Teachers (Octavio Jones : Getty Im)
Teachers in Tampa, Fla., demonstrate outside school district offices on July 16. (Octavio Jones/ Getty Images)

By DEAN COHEN

Across the United States, teachers, parents, and students are faced with an impending crisis as they are called to return to school and work. The increasing coronavirus infection rates—60,000 + new cases every day—have made this potential reality a nightmare. As the pressure from both the Trump administration and local and state governments to open the schools increases, these teachers, parents and students are faced with a grim, stark choice. On the one hand, students want to get back in the classrooms, and parents, in many cases, need their kids back in the classrooms. On the other hand, teachers realize the dangerous ground they and the students will be walking.

Will the necessary steps be taken to ensure their safety? Is this even possible? An increasing number of teachers from coast to coast are saying, “No!” As schools began to open last week, positive virus tests in some school districts have already forced the quarantine of many students. As one K-4 teacher and American Federation of Teachers member in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, put it, “Since the pandemic began, I’ve been essentially quarantining with my parents. Now I’m being told I have to interact with 800 kids or possibly lose my health insurance. Am I worried? You bet I am.”

Are we beginning to see the start of a pushback from the unions? Last week, the threat of a strike vote from the Chicago Teachers forced the city to cancel plans for a reopening and go to on-line classes. However, except for the veiled threat from the leadership of the AFT for national strike action, with no actual planning behind it, there has been no real coordination from the teachers’ unions.

Across the country, teachers have been under attack from some quarters for not wanting to return to the classrooms. But teachers want to go back to work! They understand the importance of what they do, and they love their students. That’s not the problem. The problem is, they’re being forced back to school while infection rates are too high and testing rates are too low to make a safe return even remotely possible—especially with the budgets available to schools. Officials are telling teachers to defeat in their classrooms the pandemic, which state and federal government have allowed to spread across the whole of society.

The unions, so far, have not risen to the challenge.  In Connecticut, a teacher and union activist says that his union, the Connecticut Educational Association (CEA), has been “strongly advocating” not going back to the classrooms, stopping well short of demanding that classes not reopen. The union has distributed a 15-page “Safe Learning Plan.” But instead of providing any real leadership, the document stresses that “if schools are not safe, they should not reopen.” That’s the problem! The schools, in many cases, have already been shown to not be safe.

The Ohio teacher told us that the school has mandated only two students per table, but herding cats would be easier than trying to get a room full of kindergarteners to social distance. And the district has assured the teachers that there would be only two students per seat on the buses. “But that’s no change!” she tells us, “That’s how it’s always been.”

In Hartford, Conn., the school district has suggested that every student and staff member be tested once a week! ONCE A WEEK! However, there are so many students and staff that that proposal would be completely unworkable. Given the limited number of tests available in Connecticut, (which on average take a week to process), at the current testing rates it would take 40-60 days to test all students and staff in the state.

The CEA has also made a call for weekly testing of students and staff. That works well for wealthy private institutions like Yale and Wesleyan, which are planning twice weekly testing. But where does that leave the low income, working-class school districts?

According to a Washington Post article, the schools in Washington, D.C., where the majority of the students come from low-income areas, have been struggling to come up with plans for safe reopenings. These students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Masks are just not going to get the job done. School-wide ventilation systems are being considered, but these systems need to be installed by engineering firms and are extremely expensive. School buildings are designed to keep fresh air out, thereby keeping heating costs low. These school buildings would have to be completely redesigned.

The perspective, then, is this: the rates of infection are too high, the testing is too sparse, and the results take too long to come back. Returning to schools in person will create new outbreaks, and the poor testing structure means these outbreaks will have a long time to spread before any decision is made to close the schools down again. And with high-ranking officials in the Trump administration preparing us for half a million deaths, that decision does not seem likely to come anytime soon. However, there needs to be a new shutdown that is combined with a real expansion of testing. Without this, it is impossible to make the schools safe. The situation, a real mess now, has the potential to turn into a complete disaster!

It is a real mess that needs to be straightened out right now, but to do this the teachers unions need to step up in a big way. The stakes for the whole labor movement are high, but the unions have shown recently that they can rise to the occasion. In leading this struggle, teachers’ unions could not only win support from the rest of the working class, but help lead the working class in a fight for a real defense of public health.

The Red for Ed movement and the nationwide teachers’ strikes of 2018 proved that teachers are ready to fight. And when the teachers did fight, they proved that they were an inspiration for the entire labor movement. We’ve seen that just the threat of a strike, as in Chicago, was enough to move the entire school system on-line.

While this is a step forward, the fact remains that the lack of physical classes hurts students from low-income families the most. Far too many of these students do not have access to the internet. The unions must demand access to laptops and enough community “hotspots” for all low-income students. The veiled threat of a nationwide work stoppage with no real planning or preparation would not be taken seriously by either the teachers or the school administrations. The job actions would need to be coordinated between all the education unions as well as the unions that include support and maintenance workers. Parents, and indeed the entire communities, need to be involved as well.

The demand must be: The schools must not reopen unless safety for all can be guaranteed! This is, after all, a matter of life and death. The stakes for the teacher, students, their families and, indeed, all of labor could not be higher.