Where We Have Been, Where We Stand Now, and Why We Must Stop Schools from Re-opening in September
Like a lot of longer pieces that I write, this started as an attempt to assess the economic impact on working people of the last four or five months of the pandemic in the US: where we have been and where we stand now. But as I wrote, it became more clear that the defining question in the Year of the Pandemic is now on the horizon: Will the crushing economic pressure on working families force them to send their kids to schools, when doing so could send infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from the coronavirus skyrocketing?
If we cannot organize to prevent schools from reopening and to provide the economic means by which families can afford to keep kids home, then Fall 2020 will certainly mark a deadly second wave in the pandemic. And, as always, it will be working people, especially Black and Brown, but ultimately all working and poor people, who will bear the brunt.
1. Where have we been?
Over the course of the pandemic, billionaires have gotten richer and corporations have gotten huge government bailouts. As with every major shift under capitalism, some businesses have suffered but others have prospered.
But working people have been burdened by every aspect of the pandemic.
Essential workers, especially in the service industries, were forced to put themselves and their families in harm’s way every day, often without any extra compensation and without adequate protective equipment. The exposure to the virus by essential workers is one of the major factors in the disparity between Black and Brown infections and deaths and that of white people. While these workers were supposedly — and for the first time — recognized as highly valued they have consistently been underpaid and underprotected.
Some non-essential workers lost their jobs. Not only did they have to live off of inadequate unemployment benefits, but in many states the unemployment benefits systems have been so overloaded that there are people who are still waiting for benefits for which they became eligible in March and April — in other words they have gone three or four months with little or no income at all. In spite of various local, state, and federal orders on rents, unemployed workers and their families live under constant threat of homelessness.
Other non-essential workers have been assigned to work from home. Because their employers “allowed” them to work from home, they were never eligible for unemployment benefits. Instead, they have been expected to do their work from home, using the same limited physical space as one or more children taking “virtual” classes because of the school closings. Often that has meant, in effect, being responsible for supervising their children all day AND working all day.
And by the way, it didn’t take long for some employers to discover the greatest possible pandemic scam. Some states allowed an employer to place an employee on partial lay off, with the state paying the employee unemployment benefits for the days they are laid off. So, for example, a company tells the department of labor that it intends to put its 200 employees on partial lay off, working three eight hour days instead of five. The DOL then pays the workers unemployment benefits (typically half of regular wages) for the remaining two days. BUT the employer tells the workers they have to continue to work a full forty hours or they will be fired. So the employer cuts its labor costs by 40%, funded by taxpayers, and the workers suffer a 20% cut in pay.
Millions of US workers who are self-employed, work as independent contractors, are temporary workers, or who otherwise are members of the so-called gig economy have been left with no work and no means of support. Even in places where unemployment was expanded for the first time to include independent contractors most people were never told they might be eligible for benefits. As a result, even people who might have qualified are depleting savings, making withdrawals from 401(k)’s, and going further into debt.
Meanwhile, millions of older and disabled workers have lived at risk of the virus with no system of support for their physical, medical, mental health, or emotional needs. The sum and total of measures to help protect older and disabled people: opening grocery stores an hour early. Seriously.
2. Where are we now?
July 31: federal supplements to unemployment benefits end. Literally millions of families will see a sudden sharp drop in income.
“Reopening” the economy means that employers can tell the DOL that they are calling their workers back to work, making millions of unemployed people ineligible for further benefits. Many will have no choice but to return to work even if it endangers their health. And many people who have compromised immune systems or family members at high risk will have to stay home, unable to work OR collect benefits.
Many employers of essential workers who have been paying “hazard pay” or some other form of extra compensation are ending those benefits, while the workers themselves continue to be at risk.
Many employers of non-essential workers who had worked from home are being called back to work, even though they have no one to take care of their kids and no realistic access to daycare, summer camps, or other kinds of child care. If they don’t go back they lose their jobs AND are ineligible for unemployment benefits. If they do go back, they increase the risk of infection to themselves and their kids, and may end up leaving kids unsupervised or in unsafe circumstances.
Finally, for millions of older and disabled people, “opening” the economy is meaningless. The risks to their health are just as high as ever. Indeed, the risks are likely to be higher as more and more non-disabled people are forced back into the economy, increasing in general the likelihood of infection and the spread of the virus.
3. Where are we going?
The sole difference between Republicans and Democrats in the present moment is that Republicans say they want to go back to business as usual, while the Democrats say they want to reopen the economy “the right way.” But substantive differences are dwindling, and with the approach of school re-openings in September, those differences will rapidly disappear.
While Democrats are incensed by President Trump stating that he will cut funding to schools that don’t reopen, they have also made it clear that they themselves have every intention of re-opening schools. The sole difference is that Democrats are proclaiming their intent to provide school districts with “guidance” so they can reopen schools “the right way.” No extra resources. No extra staff. No extra facilities. Just guidance.
Teachers and parents alike have expressed dismay at plans to reopen schools that imagine a world in which, for example, 30 first grade students will wear masks all day, not make physical contact with each other, and maintain social distance from their teachers and school staff. As with every aspect of the government’s response to the pandemic, the most absurd and unworkable “solutions” are being prescribed for poor and working class school districts. In places where class sizes were already too large, school resources were already too few, and buildings were already overcrowded and unhealthy, there is no such thing as reopening schools in a way that will keep children safe.
Although they will never admit it, politicians in both parties are counting on economic pressure to get people to send their kids back to school. They know that parents will have no choice but to send kids to school when there are no unemployment benefits or other means to survive. Being accustomed to budget cutting as political reality over many years, elected officials will cast their decisions as just one more instance of doing what needs to be done and liking it because it could have been worse.
Only this time it just may be that it couldn’t be worse. We’re literally talking about more than 50 million children being sent back to schools, where most will be placed at high risk for exposure to the coronavirus, as will their parents, and as will their teachers, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, and other school staff. In parts of the US where the pandemic is already out of control, sending kids back to school means sending emergency rooms and hospitals spiraling out of control with unmanageable case loads. In those places where closures, social distancing, and mask wearing have successfully reduced the spread of the coronavirus, sending kids back will mean losing all of the ground we have gained over months.
In many communities, teachers and parents are already talking about resisting reopening schools. Clearly they are right to do so. But the resistance can’t possibly succeed without combining demands to keep schools closed with demands for economic relief for workers.
Schools must not re-open in September!
For example, in some school districts there is talk of putting kids on reduced schedules where they will spend only 20% of their time physically present at school, while participating in virtual education the rest of the week. Maybe it’s possible to safely reopen schools in that way. But with double digit unemployment, working parents will not be able to make a living if they are limited to jobs that allow them to be home with their kids three week days every week. And it will be far more typical for school districts to reopen half time or full time, placing even greater restrictions on a parent’s ability to work.
No one wants to put their child at risk. Moreover, no teacher or school employee wants to put themselves, their students, or their own families at risk. But in a time of mass unemployment and enormous economic insecurity, most of us are under crushing pressure to make choices that will put food on the table and pay the rent. Talking heads and politicians telling us that their clever plans will keep us safe will allow many people to convince themselves that it will all be okay if they just go along.
Still, great crises create great opportunities. No one imagined that a pandemic would create the conditions for an upsurge and rebellion against institutional racism and police violence. If there were ever a time where we are called upon to resist the demands the system places on us, it is now.
Teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance workers, and office workers in public schools must stand together and refuse to go to work in dangerous conditions.
Parents and their parent-teacher organizations need to tell school districts they will not send their children into schools that will certainly become breeding grounds for the coronavirus, thereby endangering children and their families.
Every campaign to keep schools closed or to limit their opening must be accompanied by demands to extend unemployment benefits, provide supplemental income to unemployed and underemployed working people, and make every work place safe.
The forefront of the social movement — the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters of every race — needs to participate in and lead this struggle, where there is enormous risk to the lives and well-being of millions of working class families and especially to Brown and Black families.
So often, the movement’s demands for change have been carried into the media and into the halls of government as prescriptions for what would make lives better or fairer. Here, we already know that the pandemic has cost more than 130,000 lives in this country alone, and is currently raging through many parts of the country with a rapidly rising death toll. The campaign to keep our schools closed isn’t just about fairness. It’s a matter of life and death.