Issue 1

Grist for the Mill: School Reopening During the Pandemic

Schools reopenings during the pandemic have and will continue to lay bare the capitalist logics at work in the contemporary classroom. Socialist teachers must bring militancy and trenchant political analysis into their unions.

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My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“Dulce et Decorum est”, Wilfred Owen, 1920

It is fitting that Wilfred Owen ends his famous anti-war poem, penned less than a year prior to his own demise in the very war he was railing against, in a classroom. As educators, we are asked to regurgitate the same propaganda to our students, with all the assumptions, lies, and rationalizations that come with it. Whatever our intentions, teachers’ function in society is conceived of as preparing our students to be grist for the capitalist mill, one way or the other— to die gloriously for the economy.

Most of the time, this is a long game; however, during this pandemic we’ve seen in real time the devaluation of life that occurs with capitalism in crisis. This mindset must be confronted and beaten back with solidarity and socialism. The time for playing defense and holding on to what we have has come and gone. It is time to strike, organize, and win.

Death Drive of Capital Laid Bare

“These kids have got to get back to school. They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.” -Missouri Governor Mike Parson.

What’s missing from Parson’s quote, aside from any understanding of how the novel coronavirus works or the disturbing new trend of serious complications in young people, is the risk to educators. When there is an outbreak in a school—like this extreme example from May in Israel—it gets bad fast. Such an outcome is inevitable if the push to reopen schools succeeds, and this push has now become a central plank in an increasingly frantic campaign. The Trump administration’s erratic response has taken on an even darker character now as a patchwork shutdown and reopening process across the country has disintegrated into a proxy war for November’s election. Blue-state governors, battling their own chambers of commerce and big donors, face off against a federal government intent on weaponizing every agency against them.

The Department of Education is leading the charge, threatening to cut school funding if reopenings are delayed. These efforts are part of a fatal class war being waged by our federal and state governments. Republicans and Democrats talk about acceptable deaths knowing full well that it is the poor who will be compelled to risk their lives and die. Working class kids need to be parked somewhere while their parents are sacrificed to the economy, while the wealthy work from home and hire private tutors.

Liberal Complicity

The CDC also released their guidance, aiming to appease both liberals and conservatives:

Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults. At the same time, the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant. Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities. These students are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.

-CDC, 7/23/2020

This language echoes pressure coming from certain parent groups, and even some self-described leftists, who uncritically parrot these lines about the value of schooling in development without mentioning the psychological impact of mass death. This discourse will allow anything but an actual solution. We must lift up a central organizing demand: pay people to stay home and improve the health care they receive.

This argument from the CDC also speaks to an intentional “failure” of capitalism. Schools are now the sole providers of social services for poor students. Health care, counseling, food, and childcare are building blocks of a good life and an effective education. These services are almost solely provided—even in the bluest of blue cities like San Francisco—by the school system.

School workers wear many hats that, in a just society, would be worn by a variety of workers, including nurses, counselors, social workers, coaches, mentors, psychologists, and more. Instead, these roles are often filled by school workers who have received training in few, if any, of these roles. The profession counts on teachers to not be able to say “no” to duties they may be unprepared to perform when they know a child’s wellbeing is at stake. If not you, then who?

On March 13, as Coronavirus was already ravaging the city, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio remarked, “We are going to do our damnedest to keep the schools open.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made similar remarks: “For many families, school is childcare. There are school districts in wealthier states where one parent can stay home or hire caregivers, but then there’s everyone else.” Unsurprisingly, this led to a disproportionate amount of deaths in low income communities, predominantly communities of color. The Intercept confirmed what we all suspected: the rich can afford to stay home and isolate, while the poor cannot.

As San Francisco debates a school reopening plan that includes in person classes for our most vulnerable students, we will continue to see these disparities in disease and death. We on the left must not cede ground to twisted capitalist logic that compels the poor to risk death for basic services. Instead, we must use the little power we have to make the broad, class-based demands our survival depends on.

The Coming Wave of Privatization

Education represents one of the last remaining unionized groups, accounting for around ⅓ of all public sector workers. The classrooms are in many ways the last battleground in destroying the public sector. Recently, wealthy, influential—and largely white—parents have leaned into resegregating schools. New York City is one of the most segregated districts in the country, where a combination of extreme gentrification, de facto redlining, and school choice have resulted in ⅔ of all elementary schools being completely unrepresentative of the neighborhoods they serve. When COVID hit, it hit these schools hard.

As Naomi Klein described in The Shock Doctrine, crises like Coronavirus are great opportunities for the privatizers. Automation of education is the ultimate goal of these privatizers: eliminate the worker. The road to that horizon is paved with union-busting, time-tracking, banked curriculum, and more. A workforce that returns to work via distance learning without any strikes, stoppages, or mass coordination is doomed. Distance learning must be temporary, workers must be protected, and the economy must be held hostage to the needs of the many. We can and must crush the privatizers before it’s too late. We must refuse to be grist for their mill.

Subverting Worker Power

As it stands, our teachers unions are not prepared for the battle we face. The approach to austerity from the progressive left has decimated union power: withholding labor is never an option, and instead we’re asked to endure the “tough times.” Of course, such “temporary” cuts always seem to end up permanent even when times get good again.

This is why educators in Oklahoma and Arizona had to organize wildcat strikes, and why blue state teachers’ strikes in Oakland, LA, and Chicago ended prematurely. This is why San Francisco teachers haven’t struck in over four decades. Teachers don’t yet have the guiding politics to lead them into real confrontations with capital. We are dying in the shadow of the Democratic Party which, by default, has become the party of the teachers unions.

Union leadership, in concert with the Democratic Party, continues to blunt any working class effort to gain power and subvert it into incremental “gains.” Until there is a concerted push to separate from the Democratic Party and remake these unions, we will continue to face cruel austerity, political incoherence, and a lack of solidarity between school workers and the communities in which they work.

What is to Be Done

The road ahead requires radicalizing our unions, pushing them leftward and into confrontation with both Democrats and Republicans. That means building solidarity based on shared principles and class position with the families and communities we work alongside. It means expanding work slowdowns, stoppages, and strikes when they face resistance, not capitulating and grabbing at the first concession. It means embracing the principles of class warfare, of joining the class war already in progress—the one we are losing. This means being unafraid to call ourselves socialists and apply Marxist analysis in our workplaces and our unions. We must reach out to revolutionary currents within our communities and join forces, take risks and pick each other up when we face harm.

As socialist teachers, we have cast a wide net looking for potential comrades: the people who stepped up when their fellow educators were in need, who took the time to talk to teachers new to the classroom or the community. We have led struggles against overreaching administrations attempting to pick off “troublesome” staff members. We have faced termination from those same overreaching administrators. But we stood strong, and our co-workers rallied to our defense. They appreciated their fellow workers willing to show solidarity and bring the struggle for social justice into the building, and while they haven’t yet all signed on to our socialist programs for our schools, we’ve shown to them that winning through collective struggle is possible.

We’ve faced both wins and losses in our organizing, but the impact of clearly articulating revolutionary demands in the workplace cannot be overstated. This is organizing: doing the mundane work, making the connections, showing up for your colleagues, all the while never compromising your politics for the sake of temporary power. This work can be replicated and improved upon in your school site and community.

Coronavirus is not the crisis. It is the latest in a series of crises which will continue to accelerate as Capitalism faces an end to its gospel of growth and the ruling class squabble over what is left in the face of rising seas and climate refugees. We will only win united, fighting and organizing on the principle of solidarity. We must assert our right to exist, survive, and thrive. We proclaim: “We won’t die for your capitalist economy. If we are to die, we will die fighting for a better tomorrow.”

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