On Aug. 3, hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members joined the Movement of Rank and File Educators – the MORE Caucus of the United Federation of Teachers – for the national day of action against unsafe school reopenings. The action began at the UFT headquarters, and marched to the New York City Department of Education ending with a rally at the Federal Building at Foley Square, to demand no school re-opening until there is no community transmission of the COVID-19.
As the virus disproportionately ravages Black and Brown communities, and safety standards crumble, speakers and community members connected the fight over reopening to the struggle to defund the police, fully fund schools, and make sure Black and Brown and low-income students, teachers and families have the resources needed to access remote learning safely.
Black teachers matter, Black students matter
Gina Lee, a member of MORE and Black Lives Matter at Schools, explained that the city’s powers-that-be “play into the values and mindsets of ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric when they cut nearly $1 billion dollars from education, and choose to ignore the calls to make the ultra-rich pay their fair share, they spend five hundred times more on militarizing our schools and communities than they do for education.”
Teachers have been in this fight since before the pandemic, she said. Last year, the DOE imposed a hiring freeze on custodians, announced lay-offs for 20,000 city workers, and failed to make any real plan to hire nurses and healthcare workers to properly staff the schools or for safe busing and transportation, particularly for students with special needs.
Kaliris Yimar Salas-Ramirez, President of Community Education Council 4 and a parent leader, added that there are classrooms without windows, and even more without HVAC systems and proper ventilation, yet teachers are expected to bear the burden of making those same spaces “safe” with social distancing, without any additional resources.
“Instead of focusing on making remote learning a more robust experience that centers equity in our communities, we’ve engaged in an exercise of futility.” She continued: “The PTAs on the Upper East Side that collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for their schools, they’re going to be fine. But what about the schools in East Harlem that get no money at all? An unsafe reopening would perpetuate the inequities that already exist in our education system, the most segregated in the country.”
“We will not die so the economy can get back to work”
Teachers, parents and healthcare workers spoke one after the other amplifying the message that schools and education are meant to nurture children, not kill them. As long as there is community transmission of the virus, re-opening the schools and workplaces, sending teachers and parents back into danger, means mass death. But activists also asked: Who benefits from “the economy” that politicians demand to reopen? The crowd recognized that the economy benefits the billionaire ruling class as it continues getting richer while Black and Brown students and families die.
Among the demands raised by rally participants are:
No return to in-person school until it’s safe: We need no new cases for 14 days, all health and safety measures implemented including consistent rapid testing, contact tracing, safe public transit and community input!
Substantial and continuous financial relief from the city, state and federal government for working parents, guardians, and all workers — inclusive of undocumented immigrants.
That our public schools are adequately funded according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity formula and given additional COVID aid so that every school has the staff and resources it needs to support students during learning in and outside of school buildings.
That New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tax the millionaires and billionaires of New York State to provide economic relief and support for working families and to fully fund our schools and communities.
Nothing about us without us: That parents, students and school staff are fully empowered and included in planning for eventual school reopening and equitable remote learning.
Fighting for the right to live
The rally attendees marched through Wall St. to the DOE headquarters chanting: “Black teachers matter! Black students matter!” and “Carranza, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” aimed at Richard Carranza, current New York City Schools Chancellor. Protesters carried a guillotine with the DOE letters painted on the top, and “US” at the bottom, being sacrificed for the profits of the rich by this department.
They carried body bags, and coffins with flowers to symbolize the humiliating way that the city has treated the bodies of those who died from COVID, shoving them in refrigerated trucks. The names and pictures of teachers lost to COVID, such as Kimarlee Nguyen, were held up.
At the closing rally, Karla Reyes, a NYC special education teacher and member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, reminded the crowd that if the schools had closed just one week earlier in March, tens of thousands of people would have never been infected in the first place. The struggle now is to prevent the city government from sacrificing so many thousands of lives again. In the largest school system in the country, Reyes emphasized that “teachers are playing a key role in exposing the real enemy and the shortcomings of this government.”
“Teachers,” Reyes affirmed, “are making an active choice to fight for what we all deserve, which is the right to live.” Educators and their many allies will continue to fight to make sure New York City does not sacrifice any lives for profit.