Essay Original Rob Rooke

Who Should Decide When and How Schools Reopen?

Here's a hint: Not politicians, district officials, bean counters or the president.

By Rob Rooke / Original to Scheerpost

It is mid-June and school districts around the country are still wrestling with the impossibly complex issue of reopening during an ongoing pandemic. Underlying it all is the reality that the different stakeholders all have different needs, fears and hopes for what can and should happen. 

In my city, Oakland, teachers, school workers, parents and students are wondering about the details of our school district’s plan for starting the new school year on August 10. Anxiety levels all-around are high. The recent 40% hike in COVID cases in Alameda County a week into the current re-opening phase does not bode well. 

OUSD seems likely to attempt to roll out some combination of distance learning and a return to schools in the coming months. There should not be a return to school if it is not safe for students and teachers. However, the pro-public school movement will need to have a response that goes beyond simply opposing a return to school, detailing how our return to school differs from the establishment’s version.

The billionaires who, through outsized campaign contributions to pro-charter school board candidates, grants and administrative leadership training programs,  manage to pull strings in Oakland Unified and districts across the country are counting on the pandemic as a disaster capitalism moment: a moment to drive forward privatization, charterization, and undo the gains of the national Red for Ed movement. They have been meeting to develop plans to take advantage of the pandemic to promote their own agenda. 

New York Democratic Party Governor Cuomo has suggested that we do not need brick and mortar schools and has invited Bill Gates to help ‘re-imagine’ education. The Democratic Party establishment has essentially acted as a gatekeeper, inviting the fox into the henhouse. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ school district was entirely charterized; this is the moment the billionaires hope we are in, only this time for the whole country. In Oakland, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell is in a similar camp to Cuomo and is using this moment to build more corporate partnerships. 

However, the big business establishment and its institutions are suffering from a huge collapse of confidence. Their mishandling of the pandemic has cost over 100,000 lives in the last two months. The uprising in Minneapolis and the national wave of unrest around the murder of George Floyd is a reminder to the American establishment of the deep level of anger at inequality, inequity and injustice that had been developing long before the pandemic. Their attempts to drive forward privatization and cuts will be resisted, but will require planning and organization.

Here in Oakland, an inspiring collective movement of parents, teachers and school workers that won an improved teacher contract last spring after a successful 7-day strike has continued to fight for influence on the future of the district. Now, they should be armed with a shared vision of how the reopening of schools will happen. Taking a position of no return to school while any risk exists, or until a vaccine is developed, will allow the district to determine how reopening happens, which would undoubtedly be deadly.

Is a Vaccine Coming? Possibly Not

We have to begin our alternative plan with what science knows. The most optimistic prognosis for a C-19 vaccine, of course, comes from Trump himself, who now seems eager to skip testing the stuff altogether despite once being an anti-vaccine “truther.” Big Pharma’s conjecture is a close second, but pharmaceutical corporations, in general, are going to tend to be overly optimistic about a vaccine as it helps dramatically raise their share prices. Certainly, it is encouraging that there are now about a dozen prototypes in the early stages of testing worldwide. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official who has been generally cautious in his pronouncements, has recently predicted a vaccine of some type should be ready to begin distribution by early next year. 

However, pharma heavyweight Merck, which was central in developing the Ebola vaccine, is now backing away from their perspective of a C-19 vaccine in 12 to 18 months, noting that only seven new vaccines have been approved by the FDA in the past 25 years. For perspective, as you may have heard, the quickest development of a vaccine historically was for mumps, which took 4 years; the Ebola vaccine took more than 5 years, but did not have the same level of resources invested.

Assuming, then, that we are looking at a minimum of one to two years, what should the pro-public school movement’s approach be? The least risky as far as contagion would be to keep all public schools closed for that entire period. If our position is to oppose opening schools until there is no virus risk, we should take a very critical look at distance learning. What are the downsides to this form of learning? Can it be improved? And are there dangers to moving more permanently away from actual classrooms?

Distance Learning, for many, isn’t working

There are few studies available on how K-12 students are faring under current distant learning classes. According to a study by the corporate Northwest Evaluation Association on distance learning, the “preliminary estimates suggest impacts may be larger in mathematics than in reading … and that students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50 percent of typical learning gains, and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject under normal conditions.”

We know it is likely that large numbers of students are simply not attending classes and that absenteeism in some schools has been very high, although our district has not made figures available. Studies are also showing that students of color are much more likely to be missing instruction.

We also know that students, despite the heroic efforts of our teachers, are not  learning as much as they should be and that many kids are in very difficult learning environments. Class and economic status undermines children’s ability to do as well at school in a normal year. It would be hard to find someone that argues that distance learning helps to lessen educational inequality. 

Students from middle class families have a ton of material advantages, but are still not doing great. If you are a parent in a 2-bedroom apartment with 3 or more kids, you are under unbelievable stress. For children from middle-class homes, distance learning has also been a challenge, but for those children whose working-class parents are living paycheck-to-paycheck — in the San Francisco Bay Area that is mostly black and brown students — the obstacles to learning are exponentially greater. 

According to an April 2 poll of the immediate concerns of college and university presidents over distance learning in the C-19 era, at the top was students’ mental health (92%), followed by employee mental health (88%), and followed by accelerated rates of attrition (85%). This poll does not speak to concerns regarding K-12 students, but a frank discussion with any parent would reveal similar concerns. 

Yes, we should demand citywide broadband and computers for every child in the district. However, even if these material obstacles are overcome, the isolation of the home and the districts’ large number of families that are renters living in cramped apartments — not to mention those who are “couch-surfing” or outright homeless – means that many kids will get little to no educational benefit while being away from school. 

Defending our Brick and Mortar Schools

There may also be dangers for the public school movement promoting distance learning as a substitute for in-person learning. One is the question of land. Walking away from our schools for any length of time has its risks. In Oakland, the district’s leaders are, so far, treading carefully, given the huge mood of support for public schools and the current mood against the establishment. But OUSD would love to sell our public land and facilities, and may be under increased pressure to do so as state education budgets will likely plummet in the short term after this recession. Oakland’s developer-centric city council probably has similar goals.

Another danger is the growth of online charter schools who are excited to go head to head with public schools in this online medium. All across East Oakland, in fact, they are currently campaigning for new students, arguing they are ahead of the COVID curve. The charter chains often have big start-up investors and some have been pandering to the home school community for years, promising that children can learn more while being exposed to less. 

Online teaching also gives more weight to districts to be able to determine teaching/learning conditions. Administrators in top-heavy, unenlightened districts will see this as an opening to push a common agenda: bigger class sizes, more work for reduced pay, and cutting spending on school infrastructure.

While it is now taken for granted in developed nations, the establishment of public schools actually required a huge fight over many, many decades — not least the fight to end child labor. Big business would probably be fine with more online learning and pushing more burden back onto families. But working-class parents need the incomes from returning to work, and both the childcare and economic opportunity public schools provide. 

Over the past thirty years, the establishment has shifted more and more financial burdens onto working-class families in general. Public college education in California was once almost free. This year’s graduating students average $32,000 in debt. In this context, the billionaires think school properties are wasted on children when they could be commodified into condos. 

Returning to Schools in Red for Ed Style

In Oakland, a full return to the schools, if organized and led by district officials, would likely be a disaster, as outlined by one of our high school teachers, who is also a union rep. However, considering the importance to the community, especially its most vulnerable members, it should not be ruled out that a way forward can be found in which some balance can be struck between education and safety for all. Staying at home is not working, educationally and in terms of their mental health. 

Combined with strong infrastructure for testing and tracing, a return to some level of normalcy may be deemed possible. In this case, the district may align with some parents to argue for a return to school. In this case, we need to begin to talk about how to get our children back to school safely — and the teachers unions need to lead the way, in cooperation with students, parents and other stakeholders. 

For us locally, that means the Oakland Education Association (OEA), should propose a framework for returning to work that addresses the health and educational challenges involved. This should probably include smaller class sizes; perhaps a maximum class size of 12 for high schools, and less and less in the descending age groups. 

This would possibly require children at most schools to only go to school every other day, or week, and would also require a massive hiring of new teachers, at decent levels of pay — emergency funds would have to be found, in the way they were for the most powerful banks in the 2008 meltdown and an unidentified list of corporations during this crisis. We will also need more full time healthcare workers in our schools, and unionized healthcare professionals to be a part of the discussion on returning to work. For social distancing work, more bus drivers will also need to be found. 

Duke University professor Eileen Chengyin Chow posted these pictures on Twitter. (Twitter/@chowleen)

These workers should be paid at the union rate and guaranteed jobs as C-19 disappears or a vaccine is developed. The District would argue that this is not possible, but, on the contrary, this is what we need, and what California can afford. All of this hiring will also have the added benefit of putting some small dent in the currently soaring unemployment rate, although it will be challenging to fill positions with qualified professionals on a short timeline. 

Unfortunately, immunocompromised children will likely require a longer period before returning to classrooms, while physically vulnerable teachers will have to be given the option of supporting distance learning only. 

The unions should develop a plan together with parents for what their vision of a return to school would be. This would draw in the full experience of teachers woven with what we know scientifically about the virus. 

How to Pay for the Schools We Need & Deserve

The federal government’s CARES Act threw a trillion dollars at working families. The $1200 stimulus checks and $600-a-week were intended to prevent a repeat of the Occupy movement whose impetus, in large part, was in response to the one-sided bailout of the big banks following the 2008 recession. However, as the uprising in Minneapolis has shown, that money did not prevent an explosion of anger at the institutions of capitalism. Trillions of dollars more have been thrown at the stock markets, undermining the myth that America is broke.

Twenty years ago there were 35 billionaires in the US, today there are 621. There are 165 billionaires in California, with a combined wealth of $723 billion. You could comfortably fit the top seven richest Californians in a Cadillac XT6 SUV. Those seven alone have amassed $303 billion. 

Clearly we live in the richest state in the richest country in the history of the world. And yet 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings and the median American household carries an average debt of nearly $140,000. The increasing shift of wealth from bottom to top since the deindustrialization period did not happen accidentally, and it will not swing back by accident. The political will to prevent this was not there over the past decades. 

Were Gov. Newsom to suggest a massive tax on this super wealth to help fund the changes we need in our schools, health system and for the environment, he would likely get huge support. One million people signed up to volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ vision. People want to fight. As a Money magazine headline put it in January, “Most Americans Want the Rich to Pay Higher Taxes, According to Every Poll Everywhere!” In this Democratic supermajority state, working people will need their own party to press forward with this. The more real that threat is, the more likely Democrats will respond. 

Now is not the time to think small. We should recognize that distance learning is not the best for students, and in many cases doesn’t work, and that any plan to return to work that the district drives will be unsafe. The teacher unions should propose to parents plans for a safe return to schools, plans that include a massive increase in employment and reduction in class sizes, and a road to pay for it. 

Rob Rooke
Rob Rooke

Rob Rooke was a parent organizer at Oakland’s Skyline High during the 2019 teacher strike and was PTA President at Oakland’s Maxwell Park Elementary during the fight against its closure in 2011-12. He is active with Oakland Socialist Alternative and a former local leader of the Carpenters Union.

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