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New York Officials Caused More Deaths to Maintain the “Illusion of Education”

City leaders are still talking grades and achievement when they should be caring for students’ needs, says one teacher.

School buses are seen in Westchester County, New York, on March 12, 2020, as several schools closed.

Part of the Series

New York City has become a global epicenter of the coronavirus, with more deaths from COVID-19 than all but six countries in the world. The city’s high density has undoubtedly played a role in the rapid spread, but so was the disastrous decision by local leaders to keep open a public school system of 1.1 million students and 135,000 workers until March 16, by which time untold numbers of students and educators, as well as their family members, had been infected.

It has since been reported that the city Department of Education (DOE) knew of many infection sites — including one Brooklyn high school where five teachers had tested positive — and neither closed the contaminated schools nor informed the Department of Health. Thomas R. Frieden, who has led both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Health Department, recently told The New York Times that closing schools earlier could have contributed to reducing the city’s death toll by 50 to 80 percent. While Donald Trump is rightfully receiving the majority of blame for the government’s disastrous response to this pandemic, it’s important to ask why New York officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were so dilatory in shutting down the region’s largest public institution.

Monique Dols is an early childhood educator and parent in the Bronx. She is a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus inside the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which organized a highly publicized sickout that helped push de Blasio into finally closing the schools. On the first day of the closure, Dols wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News criticizing the DOE for ordering educators to report to school for training in remote learning, and urging her co-workers to stay home.

As a solidarity activist who has built support for the struggle in Puerto Rico against ongoing efforts to privatize education in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Dols brings both a local and international perspective about the tasks facing supporters of public education in New York and across the country in the coming weeks and months of this crisis. In this interview, Dols discusses the school system’s tragically delayed response to the pandemic and its current deeply flawed and unequal plans for remote learning — and argues that both issues are rooted in systemic inequity and disrespect for public education that have led to a wave of teacher strikes in recent years.

Since this interview took place, Governor Cuomo ordered schools to remain open for five of the seven days of the upcoming spring break — and de Blasio then ordered them to remain open on the other two days on Thursday and Friday. These announcements have outraged exhausted the city’s educators. In response, MORE is calling for a “spring break slow down.” MORE has also reported the deaths of 27 union members due to COVID-19 — a number that doesn’t include non-UFT public school workers — and is demanding that the city track education workers deaths in the same way it does for police and many other public employees.

Danny Katch: As horrible as the spread of coronavirus has been in New York City, it would have been even worse had public school teachers not organized to force the city to close the schools. How did that organizing happen?

Monique Dols: [In early March] we all started to hear stories about people we know getting exposed — remember we just had the February break so a lot of people had traveled very recently. There was a lot of concern from educators that there wasn’t enough guidance coming from the city, the state or the DOE and that that was leading to the spread throughout the school system.

By the middle of the week [before March 16], it was becoming really clear that New York City was going to get hit really bad, and that the city wasn’t taking it seriously enough. Over the weekend, the Movement of Rank and File Educators had a brilliant conference call in which teachers presented who had successfully organized sick outs in schools where there were people who had either confirmed cases that were disregarded by the DOE or unconfirmed but highly suspected cases that were not treated seriously enough.

There were more than 400 people representing educators from all five boroughs. It was inspiring and it was brilliant. So many people put in they were going to be out sick, a lot of different pressure points came to bear, and de Blasio was forced to announce [the school closure]. The UFT won’t acknowledge the role played by MORE and the sickout, but people who work in schools know that both the city and the union was ill-equipped for this crisis and that it was a rebellion from below that finally forced classes to be suspended. The tragedy is that he did it without a plan to care for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.

Why do you think there was such a massive disconnect between the warnings of city leaders against large gatherings and their insistence on keeping schools open?

The overall disconnect has to do with a fact that all educators know really well, which is that so-called education leaders and politicians don’t know anything about what schools look like in reality. It’s connected to their lack of knowledge of the way that standardized testing plays out, or the way that educators actually are more like social workers and nurses every day in school.

These are the reasons we had an educators’ strike wave before this crisis. Because we know the people who run the education system don’t actually care about the people who teach in their system, don’t actually care about our students. They only care about data, and about maintaining an illusion of education in this society. That gap in understanding just became extremely pronounced in this moment of crisis.

Before de Blasio finally closed the schools, some of his defenders were saying that it was a very complicated question of balancing public health versus providing meals for hungry kids and child care for health care workers. What did you think of that argument?

All along, MORE was talking about suspending classes but taking care of the needs of the most vulnerable — because that’s what we’ve always pointed to. When they tried to close our schools because of low test scores, we said you have to take into consideration the needs of our children, and they would tell us those things don’t matter. But we’ve always said those things matter.

In the days leading up (to schools being closed) we got bombarded with this idea that educators were being selfish for wanting to flatten the curve, making it out to be an issue of not caring about our students and our communities. They deploy that argument because they know we care so much about our students, our communities and our families that we will second guess ourselves.

But if they cared about homeless children, kids getting food, they would have made sure that all the homeless children in the New York City public school system had homes long ago. And if they planned for the eventuality that coronavirus would come here, they would have had a multistep plan to roll out a response that provisioned for how to make sure that people who must work have the child care they need, and that that was done in the most responsible way possible. But they only deployed that argument when it was time to blame us for their mistakes.

That’s why closing the schools was only a half victory — we weren’t able to force them to have a better plan in place for the most vulnerable. Our schools should have been turned into true resource centers that were well organized for the needs of the community and done so in a way that made sure that social distancing was maintained. Instead, they’ve created these Regional Enrichment Centers staffed by volunteer educators who are already working from home with their own students, which is unsustainable. People are suffering but [that’s] because they never had a plan to slow down the system and slow down daily life in whatever way possible. They fought it tooth and nail every step of the way because they’re motivated by different motivations than we are.

Can you describe some of the other problems with the DOE’s remote learning plans, and what you think should have been done instead?

[Firstly], why did they continue to assemble educators? If the DOE didn’t have a way to remotely teach teachers how to teach remotely then they have no business teaching us anything. We have photos of school paraprofessionals sitting in assembly lines licking envelopes to send home to students. We have stories of teachers of all kinds of ages and risk factors and pregnant and all this stuff, sitting in auditoriums in groups of 70 teachers the day after the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] said no groups of 10 or more.

But what I think is really alarming is all the language about not letting children lose the progress they’ve made, not letting children fall behind, making sure to maintain the same high rigorous standards that we would have under normal circumstances, and the fact that so many schools are either saying they’re going to continue taking daily attendance, and continue to grade. In a school district with some of the most disgusting inequities, to say that’s what’s going to happen is just a lie, first of all because not everyone will be able to access school through a device. According to the DOE’s own timetable, they’re not going to get iPads to many poor students until the week of April 6 — that’s over two weeks after they’ve started school for students who own laptops and tablets. [As this interview went to publication, students and families on Twitter were complaining about not receiving tablets weeks after requesting them.]

But we’re also about to go through something really unprecedented in the lives of children and young people and educators and families. How is it possible that at a moment like this, they’re still talking about grades and achievement when what we should be thinking about is, What are the needs of the people involved? Yes, we want to find ways for people to be connected and make sure there’s some kind of continuity because our school communities can be a lifeline for many of us. But we need to get rid of this idea that school is on, it’s just happening from home. This is not normal. This is an unprecedented human disaster, one that could have been mitigated but wasn’t. That should change our lens when we talk about what education is.

First of all, educators and school personnel should be deployed according to their ability and need. The DOE has forced cafeteria workers and other building staff — including those with high risk factors, to report to work and risk exposure serving breakfast and lunch — only accepting positive test results for COVID-19 as a legitimate reason not to get docked when we all know that there weren’t any tests available. This contributes to the higher risk of death from the virus for the city’s poor, Black and Brown populations. The most vulnerable educators including cafeteria staff should be released with pay, while younger, lower-risk educators who want to help can help with the food distribution program under the leadership of the cafeteria staff. And if people are going to be deployed to these Regional Enrichment Centers for children of essential workers, that’s high-risk work that could count as their main job, not something in addition to their regular duties.

This week, educators spent a lot of time surveying and meeting the tech needs of our students and their families to be able to access remote learning. That’s part of what needed to be done, but instead of focusing a lot of time on planning for immediate instruction, the DOE should have deployed educators to survey all kinds of need and set up mutual aid networks in our school communities. We could have prioritized the neediest and helped families with elderly and vulnerable people at home get supplies so they could start to quarantine, in the process creating lasting networks of aid.

Here in the Bronx, where rates of asthma and other pre-existing conditions are sky-high, infected people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than anywhere else in the city. I am very concerned that the virus’s spike will be occurring during allergy season when, during normal times, Bronx ERs and urgent care clinics are full of kids and adults getting nebulizers and other asthma-related treatments.

I don’t have the answers but I think if we put our heads together, we can think about how we might help raise this issue to the attention of the politicians and health agencies who should be addressing this crisis right now. Maybe we can survey our staff and families to see if anyone in their family needed to go to the hospital because of asthma-related needs in the last year and to assess if they have things like asthma pumps and prednisone at home. Maybe we should petition our politicians to demand wider distribution of asthma-related medicine and treatment and clear guidance on where people can turn if they need help getting supplies and if they need nebulizer treatment.

We need to be making sure that our school communities have the medicines they need, have the food they need, have the mental health services they need. All of those things are going to be really big questions — even how to provide those kinds of things safely is in question. That’s where the resources of our education system should be turning right now, and the fact that you even have to say that is absurd.

Do you have any thoughts on how educators can continue organizing under these extremely challenging circumstances?

What people in Puerto Rico showed after the hurricanes and earthquake is that when we come together in face of government abandonment and criminal negligence, we can help each other out to the best of our abilities. But now we literally have to stay away from each other, and that challenges us in ways that I’ve never been challenged before.

I think we need to have national and even internationally coordinated conversations of educators sharing what’s happening in different places and strategize responses to questions ranging from schools unrealistically wanting us to clock in at a certain time every day, to what this situation means for our trans students for whom school was their safe place. We need to share information but it’s very challenging because there’s an inundation of information — I can’t tell you how many links I get every day.

In terms of organizing, I’m at a loss right now because we’re all in the middle of everything spinning out [in New York City]. People should look up MORE, which can and should play in important role in all this situation. One thing I can say is what happened when I reached out to one of my collaborators, Mercedes Martinez, president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico. I was texting her about how it feels like society is coming to a halt and her response had a big impact on me. She texted, “Welcome to our world. Just know that you’re not alone.”

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