Reopening Schools amid the Continuing Pandemic

Education workers and communities alarmed over the potential for a worsening public health crisis

Tampa demonstration against school reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic
Tampa demonstration against school reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

By Abayomi Azikiwe

There is tremendous pressure emanating from the United States ruling class and the White House to resume in-person schooling in all levels of educational instruction.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been deployed to answer questions from television news anchors on what teachers’ unions, communities and public health officials are describing as a potentially dangerous situation for students and workers.

Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., the Trump administration has sought to downplay and even ignore the mounting infections and deaths. In specific reference to the education sector, the president and his cabinet are constantly encouraging a resumption of normal activity.

Yet leading public health experts including some members of the White House Task Force on COVID-19, are constantly reminding people to engage in social distancing, the wearing of masks and to limit unnecessary gatherings and travel. These physicians and research scientists are also saying that the situation will become even more critical with the onset of the annual influenza season when healthcare workers and medical facilities could be overwhelmed in addressing both outbreaks.

During the closing days of July, the U.S. still remained the leading country in the world in regard to COVID-19 infections and deaths. A daily report issued on July 21, indicated that there were 3.8 million people who have contracted the virus leaving 143,000 dead.

In several southern California cities the authorities are already announcing that schools for K-12 students will not reopen. In San Diego and Los Angeles, where the pandemic is raging, school board members are saying the schoolhouses are to remain closed.

These same issues impacting school districts across the U.S. illustrate the need for a national policy on safety related to the workplace and schools. White House spokespersons and officials are consistently reiterating that the administration is deferring to local authorities to resolve these problems.

However, many of these same local authorities in various states hold similar views to the Trump administration. Supporters of the president have staged demonstrations demanding the rescinding of the emergency measures imposed by state and municipal governments.

There are those who proclaim publicly the absurd belief that the pandemic is not real. These elements often refuse to wear masks and social distance. Every week there are widely publicized incidents involving individuals becoming extremely irate and violent in response to requests to wear masks while inside an enclosed space.

Others are motivated to resume in-person instruction due to financial considerations. Since the eruption of the pandemic in the U.S., more than 40 million people have been thrown out of work and consequently, tax revenues utilized to fund public education, are drastically diminishing.

School administrators are panicking in an effort to preserve the existing revenue needed to maintain teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, clerical staff, food service employees and custodians. Efforts underway in Congress to provide another stimulus package, the “Heroes Act”, part of which would be allocated to school districts, remain stalled in the Senate.

Struggle Emerges over Reopening

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest national labor organization representing education workers, has issued its own guidelines for a phased resumption of school openings. This labor union was founded in 1916 and today represents 1.7 million members spread out across 3,000 affiliates nationwide within the areas of K-12 as well as higher education.

A document posted on the AFT website entitled: “Reopening  Schools During a Time of Triple Crisis: Financial Implications”, raises important issues which are impacting teachers, students, paraprofessionals and society in general. According to this document:

“America faces three crises right now: the coronavirus pandemic, the devastating impact of racism in our communities, and the need to move the economy forward and heal the harm caused by this downturn. Public schools are essential to addressing each of these crises. And reopening safely is a key to moving our economy forward.

There are already 750,000 educational employees out of work due to the current crises, a number larger than the job losses in this sector during the Great Depression. To rehire these workers within a safe environment will require a substantial investment estimated by the AFT to be $116.5 billion.

Even prior to the current economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 60,000 fewer employees in the field than existed prior to the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.

Therefore, the U.S. is entering the most recent crisis having not fully recovered from the previous economic slump, which largely emerged from the crimes committed by the banks related to housing and municipal finance.

As a result of the massive cutbacks in school funding there are far less resources available for education than existed prior to the Great Recession. The AFT describes the problems by emphasizing:

“That austerity undermines our ability to reopen safely. A 2016 report found that public schools had more than a half-trillion dollars in deferred maintenance needs. There are 36,000 schools with pre-existing ventilation issues. This matters when trying to mitigate the spread of droplets and their accumulation on surfaces. Similarly, half of American public schools do not employ a full-time school nurse. And they have lacked the resources to address students’ social and emotional needs, including those needed to reform school discipline by moving from systems built on legacies of racial injustice toward restorative systems.”

In the state of Florida, the National Education Association (NEA) and the AFT have filed a lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to halt the reopening of schools at the end of August. The case, which was filed in Circuit Court in Miami, says that the forced reopening of schools violates the Florida Constitution mandating “safe and secure” work environments.

Although Commissioner Corcoran described the legal action by the teachers unions as “frivolous”, the NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia responded immediately by saying:

“If you do this wrong, the school becomes the germ factory. It becomes the super spreader. It becomes the source of the new surge in your community.”

The state of Florida is currently an epicenter of the pandemic with, as of July 20, more than 360,000 infections resulting in 5,100 deaths.

This lawsuit challenges the assertions made by Governor DeSantis that school-age children are rarely impacted by COVID-19.

A passage in the lawsuit states:

“As of July 9, 2020, the Florida Department of Health reported over 17,000 cases in children under 18 years old, 213 hospitalizations, and 4 deaths. The harsh reality is that Florida had a 31 percent positivity test rate among children as of last week. The adverse medical impact on our children is currently being studied and observed.”

Detroit demonstration against school reopening
Detroit demonstration against school reopening. | Photo: David Guralnick, The Detroit News

A related struggle in Detroit involves legal action along with demonstrations which have blocked the exits for buses transporting students for summer school classes. Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said in response to the demonstrations and lawsuit that the summer school program is voluntary for students and teachers.

Zoom hearings in the Michigan Court of Claims on July 16 and 17 denied a temporary restraining order to close the schools while presiding Judge Cynthia Stephens noted that she did not have the authority to rule on the claims filed on behalf of several bus drivers, teachers, parents, staff and students. The plaintiffs agreed to withdraw the case and refile in the Wayne County Circuit Court which has jurisdiction in these matters.

There have been numerous people arrested for blocking the the buses from leaving to pick up students. The protests are organized by the activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), whose attorney, Shanta Driver, is a leader. Driver argued on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Court of Claims saying that the reopening of schools should be suspended until an effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19 transmission is developed and utilized.

Education Safety Issues Compounds Burgeoning National Crises

The controversy surrounding the resumption of in-person instruction portends much for the overall social stability of the U.S. There cannot be a return to normal operations while the numbers of COVID-19 infections continue to accelerate.

In the higher education sector, the Trump administration attempted to force international students to return to their home countries if the institutions they attend did not hold in-person courses. However, there was a harsh response by the administrators at various colleges and universities recognizing that the loss of these international students would be financially and operationally devastating.

Consequently, the White House and the Education Department were forced to reverse the order.

These crises surrounding the reopening of educational institutions aggravate the overall political tensions in the country. Nonetheless, the convergence of the education crisis with the elevated levels of joblessness, impoverishment and the continuing mass demonstrations related to police misconduct and other forms of racist violence, provides the opportunity for the building of broader alliances across a wide spectrum of the working class and nationally oppressed. It is only through the building of such a coalition that the solutions to the current situation can be found and effectively implemented.

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