- Interview by
- Mindy Isser
When the coronavirus pandemic first swept the United States in March, public schools closed their doors in hopes of containing the virus. Although many believed in-person instruction would return in a few weeks, most students ended the school year stuck with virtual learning. As the economy opens back up and parents scramble to find a solution that works for their families, school districts are now grappling with a big decision: open schools or keep them shuttered?
But parents and school districts aren’t the only ones who deserve a say in the future of schools — teachers and their unions do too. And educators around the country are sounding the alarm about being forced back to work in rooms that often lack windows or ventilation and crowded buildings that make social distancing extremely difficult.
As COVID-19 cases tick up around the country, teachers are organizing to make school re-openings as safe as possible, and in many instances, fighting for fully online learning. United Teachers Los Angeles just won a commitment from their school district to keep physical schools closed, and other local unions are hoping to follow suit.
Jacobin contributor Mindy Isser interviewed Paul Prescod, a Philadelphia high school teacher who has been organizing his coworkers around the reopening of schools, the coming school year, and the potential for another teacher strike wave. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you tell me what the end of the school year was like for you? First, the abrupt end to in-person learning, and then online learning?
In early March, when the pandemic became more serious, we had about a week of being unsure whether schools would close or not. And then sometime in mid-March schools closed very abruptly. Obviously it was a shock to everyone, and at first it seemed like we’d come back after two weeks — that’s what the district said. But soon it was clear we were done for the rest of the year.
Online learning obviously wasn’t ideal. We had all these issues of students living in situations where they don’t have internet access. The district did distribute laptops to every student, but there were even issues with that, because people were afraid to come collect them at schools because they didn’t want to catch COVID-19.
The policy was that students’ grades could only go up, which I think made sense because we didn’t know who had access to internet, since it was all last minute. At first attendance was decent but then very quickly it declined, partly because probably a lot of students knew their grades wouldn’t go down, and also it’s just hard to have the same kind of motivation for online learning. This was across the district, not just my school.
Virtual learning is just not the same — you can’t give the same kind of individual help to a student, or make the same kinds of connections with students. It was way less than ideal.
What is the Philadelphia school district’s plan for the fall?
Their proposal is a “hybrid model.” Basically students would come in two days a week for in-person learning, and it would be a staggered schedule, so different kids for the two sets of days. But obviously as teachers, we would be going in four days a week, seeing the two different sets of students. Friday would be virtual for everyone, so each student would get three days of online instruction and two days of in-person.
You can’t meaningfully social distance in a classroom, unless the class size is cut way down. The district put in their proposal that a maximum of twenty-five students could be in a class. That’s way too much in a pandemic. They also said “if feasible,” and they already said they won’t be hiring new staff, so that means for most schools, it’s actually going to be above twenty-five kids in a class.
They’re going to provide students with masks, and they said they could provide shields for desks if necessary. But even if it is only two days a week, it’s just not going to work, it’s not going to be safe to do it this way. They said they could anticipate that we may have to close down again, and it just seems like a big waste of time and resources to try to force reopening when we know we may have to close down anyway.
So that’s the plan that they have proposed, and a lot of teachers have felt like it’s totally unsafe.
What do you think the plan for the fall should be?
I think we have to start virtually. We know that online learning is not ideal, so we should be spending this summer trying to make online learning as good as possible: making sure teachers are trained to do it well, and thinking about curriculum. And then for students, figuring out who doesn’t have access to internet, and finding a way for them to have access.
This is where we can bring in demands around Comcast, which is headquartered in Philadelphia and which doesn’t pay any taxes in the city. Comcast could be mandated to provide free internet for students who need it for school.
I want to say that we could start virtually and go back eventually, but some of that is beyond our control. The response from the federal government has not been good enough to really control the pandemic, so some of that is out of our hands.
We should start virtually and try to see when would be a good time to go back. But we should also establish a standard for when it would be safe to go back: we should say that the amount of cases in our area should decline steadily for a certain period of time, by a certain amount.
What is the union’s response to the district’s plan, and what are they doing to protect teachers?
Our leadership has basically said that currently they don’t think the district’s plan is safe, and they also think that cases should be going down for a sustained period of time before we go back. They just put out a member survey asking if we feel safe going back, so presumably if members say that we don’t think it’s safe, the union will agree.
They’ve hosted two union town halls about this. The leadership did say that we are able to do job actions, which includes a strike if we need to. That’s positive coming from the leadership. At the rank-and-file level, a lot of us are starting to get our buildings prepared and organized around this. We’ve tried to set up a structure for the different regions of the district, and we’re having people do virtual meetings with their coworkers to establish how they feel.
If there’s consensus around it not being safe, we’re trying to get buildings to release public statements from the whole staff. The hope is that if there’s a stalemate between the union and the district, if enough buildings come out against reopening, that will help pressure the district.
One wild card here is that the governor has indicated that he might step in and make every school go virtual, but we don’t know how that’s going to play out yet.
You mentioned that Philly teachers can strike now. Can you share a little bit of that history?
Back in 2001, there was legislation passed called Act 46, which deemed Philadelphia a “district in distress” and allowed it to be taken over by the state. Instead of an elected school board or even a mayoral-appointed school board, we had a school board appointed by the state. Many of the people on the board, the School Reform Commission, had ties with charter school companies or opposed public education in general.
At this time, the union also could not legally strike, which had a lot of terrible consequences. A lot of schools were closed during this period, and it hampered the union from taking action around closures. The law said that if you strike, your teaching license would be revoked, which scared a lot of people. We also went five years without a contract, which meant no one got any raises during that time period.
In 2017, the School Reform Commission was dismantled. And now we have a mayoral-appointed school board, and we are able to strike legally again.
What do you think will happen if the district forces you and other teachers to go back [to school] and the union leadership goes along with it?
It’s hard to predict, but I think there’s a strong chance you’d have wildcat strikes [walkouts unauthorized by the union] at different schools. Back in 2016 when we didn’t have a contract, we organized a bunch of individual schools to take action on May 1 and call in sick. We got over one thousand teachers to participate. That same summer, we got our contract. So it seemed pretty clear that us taking actions forced the district’s hand.
If it really comes down to it, I think you’ll have many teachers refuse to go in. That is going to force a crisis on the district, and there’s an organizing infrastructure to support that. I think teachers, and even parents, also are going to start taking action and the district will have to change course.
Districts around the country that even a week or two weeks ago were saying they were going in-person are now starting to say they’ll be starting virtually. So I think there will be a big public pushback if we’re forced to go in.
A lot of these conversations can pit parents against teachers. Can you speak to that dynamic, and how to fight against it?
It’s tough, because parents have to think about childcare if they’re going to work and their kids aren’t going to school — our country doesn’t have a good childcare system they could rely on. That’s why we’re trying to work with local parent groups to make the argument that, as difficult as it might be, this is literally putting your child and you and the rest of your family at risk. And this is where we can try to raise other demands, like providing free internet during this time and making sure kids can still get free meals from schools, because a lot of families depend on free breakfast and lunch.
It comes down to forming the relationship with parents. We understand it’s going to be very hard, but this is a better option than putting people in danger. I think it just comes down to being willing to do that outreach and having conversations with parents. I don’t have an exact measurement of where parent opinion is, but I do know that there are so many parents who think it’s dangerous to reopen schools. And so many teachers are parents too!
Has there been any coordination between teachers and their unions across the country?
A lot of unions that have recently had changes in leadership, like in LA and Oakland and some other places, are coordinating a national day of action on August 3 around the safe re-opening of schools. National AFT [American Federation of Teachers] leadership has communicated with some members. They’re making noise that it’s currently not safe, but they haven’t taken a clear position on reopening or not. It’s mixed in terms of national coordination.
I think a lot of members would feel much more emboldened to take action if they knew it was sanctioned by their leadership. If AFT and NEA [National Education Association] national leadership said very firmly, “it’s not safe to go back to schools and only under these specific circumstances would it be safe,” that would ensure that people can take action together and prevent schools from being reopened when it’s not safe. We need a unified message and a unified standard across the country. If we had that, many districts and states would have to back down.
The fight to keep schools closed feels like a fight for our humanity — to recognize that being alive and staying healthy matters more than anything else. What other demands do you think could be lifted up in this moment, both in Philly and across the country?
In Philly, school funding is a huge issue, and so is class size. It’s revealing how short-staffed schools are and how big the class sizes are. If we wanted to actually do school in this condition, we’d have to find the money to pay all the extra staff it would take.
And building conditions in Philly schools have been an ongoing problem, so while we’re out of schools, they should take care of removing asbestos. Obviously the workers doing that shouldn’t be put at risk, but if schools are going to be empty, they should take the time to remove mold and asbestos — and put people to work.
The district is also trying to allow students to opt in to a digital learning academy, so we also have to make sure they’re not trying to turn this into a long-term online learning option, which would make teachers lose their jobs. So there’s another demand during the pandemic: no furloughs, and no layoffs of teachers.
Nationally, people have lost their health insurance because they have been laid off. They shouldn’t only be covered temporarily — this is a great argument for Medicare for All for the long term, so you’re not tying people’s health care to employment. We should also be demanding a real childcare program nationally. Parents could have to risk their kids’ lives by sending them to school or risk their safety by leaving them home alone. And as businesses close because of the pandemic and stop providing jobs, the state should step in and provide a jobs guarantee, since millions are out of work.
The pandemic is revealing so many limitations in this country.