On Aug. 20, hundreds of teachers, families, and students rallied in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, calling on city officials to keep schools closed and control the COVID-19 pandemic. The anger was palpable in the crowd, as teachers and parents have gone to town halls, meetings, emailed, called, collected over 13,000 signatures and still received no response from the city government.
Alongside recent rallies and marches have been a series of virtual townhalls and feedback sessions, on Aug.19 and 20. Families and educators have spoken out at these events and been met with open hostility by the Department of Education, which has blatantly muted speakers that confront their dangerous reopening plans.
The rally was organized by Brooklyn Safe Schools with many organizations supporting such as the progressive MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, Black Lives Matter at School, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation – New York City.
New York is the only major city in the country where students and teachers are not returning to school remotely in September. This action was part of an ongoing battle against the reopening, and followed sham community input sessions which silenced families and teachers. The struggle is expected to deepen in coming weeks with the United Federation of Teachers prepared to go on strike. The city is playing hardball by withholding 20 percent of the education budget, threatening to make the cuts permanent unless an alternative plan is created. On Wednesday, Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that the cuts could result in the lay off of up to 9,000 teachers as well as the entirety of the school year taught remotely due to an inability to safely operate school buildings.
Martin, a Latino teacher organizer, stressed how educators’ duty is to “do no harm,” which includes stopping harm they would be paid to enact. Reopening schools, he continued, “is anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-disabled, it is systematic state violence.” He pointed out that one of his students contracted the virus, at school or during her commute, and then infected her entire family.
Other speakers exposed the racist lies of New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has led the push to reopen schools. While DeBlasio affirmed that the positivity rate for COVID was under 1 percent in New York City as a whole, that same rate in Black and Brown neighborhoods is much higher, for example up to 7 percent in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Students and families from those neighborhoods would bear the brunt of a new spike if schools reopen.
Protestors chanted “1 2 3 4 close the classrooms close the doors, 5 6 7 8 We won’t go until it’s safe,” “No justice, no peace, we won’t die for DOE,” “We need money for education, don’t have soap or ventilation,” as they marched to Chancellor Carranza’s luxury Park Slope home. A noise demonstration outside his building denounced his misleadership, lies, and the dangerous reopening plan he champions. The crowd also echoed demands for PPE and ventilation, smaller class sizes, cancellation of rents and mortgages, and real financial relief for working-class people as the necessary solution to this crisis.
Community members speak out, silenced by city officials
In addition to the rally, recent virtual forums have become a place of continued activism and intense clashes with city officials. On Aug. 19, the PEP (Panel for Educational Policy), consisting of 15 appointed members and Chancellor Richard Carranza, held a virtual public meeting where over 200 community members – a mix of educators, school faculty, parents, and students – attended to stop no in-person classes.
During the meeting, Carranza loudly and angrily interrupted a mother who was the sixth parent at this conference alone to raise issues with patterns of racism at the Conselyea School, Public School 132. He called her comments “slander” and instructed a moderator to “take control of this meeting” and mute the parent. The comments can be heard on the full recording of the PEP meeting. Carranza repeatedly dodged questions and attempted to pit families and teachers against each other, despite their unity in opposing reopening.
“We weren’t unsafe because of COVID; we were unsafe because of decades of neglect,” explained a teacher at the PEP meeting. Public schools have faced long-time budget deficits, low resources, and lack of quality instruction for students. All of this is rooted in structural racism, complicit leadership, over-policing and criminalizing behavior policies, disposability of young people needing special education services, and much more. “Any plan for schooling must address this explicitly,” said a Brooklyn teacher. Now is an opportunity to demand safe and equitable school conditions.
With the current reopening plans, families have the option to enroll their children in a “hybrid” model where students would physically attend school only some days out of the week. Although this makes it seem like families have freedom of choice, it still leaves working parents needing to find childcare during remote learning days, on top of bringing massive risk to their family’s health. Families have overwhelmingly chosen to enroll their children in full remote learning; however, only a fraction of the over one million families have completed the survey due to gaps in information and accessibility. Students without recorded responses are automatically enrolled in hybrid learning, which allows the city to uphold the narrative that reopening families desire in-person schooling. In actuality, numbers in favor of full remote learning are rising daily.
Years of school neglect mean massive COVID risk
Another virtual forum was held the next day, Aug. 20, where education workers, parents, and community members from NYC School Districts 1 and 2 shared concerns about the dangers of re-opening woefully underfunded NYC schools for in-person learning.
Teachers have seen years of neglected classrooms decaying, chronic understaffing, and lack of adequate supplies. Educator Jillian Fletcher remarked that a hybrid model makes spread of COVID-19 a “when” rather than an “if,” and noted that educators and families have little confidence that the DOE can make its schools– many of which lack basic facilities such as clean water fountains or working windows– safe during a pandemic.
A school nurse shared that her school is ill-equipped to deal with sick children, and that the DOE has yet to develop logistics for isolation, testing, screening and other critical safety measures. If a school even has nurses, they are largely underfunded and strained.
Shaniqua Pippen, school teacher and organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, explained what tackling this neglect would look like, saying “it means cutting the New York City Police Department and war budget, and redistributing money into education and the social programs our kids need to thrive. It means not laying off 9,000 teachers as Carranza promised to do if the city education budget is cut. It means providing financial relief so families do not have to choose between their jobs and the lives of their loved ones, as governments have done for people in other countries such as Cuba. Caring for our students means eliminating the issues of equity that exacerbate the issues faced by BIPOC communities right now in our school systems.”
Towards the end of the call, another teacher interjected that, as unionized workers, school employees can lead the way for those who are not in a union and therefore most vulnerable— including the essential workers the city government is claiming to represent in its push for an unsafe school reopening.
This is just a glance into the intense, disciplined, and mass-based organizing being led by educators in NYC. Families, teachers, workers, and students are sick and tired of being ignored by the system, and being forced to bear the burden of this crisis when the solutions are clear: invest in our schools, healthcare, cancel the rents, and provide the resources necessary to learn safely. But most of all, working-class communities of color are sick and tired of the politicians’ hypocritical pandering to the Black Lives Matter Movement while they are actively working to send Black and Brown teachers and families to their deaths. This struggle says: “We won’t let them!”