School Reopening is the New Reality. How Should We Relate to It?

School Reopening is the New Reality. How Should We Relate to It?

By Ella Mahony and Mike Stivers

The following is the position of individual MORE members, and is not the position of the MORE caucus as a whole.

In the past few weeks, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio made a series of sudden decisions regarding the city’s schools: reopening middle and high schools to blended students, and initiating a new opt-in period for remote elementary and District 75 students to return to school buildings. 

The pace of De Blasio’s announcements indicate that things will move quickly from now on, with full reopening as the goal. They also indicate that he no longer believes that the United Federation of Teachers nor our opposition movement within the union have the power to stop reopening. And he is likely correct. A series of structural factors are creating enormous pressure towards reopening, and it’s unclear whether we have the strength to resist them. 

First in those factors is De Blasio’s own policies. The new opt-in period will create internal pressure within the school system to push remote educators back into buildings. Many elementary educators are still working remotely via medical accommodations; but with more children coming to buildings, the discrepancy between an in-person student body and remote workforce will grow. The staffing quandaries this creates will incentivize principals to pressure remote teachers back into buildings. 

This is in line with the city and DOE’s general approach this year of setting remote learning up to fail. By trying to do “blended” and remote learning at once, instead of fully committing to remote learning and all the resources and training it required, the DOE guaranteed that remote learning was a disaster for children and families. 

The second factor is the stage of the pandemic we are now in. The winter gave us daily case numbers that were higher than the pandemic’s peak in March of last year; but hospitalizations and deaths are much lower. The national uptick in cases, along with the spread of more contagious variants is deeply worrying. But the sharply seasonal nature of the virus means that as the weather gets warmer, there’s good reason to expect cases to trend downwards. And vaccination is proceeding apace, with 30,000 educators having received at least one dose and vaccinations soon available to all adults. State politicians have been able to project a sense of increasing safety thanks to these conditions. 

These conditions have encouraged employers, with the help of leaders like Governor Cuomo, to reopen. As bosses reopen other parts of the economy, parents will be pushed back to work and less able to say “no” to in-person learning.

For these reasons educators are in a contradictory position vis-à-vis reopening. Structural conditions are working against continued remote learning. The tenuously positive outlook for vaccination beating back COVID is creating divisions among the wider universe of education workers and parents who we want to appeal to, who are exhausted of remote learning and tentatively optimistic about the conditions for safe learning. Those in favor of a full, immediate reopening likely remain a small minority. But there is likely a larger pool who have simply lost interest in the reopening debate, whether because it’s eclipsing their other issues or because they feel they have no control over it. We risk looking orthodox or myopic to those educators. And finally, we must keep our eye on the long-term risk that distance learning could become a tool for tech companies and privatizers to decentralize and weaken public education. 

At the same time, we know that a full reopening is not yet safe and that we have a duty to be honest about that to our school community. The pace of the statewide vaccination campaign is encouraging, but we are still far from the 50-80% vaccinated needed for herd immunity. We know that many of our school parents are among the groups who have had the least access to vaccination and who are at the most risk for serious or fatal illness if they contract COVID-19. We know that the PPE handed out in schools is distributed unevenly and usually means surgical masks instead of N95s. We know that the new guidance on 3 feet of social distancing has more to do with allowing more children in classrooms than the science of transmission. We know that the data showing that transmission in schools is lower than community transmission may have everything to do with the safety structures currently in place—and that this data may change for the worse if we erode those structures too quickly. 

When evaluating the next steps for UFT members organizing in their schools, we should consider two factors. First, after taking stock of both of our victories and our losses, what is winnable on this new political terrain? Second, how are our coworkers feeling and what could we realistically organize them to do?

Preventing reopening, at least in the current hybrid form, is not possible, no matter how opposed to it we may be. In a way, we’re the victims of our own success: in a remote model, it’s harder to organize your coworkers and any “sickouts” or labor actions have less impact. Without this structural basis for organizing, our demands are not backed up by power. 

We can, however, fight to maintain the safety standards that were agreed to in September, but have been unevenly applied. First and foremost, we must preserve the “two-case rule” in which a school building closes if two unrelated positive cases are detected within a ten-day span. This is one of the strongest tools we have to prevent community spread and we cannot let the UFT abandon it. Second, we need to maintain the standard of six feet of social distancing. The CDC has said itself that this new guidance is based on what’s required to reopen schools rather than purely on the science. There is a good chance that by the end of the summer, the vaccination campaign will have been successful enough that “back to normal” is possible. But rushing in before all our communities are protected is not safe. 

We should also begin to build support for the long-term demands that COVID showed us are necessary. First, pandemic or no pandemic, officials need to reduce class sizes and hire more teachers. We’ve known that large class sizes aren’t good for learning, and now we know they’re also bad for health. Second, we need to stop budget cuts and dramatically expand investment in our schools, especially for infrastructure improvements that would improve health and safety. We should have our eye on making these demands central to the 2022 contract campaign and beyond.

But the most important thing to keep our eyes on is our coworkers. We can name some issues now that we know we have to organize around once we return to school buildings. But we also have to keep in mind that due to the structure of remote learning, we’ve been isolated from each other for a year now. Our first priority when high school teachers re-enter the buildings is to have conversations with our coworkers, listen to them, and find out what their issues are. We may encounter new problems as we work with students whose situations have become more complex over the past year, and need new kinds of support from coworkers and the DOE. As the ground shifts beneath our feet, we can’t say that we have all the answers right now. But we do have the tools to reconnect with our coworkers and learn what demands they are ready and willing to fight for. 

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