Could a Teacher Strike Wave Halt Premature School Reopenings and Flatten the Pandemic's Curve?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a revealing editorial titled “The Case for Reopening Schools.” In it, the editorial board reiterates the most common arguments in favor of immediately returning students and educators to the classroom this fall. But they also make clear that when and how to reopen schools reflects a fundamental conflict between educators and working people, on the one hand, and billionaires on the other.
To be sure, the official mouthpiece of big business is savvy enough to frame school reopening as beneficial to the average American, not just the ruling rich. The WSJ points to the very real damage of remote learning, arguing for instance that “[y]ou don’t need a degree in child psychology to know kids have struggled with virtual education.” And working-class families, the editorial correctly notes, suffer from shuttered schools more than those who are richer (and, I would add, whiter).
Teachers want to return to their classrooms. But any serious assessment of the relative costs of keeping schools closed must also honestly grapple with the health risks posed by opening them up amid a raging pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the editorial entirely fails on this score.
CHILDREN ARE NOT IMMUNE
According to the editorial board, “the relative immunity of young children to the disease . . . should reassure parents.” Yet the most recent and extensive research has concluded that while small children under ten spread the disease less than adults, they can still infect others. And even more dangerously, children between the ages of ten and nineteen are just as likely as adults to transmit the virus.
The disastrous results of rushing to reopen schools in Israel should be a cautionary tale for the United States. In May, when Israel’s infection numbers were much lower than the United States’ today, the government decided to send teachers and students back to the classroom. By June, outbreaks were spreading in schools across the country, contributing to a major infection spike in the population as a whole. A Health Ministry study found that about one-third of new virus contractions occurred in educational facilities between July 10 and July 16.
Like Donald Trump, the WSJ claims that since countries like Denmark and Singapore have safely reopened schools, so too can the United States. But when it comes to school reopenings, experts agree that the single most important factor is the degree of infection beyond the schools.
Countries in Europe and Asia have been able to open schools without major outbreaks because they have flattened the curve of the virus in society as a whole. The United States has not. The daily number of confirmed cases is still spiking. While Germany has about 440 new cases daily, the U.S. average is over 66,000.
COVID-19 continues to devastate the United States far more than other industrialized countries due to the criminal negligence of governmental officials, the U.S.’s failed for-profit health care system, a weak welfare state, the irrationalities of American federalism, and a decades-long, billionaire-backed decimation of governmental capacities. No matter what creative administrative recommendations are made for classroom social distancing, mask-wearing, student pods, and staggered class times, opening schools in the throes of a pandemic risks triggering a public health catastrophe, particularly for low-income black and brown families.
Such considerations matter little to the Journal’s editorial board, and the business interests they speak for, because the real reason they want to reopen schools lies elsewhere. At the end of their piece, they finally say the quiet part out loud: “Millions of parents can’t return to work if their children can’t attend school.” Schools, among other services provided, serve as childcare centers, enabling parents to sell their labor to employers. An op-ed published two weeks earlier in the WSJ spells out this economic logic: "If the schools aren’t open, many parents will lack child care and be unable to return to work. If parents can’t work, the economy can’t recover. Teachers unions are thus in a position to hold the economy hostage."
According to a study from the Brookings Institution, every month of closed schools could cost the United States over $50 billion dollars. That’s why Forbes magazine insists that “[e]conomic considerations . . . trump health concerns” when it comes to a return to class.
For the sake of corporate profits, billionaires and the politicians they’ve bought are willing to sacrifice educators, students, and parents alike. Our lives are on the line. United Teachers Los Angeles put it well: “When politicians exhort educators and other workers to ‘reignite the economy,’” we should ask, “who are you planning to use as kindling?”
REFUSE TO RETURN
An ability “to hold the economy hostage” gives organized educators a tremendous amount of power at this moment of crisis. And this is a very good thing, no matter what the Wall Street Journal and Forbes would have us believe.
“Emboldened by successful strikes in 2018 and 2019,” notes the WSJ op-ed, educator unions “appear to be in a strong position,” having already shaped some of the instruction criteria implemented since the lockdown began. Militant teacher unions and an unprecedented nationwide rank-and-file upsurge organized in large part over Facebook have already succeeded in pressuring many districts — including in Denver, Houston, and most parts of California — to extend remote learning until local infection rates drop significantly. Activists across the country have raised the benchmark of no new local cases for 14 days before they will return to school.
Yet numerous Republican-led states such as Florida, as well as Democratic cities such as Chicago and New York City, are still pushing for a full or partial physical reopening at the beginning of the fall semester. Given the lost profits involved, corporate America and its representatives are not going to back down without a fight. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, like Trump and his secretary of education Betsy DeVos, are insisting that districts should be pressured to reopen:
Republicans in Congress should condition additional funding in a fifth virus-aid package on schools physically reopening five days a week. If some public schools or districts refuse to reopen, make the money available to charter or private schools that are open.
USE LEVERAGE TO FLATTEN THE CURVE
Since the pandemic continues to rage, the first responsibility of every educator and every teachers’ union is to fight to prevent an unsafe reopening. This, of course, does not mean keeping schools shuttered indefinitely. On the contrary, educators can use their social leverage to force politicians to finally take the urgent measures needed to bring students safely back to school and, no less importantly, to flatten the pandemic’s curve.
As the success of the 2018 and 2019 strikes demonstrated, teachers and school staff are most politically effective when they raise demands not only for themselves, but on behalf of students, parents, and the community at large. In this spirit, the Demand Safe Schools Coalition—which brings together unions and organizations such as the Chicago Teachers Union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and Journey For Justice—has called for a “National Day of Resistance” on August 3.
The mobilization is not only fighting premature reopenings and demanding more nurses and counselors, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning, and virus testing services to keep students and staff safe once they are back in the classroom, but it has also raised demands on behalf of community members, including police-free schools, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and direct cash assistance to those unemployed or unable to work.
The reason these reforms haven’t been implemented is not that they are unfeasible, but that they are expensive. As long as we remain within an austerity framework, the only options on offer for school this fall will be bad—continued remote learning—or horrific—premature reopenings. Since local and state governments on their own cannot adequately fund the measures necessary to keep all of us safe and solvent, the coalition has called for a “[m]assive infusion of federal money to support the reopening funded by taxing billionaires and Wall Street.”
The interests of educators and working families stand in direct contradiction with the ruling rich and the politicians in their pay. They want us immediately back at school and work, to restore their bottom line. We want to make them pay their fair share, to ensure the physical and economic health of the working-class majority.
No segment of the population is better positioned than organized educators to lead a successful fightback against our government’s catastrophic pandemic response. From West Virginia to Oklahoma to California, educators have proven over the past three years that they have the power and momentum to take on the billionaires and win. We desperately need them to do so again. The stakes could hardly be higher.
Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.
For more on teachers’ unions and the battle around school reopenings, see the article we published last week, “Full Steam Ahead on School Reopening? No Way, Say Teachers,” by New York City teachers Peter Lamphere and Monique Dols.