Schools Reopen — and Teachers Fight for Their Lives, Their Students, and the Future of Public Education

By Sarah Jaffe

Illustrator: Adolfo Valle

As schools begin to reopen, within teacher unions around the country, teachers have been coming together to discuss the risks they’re willing to take — both to protect public health in the short term, and to protect public education in the long run. 

The starting place for the unions, noted Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, is that the push to reopen schools as if they could wish the pandemic away, whether it was coming from President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos or from Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot, “was wrong and dangerous.” With safety as their first concern, the CTU organized through its delegates, held tele-town halls, talked with community groups it has been allied with since its landmark 2012 strike, held car caravans, and ultimately announced a strike vote. 

Within hours of the announcement that the union would vote on a strike, another announcement came: Chicago schools would open virtually, not in person.

In New York City, rank and file teachers in the United Federation of Teachers who are organizing with the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus had already planned a sick-out in March that pressed the district to close down. The UFT responded to the continued pressure for in-person reopening by calling strike preparation meetings. New York’s Taylor Law makes public sector strikes technically illegal, but the UFT’s president Michael Mulgrew told reporters, “If we feel that a school is not safe we are prepared to go to court and take a job action and if a court deems that we are breaking the Taylor Law so be it.” But on Sept. 1 the union and the mayor announced a deal pushing back the start of the school year; students would begin classes remotely Sept. 16 and in person, if certain benchmarks are met, on Sept. 21.  

Kevin Prosen, a Queens teacher and MORE member, said, “The mayor is playing a reckless game with the lives of everyone who works in, attends, or sends their children to New York City schools.” The pandemic, he noted, has been seen as an opportunity by a variety of people who would like to privatize public schools, cut back on their funding, and break teachers’ unions. But it is also a turning point for teachers to make clear that they are the ones putting students’ well-being — as well as learning — first. Prosen continued, “How are we going to make this about not just the short-term immediate question of ‘Do we open schools now or a month from now or two weeks from now?’ but ‘Are we going to allow them to destroy public education, using this crisis as an opportunity?’” The deal on reopening, he said, “does not satisfy the basic demands the union started out with for safe schools, it doesn’t address the enormous budget cuts schools are faced with, and it leaves us with many questions about exactly what kind of conditions we will be facing when we return to schools.” As teachers returned to schools, seventeen positive COVID-19 tests were reported among school employees, including at Prosen’s school, where teachers held a picket on Sept. 11, and a group of them refused to enter the building, calling once again for remote schooling.

“The mayor is playing a reckless game with the lives of everyone who works in, attends, or sends their children to New York City schools.”

— kevin prosen, Queens teacher and MORE Member

In New York and Chicago, case numbers might be down, but the cramped conditions in underfunded public schools mean that once again, school buildings could be sites of rapid spread of the virus, spiking cases once again. Elsewhere in the country, rates of infection are still higher than they were when the school buildings initially closed, a fact that has frustrated many teachers, who see leadership locally and nationally having squandered the first lockdown without actually succeeding in suppressing the virus enough to make school reopening safe. “They don’t want to say, ‘We screwed this up. We really can’t reopen right now,’” said Jay O’Neal, a Charleston, West Virginia teacher and co-founder of the West Virginia United Caucus

Instead, O’Neal said, the West Virginia governor has given mixed messages, leaving parents and teachers (who are, in some cases, of course, the same people) confused, frustrated, and scared. WV United has been part of a coalition of local unions (affiliates of both the AFT and the NEA) and community groups that hosted public Zoom calls that they’d originally assumed would mostly be for teachers to share information and organize for safe reopening. But beginning in June, O’Neal said, they realized that many of the people joining the call were parents, so they began to intentionally organize with parent groups and compiled demands from both parents and teachers around safe reopening — calling for improved remote education, reopening after 14 days without new cases, mandated testing, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and teachers. 

“We even had our own press conference in front of the state Department of Education,” O’Neal said. “We had pieces of poster board spread out in a 5×6 grid that were six feet apart on the grass in front, showing, ‘This is how much space 30 students would need to be socially distanced. We don’t have classrooms this big.’” 

In Milwaukee, where schools have reopened virtually at least to start with, Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), said, “There are no good options.” But the teachers’ demands for virtual reopening, which they made as part of a coalition of the unions from Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine, were a result of careful consideration. “To make that decision is crushing for people because we know what we’re giving up and what will not be available to our students in a virtual environment.” The failures, she said, from the “federal government on down” to take the virus seriously and to create a system that would have allowed schools to reopen safely are the real frustration. Mizialko, a special education teacher, added: “To be able to create the kind of classroom community that students want to walk into every day and push themselves every day, I need to be in person with my kids. To try and do that from a distance, virtually, is incredibly difficult on our students.” 

In some places, according to Barbara Madeloni, the education coordinator for Labor Notes and the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, teachers’ demands are being heard and felt; elsewhere, teachers feel isolated and frightened. In Chicago and Los Angeles, where the union has demonstrated its power through the strike, and in New York and Philadelphia, where reform caucuses have been able to build independent power, teachers have won safety measures and virtual reopening. But elsewhere, she noted, the unions still seem disorganized and unwilling to go head to head with elected officials. But the indications from places like Detroit, where 91 percent of Detroit Federation of Teachers members voted for a possible strike, or San Tan Valley, Arizona, where teachers simply refused to show up, are reminders that, as with the Red for Ed strike wave, sometimes militancy can be lit and spread quickly from state to state. The J.O. Combs Unified School District in San Tan Valley, canceled in-person classes in August, citing “an overwhelming response from staff” and “a high volume of staff absences.” More than 100 teachers called out, citing health and safety concerns; in response, the school board voted to hold off in-person teaching until Sept. 8.

While elected officials posture about the need to reopen schools to give students what they need, the teachers are clear-eyed about their motivations. “They want people to go back to work and they need childcare,” O’Neal said. Prosen, from Queens, agreed, “If you are sending students back to an unsafe school, your motive is not so they can get back to learning, because students don’t learn when their physical safety isn’t met.” 

While schools have been stripped, Mizialko noted, of so many of the things they need in order to actually provide for their students, they remained, before the pandemic, a piece of infrastructure that housed students during the day, fed them, and made sure they were safe. But with remote learning, the teaching function is all that remains, though teachers in many locations were still helping to provide meals for their students at pickup or delivery sites. 

The teachers, Prosen said, see their role in this moment as more than just fighting not to reopen school buildings until it is safe: “That is actually tying into a bigger debate, which is ‘we are not restarting the economy until it is safe.’ Workers, whether they are teachers or the people who deliver your food or the people who work in grocery stores, aren’t expendable and they are not going to be sacrificed so business can reopen.” 

But in some ways, organizing for a remote reopening, as Davis Gates said, is the easy part.

* * *

Having won remote opening in some places, like Chicago, teachers now have to fight for what distance learning will look like and guard their flank against private companies that see dollar signs in the need for education technology. 

Remote learning, Davis Gates noted, has essentially turned all teachers into first-year teachers again. “No one has any experience or expertise in what we’re dealing with right now.” 

In Wisconsin, where teachers’ pay and conditions took a beating with Scott Walker’s 2011 Act 10, Mizialko said teachers have cut back on bills in some cases by not having home Internet. Add to that the problems with ensuring that students have connectivity at home. The district has used federal funding from the CARES Act to distribute Chromebooks and Internet hotspots to students, though Mizialko said that parents in some cases had trouble going to get the technology from the schools, and some teachers were driving the laptops to students’ homes themselves. And the federal funding isn’t just going to MPS: a chunk of the money has gone to private and charter schools. “I wonder what navigating this pandemic would be like if 44 percent of students weren’t siphoned off into private, unaccountable voucher and charter schools who when things got bad, were happy to turn their students and families back to MPS,” Mizialko said. “All of these privatization issues permeate all of this.” The charter and voucher schools still depend on MPS to pick up the slack from everything to the technology to keeping kids fed — when the buildings were closed but the schools set up sites to distribute food for kids, she said, charter and private school families were there every day. “We had private voucher and charter schools telling their students and families to try to enroll in a public school so that MPS would give them a Chromebook.” 

“I wonder what navigating this pandemic would be like if 44 percent of students weren’t siphoned off into private, unaccountable voucher and charter schools who when things got bad, were happy to turn their students and families back to MPS. All of these privatization issues permeate all of this.”

— Amy mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association

In some cases, the private and charter schools are reopening in person when public schools are virtual, providing a temptation for parents who have to go back to work. In other cases, Madeloni noted, as in Massachusetts, the charters are all also opening remotely. “It isn’t clear to me that there is a consistent pattern of charters opening as a way to bleed kids from schools that are closing,” she said. But that doesn’t mean the inequality isn’t showing up. “What we are seeing is wealthy parents going to independent schools. We see the pod activity that is developing: people hiring private tutors to tutor groups of kids,” Madeloni said. “There is an issue of parents pulling their kids out of schools and then, the funding follows those kids or leaves the school. I think we are in a profound danger about online learning and teachers losing their jobs because they are going to say they don’t need as many teachers because they’re doing online schooling.” 

That’s on top of the already-looming budget cuts, as Congress dithers about aid to the states. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is already making “devastating” cuts to schools even as he had to walk back his plan to partner with Bill Gates to “reimagine” public education. Around the country, what little money came from the CARES Act has run out and in many cases was already matched by a corresponding slice to state aid. The failure of Congress and the Trump administration to act further will exacerbate the crisis for schools nationwide and will be felt hardest in high-poverty schools, where the impact and trauma of the pandemic have hit communities of color the hardest. Given the reality of battered budgets, will elected officials reintroduce educational tech as a way to save money? Madeloni noted, “In Massachusetts, the state has contracts with two really big online charter schools and they are saying that in districts that buy into this contract that the state has, that it will cost only $200 a kid to have them get remote learning and if they sign on, they have to sign on for the whole year.” 

As Gayle Greene wrote at the American Prospect, the people backing technological solutions for schools are “some of the most powerful people on the planet: Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings of Netflix, real estate mogul Eli Broad, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs.” Comcast, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all investing, and the distribution of Chromebooks to students for online courses is big money for Google. 

But the teachers I spoke with all agreed that they don’t want virtual schools in the long term, and polls show that parents back them: a Washington Post poll in August found that 80 percent wanted school at least partly online, but also that they were deeply skeptical of online education. Philadelphia parents, in one meeting, blasted the idea of, in one woman’s words, “some knockoff cyber charter,” even as she also noted “We don’t want to send [our kids] off to die.” 

On that question, at least, O’Neal from West Virginia, said, “In some ways I’m a little more optimistic than I was in the spring just because I feel like it has become very clear that this is not the real solution: It’s just what we have to do right now to keep everybody safe.” 

Virtual school, though, still brings other inequalities to the fore. Mizialko noted that many high school students have taken on additional work during lockdown — many of them doing the kind of low-paid service labor called “essential” that is also essentially risky. That teenagers were now balancing, in some cases, trying to keep up with school with helping keep their family afloat represented, she said bluntly, “a failure.” 

Davis Gates agreed. “We know that our English language learners need more support. Our students who have been identified as homeless need more support. We know that the racial disparities hit a school district that is 80 percent Latinx and Black especially hard. Think about the impending evictions, think about the limited access to broadband, think about the poor device distribution and follow-up tech support — but also think about family members dying, family members getting sick. Think about high school students becoming frontline workers in this moment and breadwinners in households.” All of these are the problems that public schools have long been expected, if not to solve, to put a Band-Aid on, and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Special education students, as Mizialko noted, are likely to be disproportionately hurt by the lack of in-person classes, and the staffing cuts that are coming will also likely hit those students hard.  

The pandemic has in so many ways proved the demands teachers have been making in recent years correct. From the basic, core call of so many teacher unions — smaller class sizes — to the CTU’s call to include housing and homelessness at the bargaining table, teachers have been ahead of elected officials on the things that would actually help make schools safe again. The virus has drawn extra attention to the dilapidated physical infrastructure in the schools, from the size issue that the West Virginia teachers noted to ventilation issues and lead in the pipes. Mizialko said, “I wonder what would have happened if this pandemic came when public schools were fully funded. How might we have been able to handle it better than it coming at a time when basic infrastructure has been cut to the bone?”  

And then there’s the intersection of the pandemic, which has disproportionately killed Black people and people of color, and the upsurge in Black Lives Matter organizing, which is led in many cases by public school students. To Davis Gates, all of those demands connect. “We are actually asking for policies where Black lives matter and if Black lives mattered then it means that they have devices and broadband. If Black lives matter, it means that their schools have teachers’ assistants and instructional assistants. It means that they have nurses. It means that they can participate in remote learning because we’ve created policies to encourage and support that.” 

“We are actually asking for policies where Black lives matter and if Black lives mattered then it means that they have devices and broadband. If Black lives matter, it means that their schools have teachers’ assistants and instructional assistants. It means that they have nurses. It means that they can participate in remote learning because we’ve created policies to encourage and support that.” 

— Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union

All of the teachers I spoke to agreed that this moment, of new fears but also renewed activism, presents opportunities. For one thing, Mizialko said, “We can cease all standardized testing of our students right now and no harm will come to them. In fact, we can reclaim a great deal of time that has been stolen from students’ learning and devote it to the kind of learning experience that children should have.” The power that teachers have been building, in part by making the kinds of demands that parents and students also want, has brought them to a place, Prosen said, where they have political credibility to thread the incredibly difficult needle they’ve been given. And that credibility, Davis Gates added, allows them to think ahead about what schools should look like when they reopen. 

This struggle is going to last much longer than the few weeks of school openings and throughout the year. It is, Mizialko said, a bigger fight against business as usual, a fight against a defunded public sphere and a world of low-wage jobs, evictions, poverty, and racist violence. Children are suffering during the pandemic not because their teachers have failed to offer themselves as sacrificial victims. They are suffering, Davis Gates said, because they are being evicted, being brutalized, their family members are sick, and because there has been a decades-long assault on public schools. And in that fight, when teachers are blamed for students’ purported failures, teachers are calling for a solution that challenges a capitalist system that puts returning to work and profit-making above Black lives and in fact, everyone’s life. Schools cannot solve the problems of capitalism, but teachers are hoping to use this moment to make a difference.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back (January 2021, Bold Type Books). You can find her on Twitter @sarahljaffe and on the web at