Education’s Working Class Faces Unsafe, Uncertain Fall Semester as the Push to Re-Open Schools Continues

By Sarah Beth Gable, SEIU Local 509 (Personal Capacity) 

“Under safe conditions, if we get the virus under control, I’d go back with confidence. But this is crazy. I don’t want the measure of my dedication and commitment to be how willing I am to risk my and my students’ lives.” Sharahn Santana, a teacher at Parkway North West High School in Philadelphia, echoes the concerns of educators around the country as America faces a benchmark moment in the Coronavirus pandemic: the upcoming reopening of schools. As America experiences a second surge in cases, the capitalist ruling class has focused less on the safety of teachers, staff, and students and more on the childcare services provided by all day K-12 education. Under capitalism, schools enable families to work. Teachers, educators, support staff, and families are facing a return to in-person education with little to no concrete guidance that prioritizes worker and student safety.

The arguments in favor of rushing the reopening of schools to protect the physical, mental, and social “health and safety” of children obscures the true concerns of the capitalist ruling class: when children are not in school, parents and guardians are unable to work. Potentially millions of children at home, in need of both parental supervision and assistance with home-school curriculum, would continue to decimate the productivity of the working class and impact the profits of the capitalist class. With daycare centers and summer camp programs closed or operating at limited capacity, working parents have been forced to either go it alone or risk hiring expensive, private childcare that could open their homes to COVID infection. The capitalists are brutally exploiting schools, educators, students, and families in order to force parents back to work as the next step in “reopening the economy”. This comes with disastrous consequences. Already in Mississippi, a teacher and football coach died of COVID-19. Students have posted pictures online of crowded hallways where social distancing is impossible; the school has since reported 9 COVID-19 cases. It’s clear that the capitalist class doesn’t care how many students, teachers, and staff are endangered by schools re-opening.

The profit motive doesn’t just infect K-12 education. The for-profit nature of higher education has pushed far too many colleges and universities to welcome students back to campus this fall. Many universities have issued plans for on-campus instruction that mandate mask-wearing, request students quarantine before moving into residence halls, and assure students single occupancy rooms. These plans, however, remain vague regarding the procedure for contact tracing if and when campuses experience COVID outbreaks. While some universities are optimistically offering frequent testing, this plan may quickly collapse if the testing delays that are currently hitting large corporate labs such as LabCorps and Quest continue to get worse. 

For example, the Rutgers University system, already experiencing a budget shortfall due to $50 million in student refunds for the Spring 2020 semester, has been forced to take drastic measures, including furloughs, to continue operating. A state spending freeze from Governor Phil Murphy’s administration means Rutgers will lose $73 million dollars in state appropriations. Rutgers will only receive $23 million dollars from federal CARES act funding. This fall, Rutgers will bring a limited number of students to campus and will be conducting the majority of their instruction online with a minimal discount in tuition. Tuition fees, however, will not make up for the lack of federal and state support for public education. 

Private institutions that rely upon student tuition for funding have been forced to find ways to stay afloat and are largely passing the costs to students and workers. Colleges and Universities face the dilemma of reopening under dangerous conditions to justify their skyrocketing tuition costs versus offering online instruction. The Trump administration attempted to blackmail schools into reopening by threatening to bar international students from remaining in the US if their institutions moved to online instruction—a move which could have cost American colleges and universities billions of dollars in lost tuition revenue. It is clear, however, that conditions are dire and that university workers will face pay cuts, job loss, or unsafe working conditions—especially when institutions refuse to dip into their endowments. 

Harvard, with an endowment in excess of $40 billion, intends to bring a portion of its students back to campus, conduct the majority of instruction remotely, yet will continue to charge full tuition. With over 18,000 direct employees and an estimated $1.1 billion spent every year in the local Massachusetts economy, Harvard’s survival is vital to workers at the institution itself and involved in affiliate industries such as biotech and medicine. In place of state and federal support, their reopening plan pushes the financial concerns of institutions onto students who will pay a premium price for online instruction and instructors who will be forced to provide additional unpaid labor to transition to virtual learning. When institutions insist upon bringing students back into the physical classroom, students and instructors will risk exposure to COVID-19. Either scenario exploits university educators. Workers at all universities, including Harvard, face additional working hours in preparation for potential COVID shutdowns or last-minute transition to online learning. Workers at all universities face tenuous job security and the threat of layoffs and furloughs. Workers at all universities are in danger of pay cuts or the elimination of entire departments. For example, the University of Vermont recently announced a 25% pay cut for non-tenured instructors while the University of Akron announced the elimination of 10% of their faculty, including 96 unionized professorships. Graduate student workers face an uncertain future as university-provided stipends face cuts and degree completion clocks continue ticking. Efforts by unions at some institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, to secure additional support for graduate student workers have failed. 

The school reopening debacle shows that workers and students must organize for their own safety. Students, parents, teachers, and staff must demand that learning institutions prioritize safety over profits. Nationally, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has given the green light for local unions to strike if demands aren’t met. Teachers in Arizona are threatening to walk out if Governor Ducey demands they return to in-person instruction on August 17. The AFT and its Florida affiliate, the Florida Education Association, have filed a lawsuit seeking to block an order by Governor Ron DeSantis to reopen in-person instruction despite the state’s spike in COVID cases. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) is going further, standing formally against the reopening of schools without key safety provisions in place. They are correctly linking the safe reopening struggle to demands for a moratorium on charter schools and the defunding of local police in order to redirect much-needed resources to area public schools. The UTLA is also demanding a federal Medicare-for-All program, a new state-level wealth tax, and a federal bailout for the school district, demands which highlight the systemic inequality compounded by the pandemic. In the critical few weeks before fall classes are set to begin, we must take decisive action to tell the ruling class, “No schools will reopen until safe!”. 

The Independent Socialist Group calls for:

  • Unions to take up the struggle to protect educators, students, and families! We can fight this and win. Unions representing educators, instructors, and support staff should organize in solidarity with each other including building coalitions with parents and students. Rank and file union members must push to organize workplace actions including walkouts and strikes if the union leadership won’t do it! 
  • Students, parents, and teacher’s unions should demand that cities provide free, publicly-owned, high-quality WiFi as remote learning continues.
  • Parents should help organize with teachers and students. Refuse to cross picket lines and apply pressure to bottom lines by refusing to return to school until safe!
  • Planned student strikes and tuition non-payment campaigns in solidarity with instructors and staff. Organize student unions to represent our interests in schools of all levels including real input on issues of safety, tuition costs, student employment, and school services. 

The ruling class will continue to demand profits over safety but workers, students, and parents can organize a fightback!

Image Credit: Rosipaw via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0