Schools Should Not Re-Open for In-Person Learning in the Fall

Across the U.S., district, city, and state education administrators are making plans to re-open K12 schools and universities this fall. Most (all? “The vast majority of planning”?) plans are being made without any meaningful participation from students, education workers, or the community members who must grapple with the risks and effects of inevitable school-initiated COVID-19 outbreaks. Many already are, as limited summer school, camps, and extracurriculars moved forward only to be shut down as students and staff tested positive for the virus. 

Plans for school building re-openings, like plans for reopening most other aspects of social and economic life in the U.S., have been motivated only rhetorically by safety. In reality, state and federal lawmakers fear the scale of continued economic disruption to capital accumulation. While gestures are made toward getting “back to normal life” for the sake of everyone, ordinary folks have and continue to be refused the resources they need to weather the pandemic while many are forced to labor in their essential jobs for poverty wages. Five million people have lost their access to healthcare coverage during the pandemic. Tens of millions are perilously close to or have already experienced eviction as resources wane for rent relief. Many more are increasingly facing a future of debilitating debt. And, most people were already in a pretty bad spot pre-pandemic.

Students Left Behind?

The impacts of the COVID crisis are already incredibly unevenly felt along racial, gender, and class lines. As schools move forward with plans to reopen their buildings, many who have the resources will keep their children home. Rhetorically, administrators, economists, and policymakers argue that children, particularly working class children of color and children with disabilities, may be “left behind” in their learning. Re-opening, as doctors and policymakers argue, is critical for “at-risk” or “vulnerable” student communities. Key questions are: At risk from what? Vulnerable because of who? 

The rhetoric of “no child left behind” is that of an accountability regime premised on white supremacist standardized testing measures created to enforce and maintain racial, ability, and classed school segregation, privatize and de-unionize public schools, and enable private real estate development in neighborhoods identified as “failing” and “blighted” by educational and other data measures. The elite class pushing for U.S. school re-openings are using the language of educational and racial equity in the service of exacerbating the disparate racialized effects of the pandemic (mis)management. 

The structures of our racial and settler capitalist economic system care only about our capacity to produce profit. The official management of the pandemic has illuminated that, if we can’t, if we are surplus, we can get sick and, perhaps, die. If we get sick and don’t die, we can try to figure out how to pay off our exorbitant medical debt for the remaining years of our lives.

Many school districts and universities are offering virtual or hi-flex options for students, hoping to accommodate students (and some teachers) who are at higher risk of infection and complications. In K12, districts are purchasing corporate-produced “standards-aligned” online curriculum with such inspiring names as Edgenuity or Edmentum for virtual schooling. Teachers are being asked to undertake even more unpaid labor as they plan for all contingencies and learn new corporate-produced educational management systems. 

Big questions are left un- and under-answered about the livelihoods, logistics, and cost of caring for sick workers, sick students, working caregivers, and the criteria administrations will use for making decisions about intermittent shutdowns. As cases across the U.S. continue to climb and we inch closer to fall, these questions are increasingly prescient. Yet most of us who are educators, staff, students, and parents are (purposely?) left with destabilizing uncertainty over what next month may bring. 

Learning from the Resurgence in Social Movement and Solidarity Unionism

The recent resurgence in militant and social movement unionism across the nation in the last few years offers a window into the power and possibility of education workers, students, and community accomplices exercising their power to challenge and shape educational decisions that value life over profit and democracy over coercion. 

In recent years, militant union campaigns have struck for increased funding, sanctuary policies for undocumented families, increased support for students with disabilities, transformative and restorative approaches to discipline, abolishing testing regimes and their associated forms of rote instruction, and rent relief for students and educators. Educators and students have organized this summer to make schools safer by pushing for the abolition of police officers in schools, demanding Black lives must matter in education. A national campaign to Refuse to Return has been building momentum, offering education communities resources for their own local efforts. University Workers United for a Fair Future has been organizing nationally to address the disparate impact of the pandemic-fueled budget crises on contingent academic workers and students. Local educators and national educator networks are gathering educator and community input to do what the ruling class will not: ensure the rank-and-file has a say over their own conditions of work. 

As we learn in the IWW, a good organizing campaign takes time, relational work, and building trust. We don’t have the advantage of time, but education workers do have examples of organization and uprising in recent memory we can call upon to help us all respond, and join and influence already-in-motion responses, in this moment.  

The bottom line is, schools must only re-open on the terms of their rank-and-file workers, students, and their communities of caregivers. They must be provided with the tools, technologies, and economic resources they need to care for children at home and make the best of distance learning. Now, more than ever, schools must only re-open for forms of teaching and learning that can usher in a more just world that, above all, values life, community well-being, and reparation. 

Erin Dyke is a university worker in K12 teacher education and former early childhood educator.

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