Educators Demand Virtual Schools as 'Least Bad' but Safe Option

Teachers wearing masks hold signs that say Make Our Schools Safe and Not Until It's Safe.

Massachusetts teachers rallied in front of Springfield City Hall in early August to demand the school year start with remote-only learning. Photo: Dave Madeloni

As the coronavirus continues to spread, teachers and school employees are being handed reopening plans that require them to be in their classrooms at the bell—and they are resisting.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers has scheduled a vote to decide if educators will refuse to enter the buildings when school starts. After the West Virginia United caucus held well-attended Zoom meetings to address concerns about reopening, the leadership of the West Virginia Education Association is calling for full remote learning to start the year. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is insisting schools will open and continue even when positive tests are reported. In Arizona, a district outside Phoenix closed before it could open when too many teachers called out sick.

The various strengths and weaknesses of unions are becoming more evident as the school year begins. We have yet to know the strength of educators' internal organizing or the ways fear might ignite wholesale disruptions as they simply refuse to enter schools.

Returning to schools that often have old and ineffective HVAC systems and windows that don’t open, where the question of what to do about students who refuse to wear masks goes unanswered, where students will be seated, in a mask, for hours and not able to move around—all this is being touted as necessary for students’ social, educational, and emotional well-being.

Many educators are pushing for a fully remote start to the school year, but districts have announced various plans to reopen school buildings. Some would keep the students remote but require educators to do their remote teaching from inside school classrooms.

Some hybrid models split the schedule for students, so fewer are in the buildings at any one time, and on their off days students work remotely. Other hybrid models have teachers simultaneously teaching in-person and remote students.

Some remote models call for “synchronous learning,” where students at home are expected to follow a regular school bell schedule as if they were in the classroom. Others allow for flexible schedules, small-group or advising meetings, and asynchronous teaching with schedules determined by the educators, who might Zoom with students in small groups instead of large classes or record lessons for students to view independently. The issue for educators is how much synchronous teaching there should be—too much overwhelms students, families, and educators—and who decides.

CRISIS MEASURES

Educators are well aware of the deficiencies of remote learning. “We have families with multiple children and one Chromebook, bad Internet, working parents on schedules that do not fit the school schedule and cannot be there to support their child,” said Carrie Anderson, recently elected to the Oakland Educators Association executive committee.

Logistics is only one of the challenges. Remote learning, as anyone who has been in a Zoom meeting can tell you, is missing the informal back-and-forth that allows for spontaneity and surprise in teaching and learning.

Synchronous learning, in particular, denies the realities of students’ home lives. Some students “need to work when there is an adult there ready to sit down beside them,” Anderson said, which might not happen until parents are home from work. Some older children supervise younger ones. Computers may be shared within the family.

Longstanding racial and economic injustices are starkly present. With remote learning there is no shared classroom to act as an (inadequate) moderating influence. Student experiences, from housing to internet access to the availability of adults, are wildly unequal.

THE REAL RISKS

As problematic as remote learning is, in-person school carries real risks. The coronavirus spreads through the air across distances much greater than the CDC’s six-foot recommendation. Yet some districts are not requiring masks, and some states are recommending even the six-foot distance only “when possible.”

Anderson says “crisis distance learning” is the least-bad option “because there is zero trust that the district will put measures in place to keep everyone safe.” Educators know that if remote is necessary, there must be flexibility for educators to have time to reach out to individual students, to connect to families, and to modify the curriculum to address students' needs. Canned curriculum and over-structured workdays will not do this.

In the spring, educators sprang into action to counter the problems inherent in remote learning. “When we got word of the [first coronavirus] case in a Chicago public school, it was all hands on deck,” said Jhoanna Maldonado, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers (CTU). “Teachers organized themselves through local school councils and with parents in the community. They wanted to assure that kids were getting food and keeping in touch, because kids love school. We can’t just send them computer apps. We raised money to get them art kits and real tactile things.”

The question for educators is how to keep everyone safe and attend to the very real challenges of remote learning. This is why unions like CTU and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) go beyond the classroom to make demands for housing and health care, and for federal payments to families so that parents can afford to stay home with their kids.

MEETINGS ARE PACKED

Educators are afraid for themselves, their students, and their communities. Online meetings, whether led by reform caucuses or elected leaders, are drawing lots of people who are angry and ready to take action.

More than 1,500 educators and community members registered for a series of town halls organized by the West Virginia United caucus. Ten thousand members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) joined a statewide Zoom meeting—and 6,000 more had registered but couldn’t get on due to Zoom’s limits.

MICORE, a statewide caucus in Michigan that is demanding full remote learning under the slogan #OnlineSavesLives, leaped from 70 members to 1,200 in seven weeks, grew from a thousand Facebook participants to 9,000, organized two rallies at the state legislature, and is holding weekly meetings.

These meetings matter. While lots of unions are doing surveys, Rami Bridge, president of the Somerville Educators Association in Massachusetts, pointed out that surveys reinforce the idea that decisions should be individual rather than collective. “When I did a survey,” he said, “a lot of people wanted hybrid. But when we had building meetings, they changed each other’s minds and saw that we needed to start all-remote, and we could demand it.”

Shira Cohen of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE) in the Philadelphia Teachers said that organizing around school reopening has extended the reach of her caucus “into buildings we haven’t been in before. We’ve built internal structures and conversations that have members saying, ‘We are winning. We can win more.’” This organizing forced the school board to agree to a remote start.

UNIONS WITH MUSCLES FLEX THEM

In L.A. and Chicago, where the locals were coming off big strikes in 2019, members knew the drill. The unions activated existing networks and flexed muscles that management already recognized as powerful.

Pretty quickly, UTLA got the district to guarantee that school would start remote-only. It mattered that California and L.A. were in an upward curve with the virus when that decision was made. Nonetheless, the district tried to require educators to teach from inside school buildings. The union refused; members readied for action. The subsequent agreement allows educators to work from home and sets out schedules, expectations, and limits for synchronous (live on the web) instruction.

Since the shutdown, Chicago educators have been tracking students who do not have housing, backing mutual aid societies that provide food and necessities for people in their communities, and hitting the streets to support the Black Lives Matter uprising. Each of these efforts prepared educators and the community for the reopening fight.

In June, CTU activated a social media campaign inviting members to imagine a return to the classroom: what would their demands be? Attendees at the local’s summer leadership conference made phone calls to members—who were, said Maldonado, “desperate to talk about their fears, worries for students, and distrust of the Chicago Public Schools [leadership].”

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When the mayor resisted going fully remote, CTU mobilized a car caravan and rally August 3 and let it out that a strike vote was going to be taken. Within hours, the city agreed to start the year remotely.

CONVERSATIONS BUILD COURAGE

Not every local has recent strike victories to build on. But the unions that are pushing back have a common approach: they’re organizing members through building meetings and general membership meetings (held online).

There, members visualize what in-person school might be like, ask questions about resources and protections, and, as one Massachusetts member said in a recent workshop, access their “voices inside” that are anxious and do not want to return.

Through these meetings, educators are breaking through the idea that their options for coping are individual decisions to retire, ask for sick leave, or quit. Instead they’re recognizing that how to teach this fall is a collective decision, requiring collective action.

In the MTA, a statewide union led by the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus, at their 10,000-person Zoom meeting 80 percent supported a resolution calling for no entry into buildings until they’re safe.

Since that meeting 85 Massachusetts locals have endorsed the resolution. The next step for these locals is to win fully remote learning in negotiations with their local school committees (school boards)—and if that doesn’t work, to refuse to enter the buildings.

LEADING FROM BELOW

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership has been absent or weak in the face of COVID. The union announced via email an agreement with the city that sets terms for “if the schools reopen.” The workday is six hours and 50 minutes in school, plus 20 minutes working from home. The plan includes “instructional lunch” for elementary students: eating in the classrooms while teachers teach. If management decides on remote learning, instruction will be synchronous. All this without any member vote, never mind a meeting.

It was the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators caucus that organized for a sickout to force management to close New York’s schools back in March. Since then, MORE has led several online organizing trainings that attracted more than 200 members; it has established working committees on health and safety, racial justice, and community alliances. Caucus activists have been quoted in the newspapers repeatedly as teacher leaders.

Angry UFT members are reaching out to MORE since UFT sent that email, as the caucus builds toward a refusal to return. The latest meeting to discuss next steps drew 250 people.

Elementary teacher Jia Lee said MORE has had to overcome tensions with “parents and teachers pitted against each other—traumatized students versus teachers who are scared for their lives.”

In contrast to the UFT board, which voted down two resolutions supporting Black Lives Matter before recently supporting the movement during the George Floyd protests, the MORE caucus has shown active solidarity with the movement. It’s another way parents can see that these educators are committed to their community’s wellbeing.

FILLING THE GAP

In March, even some well-meaning elected leaders negotiated alone on the terms of remote learning for the spring. In preparation for the fall, too many are at best relying on surveys—or at worst, not asking members anything.

But where elected leaders haven’t brought members together, caucuses have.

The WE caucus in Philadelphia held seven regional member meetings, which helped to feed a movement that included students, parents, and even principals. Without formal planning, representatives from a wide range of groups showed up for a school board meeting—and won a full remote start.

MORE, VCORE in Virginia, MICORE, and EDU all held summer organizing training sessions for members so they could lead in their locals when elected leaders were not getting it done.

Recently elected reform leaders in the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Staff immediately formed a coalition with parents, community, students, and an epidemiologist. They forced management to commit to remote learning; now they’re reaching out to other Texas locals.

MORE FIGHTS AHEAD

In Chesterfield, Virginia, educators won an early commitment to remote. Now members are organizing to defeat the district’s demand that they teach remotely from inside classrooms.

Christine Melendez, from the Chesterfield Educators Association and VCORE, said this requirement is “clearly about micromanagement.” But, she said, it also allows for “a building-by-building organizing effort.”

Oakland educators won remote learning but were negotiating the terms as school started. When teachers reported to remote work days on August 5 without an agreement, the union told members to follow the schedule and guidelines in the union’s proposal.

While the district's proposal called for one week of preparation before return, with 17 hours of district-led professional development, and a seven-hour workday, the OEA proposal called for two weeks of preparation time, five hours of professional development, and a five-hour flexible workday. Within a week, with the great majority of educators following the OEA proposal, a tentative agreement was reached.

School administrators around the country, meanwhile, are trying to take advantage of the crisis to pursue their own long-held goals and reassert control. Massachusetts has contracted with its two virtual charter schools to offer remote learning for parents who choose it when their district is not fully remote.

Local districts can contract with one of these companies and offer the option to individuals. With these contracts, the remote instruction will be led not by public school educators but by employees of the charter schools.

These are just some of the fights ahead, along with budget cuts. As MORE activist Rosie Fracella said, “We have to use this to focus on underfunding. That is what this is about. The government has underfunded our schools, and now there is no money to open safely.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #498, September 2020. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.