As Schools Reopen, Teachers, Parents and Students are Pushing Back

Originally published in The Intercept on August 3, 2020.
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ON MONDAY, in more than 25 states, thousands of parents, educators, students, and community members are participating in the National Day of Resistance, staging in-person and virtual actions to call for safe, well-funded, and racially just school reopening plans. The actions come in response to pressure from state governments and the White House to resume in-person learning so that kids can get back to the classroom and their parents back to work, but are also being tied to the ongoing pushback against school privatization from the Trump administration.

In New York City, parents, students, and teachers will be marching from their union headquarters down to the Department of Education. In Los Angeles, activists are organizing a car caravan, first outside the LA Chamber of Commerce and then around the Los Angeles Unified School District building. “We’re kicking it off at the LA Chamber because even during Covid, this is a time when a lot of corporations and Wall Street are making record-breaking profits,” explained Sylvana Uribe, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive group participating in the protest. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, teacher unions are calling on Comcast to improve the quality of its service and make it more affordable for families. In Phoenix, activists are planning to demonstrate outside their state capitol building, where educators can write letters to their elected officials about how they feel going back to school or, if they want, write their imagined obituaries.

“Monday is Arizona’s first day back to school, so that’s why we know we have to lead in organizing because people across the country will be watching us and learning what happens with reopenings,” said Rebecca Garelli, a parent and science educator participating in the Phoenix protest.

In Chicago, activists are rallying outside of City Hall and Illinois’s state government building. Among them will be Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of 30 grassroots organizations that helped conceive of the Day of Resistance. “When we look at the fact that these same communities have shuttered public schools and opened up new jails, do we really think they will prioritize the health and safety of Black and brown children when it comes to reopening?” Brown asked. “We say no, or only if we make them do so.”

As part of their organizing, Journey for Justice and the 501(c)(4) affiliate of the Center for Popular Democracy sent a letter Monday morning to President Donald Trump laying out 15 demands for a safe and equitable reopening, including fully functioning air conditioning and ventilation units, free laptops and internet access for every student, regular coronavirus testing, and an elimination of police in schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, members of Congress, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were also copied on the letter.

Over the last month, the question of how and whether to reopen schools has become one of the most pressing and wrenching political questions. While Trump and DeVos both have sought to push schools to reopen in person, even threatening to withhold funding from those that don’t, majorities of educators, school administrators, and parents have expressed ambivalence about the safety of children and staff returning to school. One new estimate from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that more than 80 percent of Americans live in a county where at least one person with Covid-19 would be expected to show up at a school of 500 students and staff if school started today.

In late June, the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national nonprofit group comprised of heads of state departments of education, said as much as $245 billion in federal support will be needed in order to safely reopen schools, with the funding going primarily toward personal protective gear and cleaning supplies, as well as digital devices. Senate Republicans unveiled their latest Covid-19 relief proposal last week, which included $70 billion for K-12 school districts and private schools, but most of that money would be conditioned on schools reopening for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, scientists and public health experts have been issuing conflicting advice, complicated by the fact that the public’s understanding of Covid-19 transmission among children has continued to evolve. While it was originally thought that the risk among children of catching or transmitting the virus was very low, especially among younger children, new research has recently challenged those assumptions. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued interim guidance on the importance of in-person schooling, but a few weeks later, the group released a new statement, in partnership with national teacher unions and the School Superintendents Association, urging against a “one-size-fits-all approach” to reopenings. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it,” the groups said.

Recently in Indiana, on the first day of school, administrators learned that a middle school student had tested positive for the virus. The student and others they came in contact with were ordered to quarantine for 14 days. A similar situation just happened with a high schooler in Mississippi.

“You can spend an entire year asking kids to walk in the hall, and yet we somehow expect them to wear masks for six hours?” asked Marilena Marchetti, a public school occupational therapist participating in New York City’s march. “It’s a joke.”

IN ADDITION TO some of the more familiar safety demands around PPE, Covid-19 testing, and ventilation, parents and educators have also been circulating a petition with demands for direct cash assistance to those who cannot work or are unemployed and police-free schools, as well as moratoriums on “punitive” standardized testing, vouchers, charter schools, evictions, and foreclosures.

Garelli, the science educator from Arizona, said the logic around the charter, voucher, and testing moratoriums is that “everything that drains” or “siphons” money from public schools should be avoided. “Standardized testing alone costs millions of dollars, and we need that money for PPE, ventilation, and sanitation,” she said.

“Our point is we don’t want to just go back to normal because normal wasn’t good at all,” added Marchetti.

Dmitri Holtzman, director of Education Justice Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, said the hope is for the progressive movement to “double down” with “transformative” demands to help counter the fact that DeVos and Trump are also trying to use the pandemic to push school privatization.

The demand for police-free schools, though not new, has seen a recent surge in political momentum in the wake of protests around George Floyd’s killing. In June, Minneapolis Public Schools cut ties with its city police department and Milwaukee Public Schools followed shortly after. In LA, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in July to cut its school police budget by $25 million and redirect those funds into hiring more counselors and social workers.

One of the grassroots groups participating in the Day of Resistance is Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth-led organization in Salem, Oregon. “We’ve been focusing on the school-to-prison pipeline for a long time, but we’ve definitely seen a surge in new support this summer,” said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, the group’s director. “We’re planning a rally outside of the Salem-Keizer School District building.”

While some teacher unions are participating in the Day of Resistance, including the United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union, not all the demands outlined in the letter to Trump and the circulating petition are what the unions are actually negotiating over. Last week, UTLA had to issue a statement pushing back on media reports that said LA educators were refusing to return to school until charter schools and the police were abolished. “This is incorrect and damaging,” the union stated. “Defunding police to redirect money to education and public health and a moratorium on allocating school classrooms to charter companies so that public schools have space for safe physical distancing are just two” ways the district could raise revenue to safely reopen schools.

Other news reports have tried to frame opposition to school reopening as driven primarily by teacher unions, despite polls showing clear opposition from other stakeholders like parents and school administrators. One Axios-Ipsos poll released in mid-July found that most parents, including a majority of Republican parents and 89 percent of Black parents, thought returning to school would be risky, and just one-third of principals expressed confidence in their school’s ability to keep adults and children safe, according to a poll conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Importantly, while one of the demands for the Day of Resistance is to have no reopening “until the scientific data supports it,” activists acknowledge that different communities will define those public health metrics differently. “We don’t have a singular firm position on this,” said Holtzman. “For some people, it’s not until there’s a vaccine, for others, it’s 14 days with no new cases, and others, it could be a certain amount of days with no new deaths.”

Marchetti, who is part of the social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, said its demand in New York City is to not reopen until there are no new cases for 14 days. “We don’t have a demand to wait for a vaccine, but people shouldn’t be afraid to go to back to work,” she said. While teacher union strikes are illegal in New York, educators have broached the idea of calling in sick en masse to protest unsafe reopenings. “We’re still feeling betrayed by how slow it took [city officials] to close schools in March,” Marchetti added, pointing to a Columbia University study that found thousands of lives would have been saved had New York put its control measures in place just one week earlier.

In Los Angeles, activists are calling for at least 21 days of no new Covid-19 cases before reopening schools. In Arizona, protesters are asking for leaders to put out some kind of public health metric, which currently no one has. “Some educators want to wait for a vaccine, and others just really want to have some kind of standard, like how New York set a [reopening] threshold of the coronavirus positivity rate staying below 3 percent,” said Garelli.

The American Federation of Teachers recently passed a resolution saying that schools should only reopen in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested is below 5 percent and transmission rate is below 1 percent. “Nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort,” the resolution stated.

Garelli rejected the argument that teachers returning to school should be viewed similarly to other essential workers who have had to return to their workplaces. “No other essential worker has to spend 7 hours a day in a small room with poor ventilation with 30 other kids,” she said. “There’s just no comparison.”

Brown, of Journey for Justice, said his affiliate groups plan to push over the next month for the funding and conditions to safely reopen school, because ultimately their goal is for students and educators to return. “We see the harm that our young people face not having access to school and the socialization that comes with it,” he said. “We understand the need for them to academically grow. But we also understand the need for them to live.”

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