Public Education and the Fight for our Children’s Future
With Coronavirus cases spiking across the country, everyone from CEOs to the President, state governors, and the corporate media are calling for schools to open “to save the economy.” Most parents, teachers, and students face a brutal choice — physically reopen schools and risk their health, or keep children home and not go to work.
It didn’t have to be this way. The government refused to provide adequate unemployment or health care, thus making families desperate to work. Many European countries covered 60 percent to 90 percent of workers’ wages to keep families home. Government could solve these problems with a national program, but in the U.S., everyone is on their own.
No country has tried to open schools with the virus spreading like here in the U.S. Currently cases are surging nationally; over 100,000 youth tested positive since June. The Federal government also demands that all Indigenous children in reservation schools attend school physically, instituting once again the genocidal policies of the last 400 years. There aren’t enough tests or testing. If you can’t test and trace, there’s no way you can keep a school safe from coronavirus if the virus is raging out of control in the community.
Before schools physically reopen, certain principles of public health must be established:
- No reopening without full scientific best practices. So far, this is seriously lacking.
- No reopening without overcoming the vast practical hurdles. These steps require more funding, yet the funding to address these problems does not exist.
- No reopening without total and complete public transparency. So far, decisions are made behind closed doors. Planning is slapdash and haphazard at best. Teachers, unions, and communities must be fully involved as co-equals with politicians in establishing policies.
- Schools should continue to be food centers for communities, but upon reopening they should reinstate and expand what government has cut — access to nurses, vision services, mental health, and cultural support. Communities need these services now more than ever.
- We must hold government accountable for securing public health and public safety. Governments must guarantee safe childcare. Public schools are still controlled locally, hence we must exert our power to protect our children. We have no choice.
We’ve already seen what happens when we use shortcuts and go against public health science. Other countries that have successfully suppressed the level of COVID-19 have one thing in common —a national coordinated strategy.
The U.S. response to the virus has been criminally incompetent and deadly, and intentionally fractured. Rather than organizing a coordinated national response, the federal government has put corporations in total control. Corporations demand their workers return to work so they can make a profit from their investments. But they refuse to provide childcare.
These same people, who previously had no trouble closing schools throughout neighborhoods and subjecting children to hours of high-stakes testing at computer screens, now state that keeping children out of school denies them the emotional, social, and knowledge growth they desperately need. Suddenly, also, the teachers who were degraded as the worst problem with public schools, then were called heroic essential frontline workers, are now vilified if they resist risking their lives in unsafe classrooms.
Schools are opening, district-by-district across the country, while nail shops and bars remain closed. Many schools have easily-contaminated recycled air throughout whole buildings instead of windows that can be opened to bring in the fresh air. Taking steps as minimal as social distancing will cost vast amounts. Little things become big problems. Before, a Kindergarten teacher could take the whole class to the bathroom at once. Now a class of 15 that requires 6 feet of spacing forms a line 90 feet long! And how exactly are bathrooms going to be sanitized?
COVID-19 aggravates every problem that existed before it appeared. There are no clear guidelines, and planning is confused and hidden from the public. Personal Protective Equipment is in short supply. School budgets are being slashed even as the costs of adequately dealing with the virus skyrocket. School nurses were virtually eliminated before the virus hit. Now, what exactly is going to happen if a child feels sick?
The gap between school finances, destroyed by the virus, and the greatly increased costs, also caused by the virus, runs into billions. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has estimated the funding required to reopen public schools safely is at least $116.5 billion.
Physically reopening? If So, How?
America’s schools do not meet even the most lenient advice for physical reopening, which are found on the White House website. Teachers advocate no physical reopening until no new cases arise for 14 days, the time for symptoms to appear. The virus is now spiking in schools that have already physically opened. Students, parents and teachers who don’t blindly accept this threat to their lives are refusing to go onto unhealthy campuses or even resigning. Meanwhile, private schools are reopening and touting that they already have small class sizes. We are witnessing the creation of a market for vouchers that will hasten the privatization of public education.
Once again, as with the George Floyd rebellion, our character as a people will be tested. The challenge today for the American people is to stand up for the right of quality public education for all. The virus proves that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. As we can now see, the same is true for our schools.
Yes, the mental, physical and emotional health of children is critical. No, this cannot be achieved by simply physically reopening schools under current conditions. We will find ways to bring young people back together again for education, but it means completely rethinking how to accomplish that.
Immediate and Future Challenges
Even before the virus, schools were the anchor of the community. Closing public schools is a method of gentrification and community dispossession. Now we see once again that healthy schools create healthy communities and healthy communities create healthy schools.
Whether schools physically open or not, the nature of public education has dramatically changed. Through the spring, public schools offered online distance learning. As students graduated in June, Zoom Video Communications, Inc announced that it was being used by 100,000 schools globally.
Education has gone from being supported by technology to being dependent on technology and from being corporate-supported to becoming corporate-dependent. Corporations like Pearson and Google tout online education as a way of saving money in tough times, but this just leads to private profits for corporations.
Under corporate control, online learning, distance learning, and virtual charter schools are a dismal failure. The California Attorney General is investigating the entire virtual charter industry for putting private profit ahead of quality education. The largest virtual charter corporation, K12 Inc, “educates” 120,000 students, making $900 million in revenue, all from taxpayer money earmarked for public education. Only half of the online high school students graduate within four years, compared to 84 percent nationally. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in virtual charters do so poorly in math and English that it’s as if they didn’t attend school at all.
Most teachers estimate that only about 25 percent of their students do well in online education. The education model is the same test and fail regime that students could not succeed in even before the virus. Most students have trouble learning through screens since the other vital ways that humans learn are eliminated or reduced. And, of course, how does a family provide enough laptops for every child, much less the expense of connecting through Wi-fi?
Government at every level has invited billionaires, tech corporations, and CEOs to determine what public education will look like as the virus rolls on. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo invited Bill Gates and Google into the state to “re-imagine public education.” In other words, government is systematically replacing elected officials, who are accountable to the people, with private, unaccountable capitalists in a campaign to defund and privatize public schools and debase the purpose of education.
The ethical and moral implications of this corporate effort to terminate the education our children and communities need are highly disturbing. There is little public discussion about this even as government proclaims online learning as the miracle of the age.
The Fight For A New Model For Education is Necessary
As Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union, says, it is impossible to fix schools if government doesn’t also provide for the needs of the communities in which the school is located. Public schools must prioritize the wellbeing of students, educators, and the community. A healthy school system requires long-term public investment, not corporations that offer short-term, top-down, individual solutions.
We can fight for an entirely different model of public education that meets people’s most fundamental needs. United Teachers Los Angeles believes “that every child has the right to attend a high-quality sustainable community school in their neighborhood… leveraging public school to become hubs of educational, recreational, cultural, health and civil partnerships, improving the education of children in the community and revitalizing the entire community”. Community Schools — a program that has been successful in a number of communities — already addresses these needs.
As the virus peaked in New York City, government opened Enrichment Centers for children of essential workers. These centers combined science with childcare, public health, and public education to create new ways to meet children’s needs, with very little viral spread.
Indigenous Peoples in Mexico, Canada, and the US have long defied the system of educational oppression historically forced on them and now being forced on all of us. They have developed models for transforming education as an inclusive, respectful, creative, collective education incorporating their language, culture, and learning styles.
Schools in Crisis
U.S. schools at every level are facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. By the time the 2020-2021 school year is over, corporations and governments — if unopposed — will establish a degraded model that works against the interests of our children while making billions for the elite.
When government can bailout billionaires with trillions of dollars, we see that the money exists to build a system of public education that can build the leaders we need to transform the world. Teaching today must unleash the marvelous powers and creativity of our collective humanity. We need this now more than ever. Students are the people the world needs today to overcome the challenges of a desperately sick population, a sick society, and a sick planet.
Scientifically, we see that the only solutions that can work must be organized at the national level by government to benefit everyone. Just as COVID-19 demands a national coordinated strategy, the problems of safely reopening public schools demand national solutions. Not piecemeal, local, short-term quick fixes. Instead, upgrade our schools by combining a public health approach with a public schools approach. This moment requires communities to use their political power to reopen safely and reclaim public schools to address our needs.
September/October 2020 Vol30.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011