Lockdown or Reopen: Where Are the Politics?

As we reflect on 10 months of Covid-19’s impact on students and higher education, we must continue to stake out an independent political position against the false choice between reopening schools in dangerous conditions or distance learning, which has failed students who lack the resources necessary to succeed remotely. We analyze the situation and formulate demands regarding both approaches based on a working-class perspective.

How has student access to education been impacted by the pandemic?

On December 17, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that total enrollment in all higher education institutions for Fall 2020 decreased by 2.5 percent. This decline was not uniform across the sector. While enrollment among undergraduates dropped 3.6 percent, first-time freshmen enrollment was down by 13.1 percent. Public two-year colleges saw a 10.1 percent decline. By comparison, enrollment at for-profit four-year colleges rose 5.3 percent. Such significant and uneven drops in enrollment means enormous budget shortfalls in the next fiscal year. And for community colleges in particular, it means looming state budget cuts.

Which students have been the most impacted?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, those students who were less likely to receive postsecondary education during the pandemic are “minority, refugee, undocumented, and low income.” The worst drop-offs in immediate enrollment to higher education were among high school graduates from high-poverty, low-income, high minority, and urban high schools. For students from poor families, the immediate path to higher education (typically community colleges) was cut off. It was enough for the Student Clearinghouse Research Center director to speak of a “lost generation.” All of the preexisting equity gaps in higher education were exacerbated this semester.

How have institutions of higher education responded?

Institutions have seen waves of staff layoffs and furloughs, even including tenured professors. Jobs in food service, maintenance, housing, and custodial services have been cut by the hundreds. Conditions at reopened campuses have been appalling. A student at the University of Iowa tested positive for Covid-19, leading to a quarantine experience that involved dirty floors, a dirty sink, panic and exhaustion, and ants in their bed. In November, nurses at UCLA protested for more protection measures, such as immediate notice of exposure and guaranteed timely testing – the same measures already provided to student-athletes.

In September, we detailed the chaos of New York City’s public school reopening plan, concocted by Democrat politicians and the UFT leadership. Administrators and leaders at campuses in other states have not inspired more confidence. H. Neil Matkin, president of Collin College, a community college in Texas, had referred to the concerns over Covid-19 as “overblown” to the board of trustees. His administration rejected a resolution from the faculty committee recommending to move all courses online in the summer. A student later died from Covid-19, followed by a history professor. The administration intentionally kept faculty in the dark about the death of their colleague.

These anecdotes suggest that our characterization of New York’s reopening as a “sick science experiment, with teachers and students as the guinea pigs” applies to the nation’s schools as a whole. But not to worry, Boston University at least made an announcement for a policy granting posthumous degrees to those who die while attending.

Where should revolutionary students stand in response to the handling of the situation?

Militant students do not have to choose one of these two approaches to the pandemic situation – both options, in the manner that they have been carried out, prevent full and equal access to education in a safe environment. We don’t have to side with the Cuomos and de Blasios who hypocritically cry “listen to science!” while failing to provide adequate protections and resources, nor with the “Covid skeptics” who arrogantly deny real dangers and risk. Neither of these two positions represents the real needs of students or the working class.

Our task is to rally students to a revolutionary perspective by exposing how schools have mishandled both lockdowns and reopening. The lockdown could be managed in such a way that serves the interests of students and staff alike, ensuring that equal access to education is guaranteed and no jobs are lost, regardless of the costs. Instead, we have seen students from poor working families, already struggling with high costs of living and unemployment, excluded from higher education and left without the necessary technology to learn. We must call out the failure of those union leaders who compromise with the administration and allow jobs to be lost.

We have already established that the perfect reopening doesn’t exist under capitalism, where the university is generally a tool of class domination. Decimated budgets and lack of resources means that the necessary health and safety precautions for in-person instruction are nearly impossible to maintain. Students and staff are put in danger so that tuition can be collected. Every aspect of the current crisis has been an occasion for the bourgeoisie to attack the working people. We must ruthlessly criticize these attacks from a standpoint that opposes the anti-scientific thinking and “deep state” paranoia vocalized by various sections of the petty-bourgeoisie.

At every turn, we must struggle against those who would deprive us of education or who would expose us to disease and death. In the long term, we aspire to link transformation of the education system to the broader project of social revolution. As long as the bourgeoisie are masters of society, reforms to the education system will always be of a limited nature. We locate the education crisis within a global crisis of capitalism. In all sectors of society, the bourgeoisie has been fighting tirelessly to restore its profits: arranging state subsidies, reducing operations, smashing competitors, shutting down businesses, forcing small enterprises into bankruptcy to take over their means of production and profits, conquering new markets, and forcing people back to work without regard for health risks. The result of these efforts has been misery for most Americans.

The current crisis is bigger than the virus. We must identify the political stakes in every situation and rally the student movement to the fight. This is how we further our project of building a militant, organized force that can compel universities to meet our demands while raising student consciousness to a revolutionary level.