28 August 2020
Across the world, hundreds of millions of students, teachers, office workers, support staff, custodians, cleaners, bus drivers and cafeteria workers are returning to school amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Education workers are under immense pressure to accept school reopenings, which are a key component in ruling-class efforts to return to profit-making. The spread of the virus varies considerably across and within different countries, but in many locations the daily mingling of hundreds of children in close proximity poses a serious risk to the population.
In the richer countries of Western Europe and North America, many educational institutions have already reopened after half a year shut down – with mixed results, including several outbreaks directly attributable to interactions within schools. Cuts to education and social services in the “developed” world over recent decades have already led to cramped classrooms, inadequate infrastructure and insufficient funding. While there are various ad hoc attempts to provide extra space and support staff (often shared among a group of schools), in general teachers can expect the added stress of large classes while trying to enforce physical distancing and heightened health protocols, sometimes without proper training or personal protective equipment (PPE). Mask-wearing is often considered a “personal choice,” and the responsibility of “self-screening” for symptoms will be dumped on parents and guardians, many of whom do not have alternate childcare and will be forced to hide symptoms.
The inequalities are even more sharply revealed in the impoverished neocolonies, where education provision is often limited through lack of resources even under “normal” conditions. As Covid-19 works its way through overcrowded slums and refugee camps, discussions about educating children may seem an impossible luxury. Across the world, the virus has turned a spotlight on the dark corners of capitalist society, exposing discrimination and oppression that the ruling classes would rather hide – the health inequities that affect racial minorities and the poor, the precarity of millions of jobs, particularly for the young, and the role of education in preserving the status quo.
For many working people, the closures have come at a high price, as schools carry out many functions beyond the purview of education: feeding hungry children, often being the first to notice signs of domestic violence or other abuse, and providing support for children with mental and physical health problems. Under lockdown, parents were expected to carry the burden of educating children while struggling to maintain full-time jobs from home or coping with the effects of limited or no work.
The very different quality and quantity of “homeschooling” that parents are able to provide, depending on time, resources and their own education, reflects and reinforces class inequalities, from the key developmental early years to older students whose grades and exam results mark out different life and career paths. For instance, in Britain, cancelled exams were replaced by teacher predictions modified by an algorithm heavily reliant on the past performance of the school. When it emerged that nearly 40 percent of students in their final year of school had been downgraded from their teachers’ predictions, largely in state-run schools in working-class areas, while results in elite private schools improved, such a furor broke out that the government had to execute a hasty reversal.
The situation in the United States poses the question acutely. The reckless drive to reopen schools in the world’s most powerful imperialist country threatens to endanger the health and safety of millions of working-class families. Trump’s unfounded claims that “this thing’s going away” and that children are “virtually immune” from the virus occur as the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to climb. Although young children overall have lesser rates of infection, lower mortality rates and exhibit less severe symptoms, they are by no means “virtually immune.” People of all ages can contract the virus and transmit it to more vulnerable sections of the population, and young people in general are more likely to be asymptomatic and thus unknowingly transmit the virus. In the last two weeks of July alone, 97,000 children in the US tested positive – a 40 percent increase. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics: “While children represented only 9.3% of all cases in states reporting cases by age, over 442,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic” (20 August 2020).
The Trump administration’s push to reopen schools is being used to further privatize education. The president has ridiculed the recommendations of public health experts on how to safely reopen schools as “very tough & expensive,” and the White House has threatened: “If schools do not reopen, funding should follow students so parents can send their child to the private, charter, religious, or home school of their choice” (whitehouse.gov, 23 July 2020). Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who echoed calls to “cut off funding,” has simply dismissed any possibility of closures: “Ultimately it’s not a matter of if schools should reopen. It’s simply a matter of how. They must fully open, and they must be fully operational” (ABC, 9 July 2020).
Covid-19 spreads person-to-person through droplets from the nose or mouth, as well as contact with contaminated objects and surfaces, and there is a growing consensus that airborne transmission can also play a significant role. The World Health Organization (WHO) remains cautious but has acknowledged: “The possibility of airborne transmission in public settings – especially in very specific conditions, crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings that have been described, cannot be ruled out” (Reuters, 7 July 2020). There is still much that is unknown about Covid-19, including its long-term impact on the cardiovascular, respiratory and central nervous systems. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently warned educators that “you’re going to actually be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know” (Newsweek, 31 July 2020). Most staff and students returning to “crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings” (ie, a typical publicly funded school classroom) do not want to be test subjects in an experiment with their lives.
School districts surrounding Atlanta, Georgia that have already reopened, despite local Covid-19 cases that are clearly on the rise, have yielded predictably disappointing results. Just one week after the start of school, some 1,400 staff and students in Cherokee County were forced to quarantine, while Georgia’s largest school district, Gwinnett County, had over 250 employees “excluded from work” due to coronavirus exposure. When concerned high school students in Paulding County posted back-to-school photos on social media of packed hallways, with little to no physical distancing and few masks visible, school administrators immediately suspended them and threatened similar “consequences” for other students posting anything “negative” on social media. The high school has since had dozens of students and staff test positive for the virus and temporarily had to move all classes online.
Rank-and-file education workers across North America have shown a willingness in recent years to oppose cuts to education and fight on behalf of their own working-class interests, often in opposition to their elected leadership. In early 2018, 20,000 teachers and support staff in West Virginia defied both the government and the official union leadership to carry out an “illegal” strike that shut down the schools state-wide, resulting in a 5 percent pay increase and sparking similar strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere. In February of this year, some 200,000 teachers across Ontario, Canada went out on a one-day province-wide strike to oppose cuts to special education, threats to remove full-day kindergarten, increasing class sizes and a public-sector wage freeze. More recently, education workers across the US have opposed the reckless drive to reopen schools. Teachers in Detroit voted 91 percent in favor of striking against unsafe school openings. And in Chicago, the 3rd largest school district in the US, teachers forced the city to abruptly shelve its plans for in-person schooling twice a week and instead move to fully remote online programming after they threatened to walk out over coronavirus concerns.
Instead of a militant class-struggle response highlighting the need for workers’ control of education, the bureaucrats running America’s two largest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), have spent their summer breaks stifling resistance and sucking up to the Democrats. Both the AFT and NEA are actively supporting the Democrats’ latest corporate bailout stimulus package, the HEROES Act. In July, AFT president Randi Weingarten hosted a live-streamed “Roundtable on School Reopening” with “special guests” Jill Biden and Elizabeth Warren during which Weingarten and other top-level AFT bureaucrats fawned over the Democratic Party panelists and called to back Joe Biden in the November presidential election. While the bureaucrats heading the AFT have paid lip service to backing “safety strikes” due to Covid-19, they see this only “as a last resort” and have dumped ultimate responsibility for any strike action on to local affiliates, undoubtedly to avoid being held accountable in the event that things go poorly and risk punitive fines or jail time.
The situation confronting teachers today calls for a broader struggle to address the needs of working-people as they deal with the immediate threats of Covid-19 and the economic crisis, while pointing toward the need for workers’ power and the socialist transformation of society. Although the emphasis placed upon specific demands will necessarily differ between schools, states, countries, etc., based on the severity and impact of the virus and other factors in any given location, an education workers’ program of action in the current conditions would include the following:
1. For a science-based response to Covid-19!
A serious, science-based effort to contain, treat and eradicate Covid-19 requires free screening and testing at schools by public health workers, vigilant contact tracing, proper ventilation and distancing, as well as PPE for all staff and students. No school reopenings should take place until deemed safe by workplace safety committees of teachers and school support staff, in collaboration with healthcare workers.
2. Free quality public education!
Staff, students and working-class parents all have a common interest in opposing the drive to privatize education and in reversing the cuts. All non-public education services (ie, private and charter) must be expropriated and reorganized into existing public systems. Workers should demand a massive investment in school funding for proper resources and materials and to upgrade and expand infrastructure facilities, ensuring equity of resources across all educational institutions.
3. Free quality childcare and healthcare!
Working people must not be made to pay for the crisis, nor forced to choose between their children’s safety and their financial security. We need free, quality childcare and healthcare, including access to counseling and mental health resources on demand.
4. End unemployment with a shorter work week with no loss in pay!
Workers should oppose any layoffs or job reprisals due to Covid-19 or economic contraction. The answer to unemployment, homelessness and poverty is a shorter work week with no loss in pay. In the education sector that requires reducing class size (15 students or less), increasing prep time at no loss in pay and hiring from the vast reserve of fully-qualified educators and support staff currently unemployed or under-employed.
5. For a living wage!
After years of declining real wages, public-sector “wage freezes” and salary and benefit concessions in contracts, education workers need unlimited sick/leave days at full income and a massive pay increase, especially for those at the low end of the pay scale, ensuring that wage growth outpaces price inflation. To improve everyone’s lives and strengthen solidarity, such gains should be extended to all workers – we need a race to the top, not the bottom.
6. Take back and use the strike weapon!
Workers cannot rely on school administrations, departments of education and labor, capitalist politicians, bourgeois courts and union bureaucrats to defend our interests. Instead, our most effective weapons are well-organized militant strikes and picket lines and a class-struggle leadership rooted in amalgamated unions covering all workers on site and the entire education sector.
7. For workers’ control of education!
The public education system must be run by a network of workers’ committees coordinated at all levels (school, district, state, national, international), with real decision-making power over safety procedures and workplace closures in response to Covid-19 as well as broader issues around school functioning, curriculum and pedagogy. Students should be involved in age-appropriate decision-making about their education and school environment.
8. Cops off campus!
Cops, security guards, army recruiters, military personnel, etc., are not part of the workers’ movement and are not welcome on campus. Working people must coordinate self-defense of their schools, workplaces and communities as the first step toward abolishing the police.
9. For a revolutionary party!
Workers need to break with the parties of big business (eg, the Democrats in the US) and the pro-capitalist social-democratic parties that claim to fight for their interests. The working class needs its own political party – a revolutionary party rooted in the unions and broader workers’ movement, centered on a class-struggle program that fights for socialism.
10. For a workers’ government!
Those who labor must rule – not the capitalist parasites running the global economy. This requires transferring all political power to democratic workers’ councils and the creation of a workers’ government based on those councils at the local, regional, national and global levels.
A Revolutionary Response to COVID-19 (1917 No.42)
Whither America? (2 July 2020)
The Transitional Program: IBT Introduction (1998)