for a nurse in all schools and installation of proper ventilations systems. Details of the agreement remain undisclosed, including the number or percentage of teachers and students who will return to school as compared to those who will remain home to receive online instruction.
It appears that the UFT’s defiance of de Blasio’s threats, either with the counter-threat of a “sick out” or a strike, has for the moment gained some time to implement the UFT’s insistence on serious safety provisions, assuming and such provisions exist in reality. It is also clear that a broad range of UFT members, perhaps a majority, are of the opinion that any generalized school re-opening involving 1.3 million students and some 60,000 teachers is a recipe for disaster. This has already been the case with regard to several major college and university re-openings, where the number and percentage of students who subsequently tested positive was so alarming that school officials had no choice but to close down.
Such closures have been the norm across the country with regard to re-opening efforts of public facilities and businesses ordered by governors in all 50 states. These re-openings led directly to a second wave tripling of COVID-19 infections and a generalized return to higher levels of hospitalizations and deaths. The IHME todays estimates that the total U.S. deaths by the end of the year will be at 410,000, a stunning figure that attests to the base corruption of a social system that subordinates human life itself to capitalist profits.