In Battle for Virtual Schools, Rochester Teachers Caucus Leads from Below
It was a pipe dream to think, when we went into crisis mode in March, that we could possibly have a vaccine for a rampantly growing and politically charged virus before school was due to resume in the fall.
Evidently it was an even bigger pipe dream to think that the powers that be would use the time over summer to collaborate with educators to develop remote learning options and support services for students and families.
This country’s gross divide over whether or not a global pandemic was even real did accomplish one thing: its utter mess trickled its way down and jammed any progress we could be making for its youngest citizens.
And so began the theatrics of how to open schools safely. Clorox wipes, which no stores have? Hand sanitizer, which no stores have... and which, if stores did have, it would be on teachers to purchase? No, that wasn’t enough.
How about every teacher take a lesson in plexiglass engineering and turn their classrooms into prison visitor centers? No, that’s silly.
But that wasn’t all. Once it had been undeniably, scientifically proven that COVID-19 spread through air particles, it became abundantly clear that even if schools could afford the filters (they can’t), they certainly didn’t have the recent HVAC systems that could support them.
Masks with silly designs, face shields, hazmat suits? None of this was realistic, nor sane.
Nevertheless, the narrative continued to focus on “how to reopen safely.” We couldn’t. We can’t. And so, joining the fight with other educators across the country, the Rochester Organization of Rank-and-File Educators (RORE) began our campaign to change the narrative and protect our community.
Our efforts began with a comprehensive survey that yielded immediate, transparent data that we readily shared. We managed to get results from about 10 percent of the 3,000 teachers in the Rochester Teachers Association.
We believe the numbers would have been much higher if the backlash from elected union leadership hadn’t come so harshly. They claimed RORE was not sanctioned by the RTA (we’re not and don’t want to be) and that this “wasn’t an RTA-approved survey” (again, no argument).
Apparently we were breaking some kind of unwritten law by collecting data to see what educators felt about last spring’s handling of crisis learning and about going back into old, decrepit buildings.
And so, a few weeks later, the RTA released its own survey, with mostly short-answer questions and no tangible way of communicating results... which they didn’t, outside of “summaries.” In any event, it seemed the majority in both surveys agreed that it wasn’t safe to go back.
The next step was to write up a resolution based on our findings, a petition we had circulated for educators, parents, and community members that got close to 2,000 signatures, and (gasp) science.
We received no response from RTA leadership. But soon after, an emergency meeting was called to vote on a resolution that the leadership had “written” that looked suspiciously close to (but not quite as good as) ours. Oh well. A victory is a victory.
However, RORE knew that this “victory” meant very little unless there was accountability. We began pressuring our union leaders, asking what they were prepared to do if the district came back against the demand for 100 percent remote learning. We held town halls, ran daily polls on our Facebook page, and called for our union leadership to poll all members on whether the union should call a “safety strike.”
Our last communication to RTA leadership was a list of questions that we demanded answers to, most notably, “What’s the plan if the district pushes back?” Like every other email we send them, this one got no response. What we got instead was perhaps better: an announcement from the district that, after hearing from community and staff members (and, we assume, assessing the unrealistic expectations put on our district from the same New York governor who owes us $86 million), we would be going fully remote. We won. We won!
THERE’S MORE TO DO
And then, as they do after a “victory,” RTA leadership went quiet again. We didn’t.
RORE’s current list of demands continues and include free high-speed internet for all students and families, a reallocation of $16 million planned for a new police station (read the room, Rochester) to our Rochester families, and most recently, a full stop on the now planned layoffs to our paraprofessionals, teaching assistants, and other support staff.
Our latest correspondence, which was sent to the superintendent, RTA leaders, and our sister union leaders of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals (RAP) and Board of Education Non-Teaching Employees (BENTE), was a statement of solidarity with our fellow workers—a principle that was seemingly lost on our union leadership. We held a town hall focused entirely on and for our RAP and BENTE union sisters and brothers. After that, our union released its own letter of solidarity with the other unions.
As we move forward, we’re confident we will continue to push a conservative union toward more progressive stances and actions, and we honestly care little who gets the credit for it.
What matters more is the texts, phone calls, and emails pouring in from fellow workers who have started to see through the lies of the current union leadership that RORE is “divisive.” Many are seeing true worker solidarity for the first time. In a district, and quite frankly a profession, so inundated with fear, intimidation, and bullying, RORE is showing that the only way out of fear is through solidarity.
Michelle Accorso Sapere is a teacher in the Rochester City School District in New York and a founding member of RORE.