The Perfect Reopening Doesn’t Exist

On September 9, NYC public school staff returned to school buildings to prep for in-person reopenings. Many of them walked into hazardous conditions: yellow sink water, un-sanitized desks and door handles, inadequate PPE, and ventilation that didn’t pass the “toilet paper test.” Teachers at nineteen District 75 schools, which serve children with disabilities, called in health violations on their campuses. It was clear that the September 1 closed-door deal between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership and Mayor Bill De Blasio to reopen schools “safely” had been a complete failure.

In early July, when the Trump administration ordered schools to reopen for in-person instruction or risk losing funding, even in districts with high COVID infection rates, the anti-scientific character of the threat was blatant. The call to reopen no matter what was a hail Mary appeal to white-collar suburban voters, to position himself as the hero that reopened the economy come November. The move was also politically expedient for his education secretary Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly attacked public schools and pushed for charters throughout her tenure.

However, it was not Trump that signed off on the chaotic and complicated hybrid plan of the NYC public school system. It was Democrats De Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, who pay lip service to science and “listening to the experts” while effectively sending teachers and students to their deaths in order to get parents back to work as more sectors reopen.

New York City’s reopening plan has been a mess that keeps getting worse. The start of in-person schooling has been pushed back twice now because of poor preparation. The DOE is now left scrambling to fill 4,500 educator jobs with just a few days’ notice—and this is only half of the positions that principals have said they’ve needed for months. DOE Chancellor Carranza has proposed hiring CUNY adjuncts, grad students, and education majors, who now have little time to be trained in K-12 education, as substitute teachers, instead of creating new unionized teacher jobs, all with the tacit consent of the UFT leadership. The whole affair has the character of a sick science experiment, with teachers and students as the guinea pigs.

A recent poll of a small number of parents in New York revealed that working-class parents are hesitant to send their children back to school: “Black, Latinx, and low-income parents are disproportionately likely to be wary of reopening school buildings this fall,” and just 34% of Black parents wanted their kids to attend in-person classes. Even some homeless families, for whom online learning has been largely disastrous, have expressed hesitation about the hybrid learning plan: “[homeless parents] believe this plan is not sufficient, but they don’t have the opportunity of working remotely or carving out time with their boss to do the virtual learning,” according to a recent New York Times article.

Still, about half of students in the city are set to begin part-time in-person instruction over the coming weeks under the DOE’s latest “staggered opening” plan. Of these students, how many are going because their parents had no choice but to send them to school so they could report back to work?

Parents, students, and teachers alike have called for a fully remote semester, with many protests outside of school buildings in recent weeks. Teachers have expressed fear that the hybrid reopening plan is doomed to fail. The plan seems to them like deliberate sabotage from the Department of Education and the city government. The school year’s repeated delays have prevented teachers from lesson planning effectively and have thrown a wrench in working parents’ childcare plans. Meanwhile, charter schools, which run independently from the DOE, have had months to prepare for online instruction. The hybrid model’s inevitable disaster may push more students into charter schools in the coming years, further crushing public education and weakening unionized labor. The unions of custodial staff and cafeteria workers in public schools have also expressed safety concerns about reopening, calling for a delayed start to in-person classes.

The anemic UFT leadership, who hyped up a potential strike before ultimately hiding behind the state’s Taylor Law, has shown itself completely unable to represent the interest of the teachers or students it claims to serve. To illustrate, president Mulgrew conceded the demand for daily testing of all students and teachers and accepted testing of a random sample of 10% of the entire school system on a monthly basis. Instead of posing serious opposition to De Blasio’s delusional hybrid plan, it has at best managed only to delay the inevitable for a few weeks at a time.

At a time when the coronavirus severely restricts mass organizing, the political leaders of the bourgeoisie, not only in the traditional political parties but also in trade unions and NGOs, have been emboldened to behave in the most cowardly and shamefaced ways with little fear of resistance from the rank and file masses they are supposed to lead and serve. In a time of crisis, bold deeds become necessary; yet we have heard nothing but loud talk of strikes, followed by the quiet whimper of surrender at the decisive moment just in time to compromise with the enemy.

Higher education has fared no better in reopening. The strengthening ties between the university and financial capital mean that schools have a fiscal need to reopen their doors: they face diminished endowments, plummeting revenue, and their creditors. They can’t lose out on ancillary revenue from things like parking and athletics. And so, campuses have reopened, with predictably disastrous results at schools from UNC-Chapel Hill to SUNY Oneonta. To cover up their own hastily concocted reopening plans, university administrators have placed the responsibility and blame on individual students, who are punished up to expulsion for violating social distancing rules (with schools keeping their tuition money anyway, as was the case at Northeastern).

Of note is the alliance formed between universities and small capitalists who have been ruined by the economic crisis. When pressed on his plans to reopen campus, Purdue president Mitch Daniels countered that not reopening would “inflict great harm on [local merchants].” Even though the reopening of campuses in college towns has been linked to mass community outbreaks, much of the rhetoric around reopening has focused on the plight of the small business owner who needs college students back in town to spend money.

The gap between private and public colleges has widened even further. Private schools have been more likely to fully reopen than public schools. For example, CUNY is following a hybrid model, with 95% of classes being held remotely. The long-term decimation of CUNY, much like the city’s public high schools, has meant that a safe full reopening is not possible at an institution which just laid off 3,000 adjunct professors and already struggled with decaying infrastructure and a lack of basic resources like soap in the bathrooms before the pandemic. What sort of leadership and resistance has the CUNY faculty’s union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) offered in response to a layoff of about 10% of their membership? With a lawsuit that was effortlessly swatted away by Attorney General Letitia James (the same politician who denied Black Panther Party veteran and political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim’s request for release, which we wrote about earlier this year).

Many of the same issues with online learning exist at CUNY as at the public high schools. Students who can’t learn effectively from remote classes are at risk of dropping out or delaying their studies. We’ve already seen this start to happen: low-income students have been twice as likely to drop out of school this fall.

The fact is that there is no good solution to school reopenings under capitalism. On the one hand, remote education has failed the most vulnerable students in the system. A pivot to online learning would present an opportunity for capitalist education reformers to further push privatized solutions and charter schools (see Andrew Cuomo on the “old model” of the classroom). On the other hand, the systematic gutting of public school funds on all levels has meant that a safe return to in-person instruction is next to impossible at the current juncture. For NYC public schools, to go ahead with reopenings now means certain student and educator deaths. The current education crisis is just one aspect of the larger global crisis: principally a political and economic crisis of capitalism, and only secondarily a health crisis.

In light of this situation, we’re calling on all progressive students to join us in taking up the following tasks:

  1. To carry out concrete analyses of the current situation as it develops and agitate among our peers at every opportunity, including in our classes, at social gatherings, and on social media. We must investigate and clarify the links between the current crisis in education and the capitalist system.
  2. To form a revolutionary pole of extreme opposition and launch an unsparing attack on the treacherous opportunists within the ranks of the mass movement such as the UFT and PSC leaderships. We must spare nothing in criticizing and exposing every betrayal and misstep taken by these leaders while supporting the struggle to build independent and democratic trade unions.
  3. To work for the construction of permanent organizations such as the May Day Student Organization, which can develop revolutionary consciousness around the slogan, “It is capitalism that is sick and dying; let’s work for socialist revolution!” We must link our organizations with the coming resistance struggles in an orderly and disciplined way, as the crisis deepens and the capitalist onslaught against the masses continues.