Teachers and Students Mobilize in More Than 35 Cities to Demand Safe Schools

On August 3, thousands of teachers, students, parents, educators and community members across at least 36 U.S. cities mobilized for a National Day of Resistance for safe schools.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), in coalition with over a dozen Black- and Brown-led grassroots organizations, participated in and live-streamed a car caravan and rally downtown and in front of City Hall. Demonstrators honked their cars, showed off signs with slogans like “Grades Not Graves” and gave speeches. Jennifer Johnson, chief officer of the CTU, tells Truthout that the movement is “calling for the safe and equitable reopening of schools remotely, investing in our schools and our communities, and police-free schools.”

On July 28, the second-largest teacher union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), announced that it will support “every action and tool available,” including safety strikes, in the fight against unsafely reopening schools. In her State of the Union speech, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “Let’s be clear: Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of students and their educators.”

But Johnson stresses that teachers want to teach students, and recognize that student-teacher communication is critically important during the pandemic. Most likely, teachers would not fully strike, she says, but they may refuse to physically enter school buildings. “We’re having those conversations with our democratic bodies, with our members.”

The AFT’s announcement, according to Eric Blanc, author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, provides a “morale boost” for teachers who started organizing around reopening weeks ago. “This is a confrontational approach that has been pushed from below, that now has apparent sanction of the national union, which is very significant,” he tells Truthout. “At this point, [AFT’s announcement is] mostly a way to put pressure on districts to do the right thing.”

Eleven of the 15 largest districts in the country — such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Philadelphia — have conceded to teachers’ demands and will start the year with remote learning. Many governments and districts in “red” and “blue” states alike, however, haven’t backed down to pressure. Most schools in Chicago and New York City, for example, are slated to reopen under a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, and some are fully reopening. Taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, Texas is threatening to withhold funding from schools that do not reopen by an unspecified date. And despite a 23 percent increase in child hospitalization within a week and five child deaths, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered the state’s public schools to reopen classrooms in August, which some schools are ignoring.

Several New Jersey lawmakers put forth legislation that would require the state to keep their buildings closed. As of August 3, no state has passed such legislation.

Nataliya Braginsky, a public high school social studies teacher in New Haven, Connecticut, said that socially distancing, under her typical workplace conditions, would not be possible. “At my school, we share classrooms, so while one group of 27 students is leaving a room, another group of the same size is entering with a different teacher,” she tells Truthout.

Braginsky says that safe reopening must include addressing pre-pandemic problems. “If our schools were fully funded, we could have smaller class sizes, which would not only make our spaces safer amidst a pandemic, but which would also make for better teaching and learning. A lower teacher-to-student ratio, which we know is best practice, is something that is afforded to private schools and higher-income, suburban, white communities, yet denied to schools whose students are majority youth of color.”

Because of underfunded, crowded public schools and health disparities that are exacerbated by the pandemic, Black and Brown communities will suffer the most if schools reopen too soon. According to Johnson, “The communities of color — Black and Latinx communities — are homes to front-line workers that have seen the highest case count and death rate, [and] are still experiencing this virus in a real way, and those are the students we serve in our schools.”

Johnson says there are at least 14 zip-codes with a testing positivity rate average of over 8 percent and some are as high as 12 percent. “Based on the numbers that we are seeing, it’s not safe to reopen schools at the end of August,” she says.

The World Health Organization advised governments that rates of positivity should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days prior to reopening. Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson has said that a 5 percent positivity rate or higher means the virus is out of control, but later changed this figure to 8 percent.

Although children are less likely to die from the virus, according to Johnson, Chicago educators have already lost students and loved ones due to COVID.

Teachers Mobilize for Public Health

At the beginning of July, when many politicians announced plans for the full or hybrid reopening of schools, rank-and-file teachers began organizing themselves spontaneously through Facebook groups and national calls in order to prevent the unsafe reopening of schools. The CTU ramped up their tele-town halls, committee member meetings, and conversations with their members and the community.

Dramatic strike actions since 2018, most notably in West Virginia and Oklahoma, have positioned teachers as skilled organizers. “This is not a new fight for us,” Johnson says. “We’ve been fighting for 10 years to get the resources that our school[s] and communities need on an everyday basis…. [Teachers] are used to, unfortunately, trying to mitigate unjust systems that leave our students and our communities vulnerable.”

Last fall, Chicago teachers went on strike for three weeks, demanding a full-time nurse for each school and won.

According to Blanc, experienced strikers in West Virginia and elsewhere have been passing on lessons learned from their own walk-outs to less experienced colleagues in “red” states, where the government may be less likely to back down.

On July 30, across the state of Connecticut, educators and other school workers, students, parents and advocates participated in dozens of “School Safety First” caravan rallies. According to Braginsky, organizers are demanding that the state’s public schools put the brakes on in-person reopening, fund the safest return possible once doors open, and ensure professional development and training in distance-learning best practices.

Business Interests Fueling Reopening

Some point out that remote learning harms lower-income students who cannot afford laptops or internet connectivity. But these debates rarely examine viable solutions, such as wealth redistribution or proper support. “Beyond internet access and technology, we also need to provide students with books, art supplies and other tangible educational materials. Remote learning does not and should not mean students are staring at a screen all day,” Braginsky says. She also recommends relief for families in the form of subsidies for child care, financial support that allows guardians to stay home with children, rent and mortgage relief, and food distribution.

Teachers are eager to begin implementing lessons they learned from their remote learning trial-run in the spring. Johnson laments that the struggles over reopening are undermining these efforts: “We are wasting precious time arguing about going in person when we should, ultimately, be taking the next several weeks to really increase our communication with families and set up additional structures to improve remote learning.”

Business interests appear to be fueling these ongoing struggles, Blanc argues, since schools provide daycare for people who are workers first and parents second in the capitalist system. As United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) puts it: “When politicians exhort educators and other workers to ‘reignite the economy,’ … educators ask, who are you planning to use as kindling?”

Johnson similarly attributes reopening struggles to economic interests, and believes school districts are under political pressure to reopen: “The political will seems to be focused on opening up the economy and disregarding the safety of the most vulnerable communities that have already been compromised.”

Since the economy can’t reopen until schools reopen, teachers hold leverage beyond the educational realm. Teachers have the power, according to Blanc, “to push not only for keeping parents and students and teachers safe but potentially — if they are organized enough — to push the government to finally take the measures necessary to actually flatten the curve and keep people economically sound until that happens.”

After years of militancy, they may just be up to this momentous task.