Why the NYC school opening plan is racist

The article below is adapted from a talk given by New York City teacher Shaniqua Pippen at a recent NYC virtual forum, “Fight Against Racist and Unsafe School Re-openings.” Pippen is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and of the new national organization of socialist teachers, Reds in Ed.

Despite organized resistance from teachers and families, New York City officials are continuing with a proposal to reopen schools for in-person education, putting working-class communities of color at massive risk for a new spike in COVID-19 infections.

Any analysis of school re-openings must grapple with our context of capitalism and white supremacy. Through this lens, we see how blatant corporate politicians’ lies are, and what really must be done to support our communities.

New York City is the largest school district in the nation, with 1,866 public schools and 260 charter schools. Of its over 1.1 million students, 66% are Black and Latino, and 72.8% live in poverty. Some 114,085 students are housing insecure, 85% of whom are Black and Latino.

When schools reopen in a few days, most of the city’s students will be living in poverty, most of our students with special needs will still have unmet learning and social emotional needs, and over 100,000 young people will still be homeless and food insecure–a number rising every day.

COVID-19’s impact on oppressed communities

This is the situation that many of our students were in before this pandemic. We have been demanding adequate funding for our public schools in order for us to meet the needs of our most vulnerable populations–which happens to be communities of color and immigrant communities–long before COVID-19. These communities have suffered for centuries and are now being forced to suffer even more throughout this pandemic. 

COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact communities of color. They have faced the highest rates of infections, they have faced the largest numbers of death, they are facing the highest rates of unemployment and homelessness due to the virus, and when sick, either can’t access medical care, or are forced to deal with classism and medical apartheid. 

They also represent the majority of people considered essential workers due to the jobs made available to people from communities of color. To put the cherry on top, many financially and housing-stable families are forming “pods” and play groups to continue their child’s learning in a safer environment, while  working-class families of color have increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression as they are forced to choose between their livelihoods and the health of their children and families.  

Reopening myths mask real solutions to crisis

Reopening schools under the current unsafe conditions is not a matter of young people having their needs met. Reopening schools is about capitalist profit, framed as “the economy.” It serves to get the parents of these 1.1 million students back into work so that “the economy” no longer has to suffer. What is ignored is how Black and Brown and working-class communities will suffer immensely as a result

Caring for our students does not mean forcing parents to choose between sending their child into danger zones or losing their jobs. It also doesn’t mean pitting families and teachers–two groups of people responsible for our youth–against each other! 

Caring for students means cancelling rent. It means cutting the racist police and military budgets, and redistributing that money into education and the social programs communities of color need to thrive. It means putting money into public housing, where many families of color reside. It means not laying off 9,000 teachers, as Department of Education Chancellor Carranza promised to do if the city education budget is cut. It means providing consistent financial relief as governments have done in other countries such as Cuba.

It means city politicians and the rich making sacrifices for “the economy” for once, rather than forcing communities of color onto the front lines. Caring for our students means ensuring they don’t deal with unnecessary traumas, such as the trauma of loss due to coronavirus. Caring for our students means dismantling capitalism, the system which breeds the inequity that has plagued communities of color for centuries. 

Neglect ofstudents with disabilities

Officials pressing for reopening have also tried to advance their plan by arguing students with disabilities need in-person services and support. For once we agree: students with disabilities do need services and support. However, what officials leave out of the picture is that many of these services were never truly accessible before the pandemic, as countless students were neglected every year due to schools being deprived of the resources to meet their needs. The majority of these students come from communities of color. 

If city officials cared truly about the well being of our students with disabilities, school would not be the only place they can get these services. An adequately-funded social program would make support necessary for these students inside and outside of school. Instead, the government has cut budgets for education and social programs while increasing the budget of the New York Police Department, an extraordinarily racist institution. These cuts impact all students, and communities of color in particular, as corporate politicians have slashed millions each year resulting in cuts to programs like Fair Student Funding, and the complete closing of schools in majority-Black and Brown communities. While we talk about hybrid models and pods, many of our youth don’t even have a safe space to call school. 

Officials pretend to care for homeless students

Similarly, New York City School Richard Chancellor Carranza and Mayor Bill De Blasio have pretended to care about homeless students’ need for food and safe spaces. To truly tackle this issue, we must cancel rents and mortgages, especially considering that over 30% of Black and Brown households couldn’t pay their rent by the end of June. Many of these same people were already having issues making rent because of the rising cost of rent. As of 2019, statistics presented by the New York City Council show that students of color attend schools where 75% of the population experiences poverty! 

When we talk about reopening schools, we need to be talking about all of these issues as they relate to Black and Brown lives. It is not safe for communities of color to return to school buildings in the fall. We learned in March what the “special safety measures” would look like at many of our schools. They are haphazard at best, nonexistent at worst. We know first-hand that schools will not be shut down if there are any positive cases. We felt the impact when so many teachers and school staff died earlier this year despite self-reporting illness. 

Teachers and families unite for our communities

Educators and families know this reality, and so we have been fighting back. At my school, teachers came together to write a letter to families informing them about our concerns regarding the hybrid model bringing students back to schools, and building safety, especially since we share a building with another K-5 school. The response from families was overwhelmingly positive.

On the district level however, we were met with threats of retaliation. As our letter reached various schools as well as the New York Post, instead of inciting fear (as some tried to argue), it instilled a sense of empowerment in families and other schools who then began drafting their own letters. 

Afterwards, we began organizing across school districts, resulting in an online town hall with speakers from various backgrounds, such as school nurses, teachers, and families. Teachers have banded together to organize, working closely with the MORE (Movement and Rank and File Educators) caucus of the United Federation of Teachers. Government officials have not listened, and so teachers across the city are beginning to organize for a strike because we understand the full picture and refuse to allow capitalism to win.

People of color do not want to send their children to school because they know the risk due to the impact this virus is having on their communities, but they are forced to by capitalism! Their livelihoods are at risk because they are deemed essential workers but not provided with medical insurance, job security or paid sick leave.

This is why our demand to keep schools remote includes the demand to cancel rents and provide financial relief to all families, including immigrant families. 

We need at least 14 days of no new cases in any borough.  We need people of color off the front lines by demanding everyone receive financial support, and a cancellation of rent. We need an end to police terror and mass incarceration.

Ultimately, we need to be fighting to end this capitalist system that places profit over people and oppresses people of color through every single institution, including education. 

This fight against unsafe school openings is a fight we can and intend to win, much like our colleagues across the nation in places like Philadelphia, Newark, and California have done!

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