In New Jersey, it’s a fight between the DOE and teachers: Teachers Are Poised to Win!

Several weeks ago, my sister and I had a rather uncomfortable conversation with our mother about her return to school in the September. Leading up to it, the state had been adamant that students be in the classrooms learning—even in the middle of a pandemic. Jersey City and other schools seemed poised to bring my mother and other teachers back into overcrowded and severely underfunded buildings with no safety protocol and no clean water. So, we had the conversation

I should not have to have a conversation about what we should do, as her daughters, if my mother got sick. Does she want to be resuscitated or put on life support if she is deteriorating? How long does she want to be on a ventilator if her lungs get that bad? Has she got her will in order? She didn’t sign anything from the school district, did she?

We had this conversation because we knew that social distancing cannot take place in a school where my mother teaches nearly thirty students a day. Kids would not have been required to wear masks, but mother would have had to. They needed to be six feet apart. Can rooms handle thirty kids separated by six feet? Or what about if the classroom was split, and fifteen students attended in the early morning and fifteen attended in the afternoon? Teachers would still be interacting with 30 students, possibly spreading COVID to students from the first half of the day to the other. 

The absurdity of the school district for going through hoops to try and open cannot be ignored. Parents in poverty who cannot afford to keep their children home because they have work will be forced to risk their children’s health while parents in the increasingly gentrified city can. The demand to bring students back is only a demand to return their parents to exploitative work without policies in place that would have helped those families to begin with. New Jersey is the fifth wealthiest state in the country. In certain neighborhoods of Jersey City alone (Liberty Park), the median income level for residents is $139,750; 2.54x times the national median. We could have funneled the wealth of our state into funds that New Jerseyans could have used to stay home with their children: universal basic income, cancelling rents and mortgages, and funding mutual aid programs for those in need; we could have thoroughly cleaned and updated old school buildings and taken over electrical grids to give people power and free internet access. I bet, we could even have created a model of universal healthcare so that residents didn’t fear going to the doctor if they exhibited the symptoms of COVID, or the hospital if it were too severe. Instead, we did the bare minimum and are angered when people want to demand that they have to go back to work—and then blamed everything on the people who were getting an extra six hundred dollars from unemployment, even if they were laid off. And we’ve asked the business in the state to foot the bill, as philanthropic. I wonder how much tax write-offs they’ll get. 

I heard Bon Jovi opened a third Soul Kitchen in the state. Well, Bon Jovi wouldn’t have had to open a third soup kitchen if we taxed Bon Jovi relative to his income and spent that money on creating policies that address food insecurity. 

I watched as Senator Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat that helped shape Christie’s tax breaks during his administration while demonizing teachers for asking too much from the state, being hailed as a hero of New Jersey Public Schools during the pandemic. Was this the same man? Yes. But his collective amnesia is striking given everything he did to make sure the schools didn’t have what they needed to face this crisis. What a hero. 

I, as I’m sure many children of teachers are doing right now, am watching in horror as the fears of the faculty and students are consistently being ignored for the rush to return to school. The push to have in person classes, the desire to go back to normal. And this is not just the great state of New Jersey, which has worked hard in being one of the very few states to limit the amount of exposure to COVID on their citizens (though our rate of transmission is on the rise yet again). This is everywhere: from New York City, to Los Angeles and Chicago. 

And while city council’s and politicians demand schools reopen, teachers won’t go down without a fight. 

The most militant organizing is coming from the teachers and their unions over the safe return to the classroom. In New York, teachers brought coffins and a guillotine to the NYC DOE in protest to the city’s reopening plan. Educators and parents were appalled by De Blasio’s insistence that it was safe the open the country’s biggest school system amid the pandemic. 

In Chicago, Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Public Schools announced the decision to begin the school year with fully-remote learning, with the tentative goal to get students, “back to class, at least part-time by November.” The decision was, maybe not so coincidentally, came as the possibility of a possible strike vote from the Chicago Teachers Union began and as COVID-19 cases in Chicago trended upwards. 

These trends of teachers’ organizing is not an anomaly, it has created a storm. What I have been arguing with my mother is the fact that she—and her fellow teachers—have power in the union and the decision to keep her students and herself safe. Educators have always understood that the withholding of their labor can create positive changes in their lives and the lives of their students. Now their turning their power on making sure children in low income areas remain safe and healthy, with no risk of getting sick:

In New York City, parents, students, and teachers will be marching from their union headquarters down to the Department of Education. In Los Angeles, activists are organizing a car caravan, first outside the LA Chamber of Commerce and then around the Los Angeles Unified School District building. “We’re kicking it off at the LA Chamber because even during Covid, this is a time when a lot of corporations and Wall Street are making record-breaking profits,” explained Sylvana Uribe, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive group participating in the protest. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, teacher unions are calling on Comcast to improve the quality of its service and make it more affordable for families. In Phoenix, activists are planning to demonstrate outside their state capitol building, where educators can write letters to their elected officials about how they feel going back to school or, if they want, write their imagined obituaries.

Immediately after the stirrings from teachers unions across the country, the superintendent in Jersey City voted on August 6, 2020, to move to remote learning for the month of September; I am relieved that my mother will not have to face her potential mortality for her job. And I wonder if it is because we’ve woken a giant in red that the superintendent even backed down. 

Teachers and their unions are waking up and ruffling their feathers, ready for a fight. And this is a fight that educators are poised to win. After all, it is between life and death; why should students and educators die for Trump and DeVos? 

(Photo Credit 1: NY Post / Dan Herrick) (Photo Credit 2: Al Jazeera)