What Does a “Safe Return” to School Look Like? Ask Teacher Unions.

Powerful elites are willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of millions to feed their own profits. Teachers are fighting back.

Lois Weiner and Jackson Potter

Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), speaks August 3 prior to the Occupy City Hall Protest and Car Caravan, organized by CTU and others to halt school reopenings until schools are safe, among other demands. Similar rallies were held across the country. Kamil Krzacynski/AFP via Getty Images

Demands for stu­dents and edu­ca­tors to return to in-per­son school­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic are com­ing from Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, both claim­ing the return is nec­es­sary not just to pro­vide high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, but to save the econ­o­my and get par­ents back to work. The nar­ra­tive con­scious­ly exploits the needs of par­ents who may not have health­care and who rely on pub­lic schools to care for and edu­cate their chil­dren while they work. It pits par­ents, stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against one anoth­er, using (or ignor­ing) sci­en­tif­ic data to suit the polit­i­cal pur­pose of mon­eyed inter­ests — the bipar­ti­san project of destroy­ing pub­lic schools. 

When Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy DeVos tweets that par­ents need real options for edu­ca­tion this fall” and #School­ChoiceNow — with­out pro­vid­ing the equip­ment, con­di­tions or funds need­ed to make schools safe — the real mes­sage is clear. The Right is using the push to reopen as a way to inten­si­fy the pri­va­ti­za­tion and mar­ke­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion, boost prof­its in the edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy sec­tor and erode trust in pub­lic schools. 

In response, teach­ers’ labor activism — wide­spread and robust in recent years — con­tin­ues to emerge. Teach­ers orga­niz­ing on social media have cam­paigned for var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic stan­dards to trig­ger reopen­ing; #14DaysNoNewCases, for exam­ple, demands that cam­pus­es only reopen after going two weeks with­out Covid-19 infec­tions. The Demand Safe Schools Coali­tion wants class sizes lim­it­ed to 10 to 15 stu­dents, ven­ti­la­tion that meets guide­lines from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, clean and social­ly dis­tant school trans­porta­tion, sup­plies of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and ample Covid-19 test­ing. Activists in dozens of cities ral­lied August 3 for these and oth­er demands, resist­ing hasty, under­fund­ed and unsafe reopen­ings that impose harm, espe­cial­ly on low-income stu­dents of col­or. The cam­paign #Only­When­ItsSafe advo­cates reopen­ing only if it is equi­table and healthy for every­one,” in the words of Boston Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Jes­si­ca Tang.

For many teach­ers union activists advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice, an equi­table” school is one that can address the full range of human needs required to edu­cate all chil­dren well. Chil­dren who are hun­gry and on the verge of evic­tion — or liv­ing in tem­po­rary shel­ters — can­not be expect­ed to suc­ceed aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, whether remote­ly or in per­son. An equi­table school, for exam­ple, would sup­port the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in its call to replace police with coun­selors, nurs­es, social work­ers and restora­tive jus­tice per­son­nel. It would also sup­port the can­cel­la­tion of rents and mort­gages, a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions and fore­clo­sures, and direct cash assis­tance for the unem­ployed and those unable to work. The nation’s sec­ond and third largest teach­ers unions, in Chica­go and Los Ange­les, helped orga­nize protests against finan­cial tar­gets like the Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Fed­er­al Reserve, the Board of Trade and big banks, call­ing for inter­est-free loans and high­er tax­es on the rich to fund safe school reopenings.

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) have ver­bal­ly sup­port­ed some of the movement’s demands. For exam­ple, AFT has endorsed a union local’s right to strike when nec­es­sary to pre­vent reopen­ings that endan­ger lives. But both unions have also embraced the push from Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley for edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy to con­trol learn­ing and prof­it from stu­dent data. The pan­dem­ic CARES Act, endorsed by both unions, encour­ages fun­nel­ing lim­it­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion fund­ing into soft­ware for dis­tance learn­ing, con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions. Ed tech cor­po­ra­tions and lib­er­al think tanks are now push­ing soft­ware for per­son­al­ized learn­ing” and social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment” that col­lects data that can be used for prof­it and sur­veil­lance— while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­tort­ing and appro­pri­at­ing ideals about mak­ing learn­ing indi­vid­ual and car­ing for children’s needs. Though some teach­ers are start­ing to use their local and state unions, like the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, to push back against the NEA and AFT posi­tions, the dan­gers of ed tech in reopen­ing plans and edu­ca­tion remain most­ly unrecognized.

Pow­er­ful elites are will­ing to sac­ri­fice the lives and futures of mil­lions of peo­ple to feed their own prof­its. Even beyond the life-and-death risk to their per­son­al health, teach­ers’ strug­gles mark resis­tance to the per­pet­u­a­tion of this unequal, unjust society.

For a response to this piece, see All the Options for School­ing Are Bad — But We Have to Choose Safe­ty” by Chan­dra Thomas Whitfield.

Lois Wein­er is the author The Future of Our Schools: Teach­ers Unions and Social Jus­tice (Hay­mar­ket, 2012). An inde­pen­dent researcher and con­sul­tant, she writes wide­ly on edu­ca­tion and teach­ers unions.

Jack­son Pot­ter is a Chica­go Teach­ers Union trustee, mem­ber of the Big Bar­gain­ing Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards Col­lege Prep.
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