People love a heartwarming story of a teacher’s self-sacrifice. This might be a full-time PE teacher who also hosts three different programs for the community for likely little to no pay. This might be a teacher who manages to lead his class from a hospital bed while fighting stage 4 cancer during a pandemic. These stories give you the sense that kids are getting from one person the time and support they deserve from a dozen. When teachers make the news for something good, it’s usually because they’ve mastered some superhuman, time-splitting set of responsibilities under terrible circumstances.
The concept of “good teaching” itself has internalized the requirement for self-sacrifice. Washington State’s Teacher of the Year, for example, cannot simply lead all students of all backgrounds to academic excellence. That would be too easy. They must also find the time to connect their classroom to key stakeholders in the community and demonstrate “leadership and innovation in and outside of the classroom walls.” Pinterest is filled with well-loved photos of elementary school classrooms covered from floor to ceiling with intricate arts and crafts, disguising hundreds of dollars and hours that teachers spend decorating or otherwise stocking their classrooms. The media shines a spotlight on teachers who sacrifice the little time they don’t spend teaching or preparing to teach to offer additional unpaid service to their school and community, time they could have spent with themselves or their families.
The legend of the self-sacrificial teacher is a fantasy that lets you pretend we were summoned by some higher calling to lives of poverty, endless toil, or martyrdom. It obscures how elected officials leverage teachers’ visceral concern for our students, because they know that teachers will spend the little time and money they have to cover much of the difference between what governments are willing to pay for and what students deserve. It glorifies teachers whose unpaid labor fills gaps in underfunded public services that should have been filled by other professionals, such as academic counselors, therapists, after-school program coordinators, coaches, or custodians. Like the fantasy written to sacrifice nurses and grocery store workers to COVID-19, it lets you off the hook for failing to protect and support the workers you depend on. And during this pandemic, it lets you pretend we signed up to die in service of you.
We didn’t. Neither did our students. Neither did you.
The crisis we face now is not one of bungled curriculum rollouts, inept admin, or even our low pay and high class sizes. If we approach this pandemic with the same spirit of self-sacrifice and can-do-it-iveness as we usually do, our colleagues, our colleagues’ family members, our students’ family members, and likely some of our students will die. Rather than sacrifice ourselves and the public health of our communities, it’s time we sacrifice something else: the comforts of professional civility that keep us from physically challenging the authorities that refuse to handle this pandemic correctly. If organized action was only something “those” militant teachers across the hall did at your site, now is the time to join them. If we want to tell ourselves that we will do anything for our students, now is the time to prove it.
Teachers must pledge not to return to campus until our counties report no new cases of COVID-19 for at least 14 days; we must invite all stakeholders in education — students, parents, administrators, support staff — to join us. I propose this benchmark as a minimum. Some may organize to demand a longer period of time without new cases; others may collectively refuse to return until their region, state, or nation exhibits no new cases. Regardless, in a nation reporting more than 40,000 new cases per day, this baseline proposal would require a revolutionary shift in how the U.S. deals with this pandemic, requiring local, state, and federal governments to implement the public health and economic relief measures that should have been in place months ago.
I explained at length in The Bold Italic why we cannot return to campus this fall. I called for robust distance learning, universal Internet and computer access, and community services to help students meet their basic needs. Teachers from across the country have echoed these ideas, whether in response to my article or elsewhere. A USA TODAY/Ipsos poll found that one in five teachers say they are unlikely to return to campus next year, signaling a tsunami of resignations. Chicago middle school teacher Belinda Mckinney-Childrey told ChalkBeat that “I can’t chance my health to go back. I love my job, I love what I do, but when push comes to shove, I think the majority of us will be like ‘I think we’re going to retire.’” Also, this is personal; my fiancée has serious asthma. She’s the best middle school English teacher I know, but she won’t teach next year if she’s forced to return to campus. I also fear that I could bring the virus home to her, but that’s a risk my district may force me to take so we can pay our bills.
These shared feelings and fears mean nothing, however, if we are not willing to exercise the power to withhold our labor until our conditions are met. We cannot succumb to the liberal tendency to pretend that passionate, rational argument in the marketplace of ideas is enough to persuade politicians to do the right thing. Because when August arrives, it is likely that many states and districts will order their teachers to return to campus. Oklahoma City school leaders announced their intent to “return to school in a traditional format for the 2020–2021 school year on August 10th.” Teachers in Fairfax, Virginia are already up in arms against their district’s absurd reopening plan. Numerous states have already released reopening guidelines. Soon we will see firsthand the contradictory, defunded, half-assed regime of physical distancing and constant sanitation that we are expected to enforce. And when that time comes, we simply must refuse to return.
Politicians celebrating the reopening of businesses over the bodies of 120,000 dead Americans teach us that elected officials will carelessly let us die if it means they can resume their “fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” to borrow Greta Thunberg’s words. Within this morbid fact, however, lies our power. CNN, Bloomberg, Forbes, and other outlets have made clear the connection between reopening the economy and reopening schools: schools are daytime storage for the children of workers. The Economist argued that schools should be the first economic institutions to reopen, writing that “Those who work at home are less productive if distracted by loud wails and the eerie silence that portends jam being spread on the sofa. Those who work outside the home cannot do so unless someone minds their offspring.” In his usual eloquence, Trump tweeted that “Schools in our country should be opened ASAP. Much very good information now available.”
Labor scholars describe structural power as the ability of workers to disrupt the economic system by withholding their labor and taking other actions. These articles and statements make it clear that education workers hold the keys to reopening the economy; that is our structural power. With this power comes the moral and political responsibility to use it for the most good, not simply to save ourselves. Elected officials of both parties have overseen a regime of epidemiologic neglect that has tortured and killed tens of thousands of our students’ family members (and some of our students). They have refused to implement the simplest strategies of pandemic control as they vacillate between claiming that COVID-19 is comparable to the flu, not serious enough to close New York (until it was), not serious enough to recommend masks (until it was), a threat to our freedoms, a Chinese conspiracy, or a grenade onto which the elderly must throw themselves to save the economy. If our elected officials are too greedy, powerless, cowardly, or stupid to successfully implement the measures we require, we must use our structural power to force them to do so. Until then, we refuse to return to campus and let their precious economy reopen.
Our power also derives from our relative privileges as teachers. Though many teachers are facing the threat of layoffs due to budget cuts, many of us enjoy higher job security than the average American worker. Teaching is among the most unionized professions. Our union contracts often include due process clauses that protect us from at-will termination, though tenured teachers are better protected. Even though we fight the specter of school closures and bigger class sizes, our services are always in demand. As long as there are kids, teachers will need to teach them. And there aren’t enough of us as is; districts and governments have failed to fix teacher shortages for years. Finally, we have the summer. We’ll be working all summer to adapt our classes to an uncertain future, but we can make the time to organize against any return to campus until our conditions are met.
Teachers don’t share these privileges equally. But like any labor action, we find strength in numbers. The more we vocally refuse to return to campus and commit our political resources to protecting teachers, the harder it will be for administrators and politicians to target the most vulnerable teachers among us. But millions of our students’ families don’t have any of these privileges. Millions of our students’ parents and guardians have lost their jobs, seen their hours or wages cut, gone to work without adequate PPE, or lost their lives or lung capacity to COVID-19.
And yet, thousands of them have already gone on wildcat strikes to demand pandemic protections and hazard pay, taking on corporate behemoths like Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx. Our students, our recent graduates, and their families have led a global uprising against police violence. To live with our privileges without the courage to weaponize them against a failed, malevolent government betrays the commitment to our students that we normally profess.
I am not currently calling for a strike per se; I am calling for teachers to resume distance teaching until the spread of COVID-19 has been halted by implementing massive public health measures. I refrain from calling for a strike for strategic reasons, not an aversion to more militant action. First, by resuming teaching, we could disarm district and state claims that we are violating no-strike clauses of our contracts. Second, by framing our demands in terms of workplace safety, we can test our contractual and legal rights to a safe workplace. It also lends a pragmatic veneer to our demands that could appeal to more moderate and conservative teachers less convinced by our politics.
Resuming teaching also signals to families that we have not forfeited our responsibility to teach their children. Normally, I wouldn’t use this reasoning. School districts like to use this rhetoric to accuse teacher unions of hurting families during normal contract strikes, despite polling evidence suggesting that most parents support teachers striking for more funding, higher salaries, and lower class sizes. These strikes typically last no longer than a few days or weeks, though. We’ve never asked parents to endure an indefinite, wildcat strike after months of helping their children follow along with their teachers’ ad hoc online curriculum during a pandemic. To secure family and student support for our demands, we should remain focused on public safety by promising to resume a more robust distance learning regime until it is safe to return to campus. If we later reach the strategic conclusion that families and students would support escalating to an all-out wildcat strike, then so be it.
We should not consider returning to campus until our counties have reported no new cases for at least 14 days. There is no magic number of masks or tests or plexiglass barriers that our districts and states could acquire that would make our return safe when the U.S. is still reporting tens of thousands of new cases every day. We must end the pandemic itself, and unions and community organizations need to prioritize demands that will accomplish that goal.
But why 14 days? Why not seven? Why not 21? 14 days is generally recognized as the outer bound of COVID-19’s incubation window. A May 2020 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 97.5 percent of cases that develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days, estimating that 99 percent will develop symptoms within 14 days. The Centers for Disease Control also recognizes this outer bound. Theoretically, then, nearly everyone who contracts COVID-19 on the first day a county reports no new cases should exhibit symptoms by the end of that 14 day window, unless they are completely asymptomatic.
That still leaves the threat of completely asymptomatic transmission, which the World Health Organization considers to be rare, though poorly understood. That’s why it is important to clarify that a 14-day stretch of no new cases should not conclude with a sudden return to normal, but a careful and closely scrutinized relaxation of restrictions and the capacity to respond aggressively to new cases. For example, after a 35-day stretch of no new cases, six new cases in Wuhan, China prompted authorities to test all 11 million residents. Given how nonlinear and geographically uneven the U.S.’s recovery is likely to be, every state and locality must be ready to respond similarly. Lastly, it is reasonable to suspect that these 14 days would be followed by several more days to allow school districts, education workers, and families time to prepare their return to campus.
Why no new cases within a county? Why not cities? Why not states? For many people, counties are the smallest jurisdiction that best captures where they spend most of their time. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 72.6 percent of U.S. commuters work within the counties they live in. School districts also better fit within counties; sometimes cities are home to multiple districts, and sometimes districts stretch across city borders. Demanding 14 days of no new cases in our counties assigns our leaders, our neighbors, and ourselves a local responsibility to end this pandemic, while rewarding local achievement of that goal. It forbids us from shrugging our shoulders at the incompetence we see in Washington and state capitals, though our organizing and messaging should target them as well.
It sharpens our focus on the refusal of local leaders to take the measures they could have taken months ago to fight COVID-19 and protect people from its economic consequences. This could include rent cancellation — as Ithaca, New York has accomplished — and emergency shelter for the homeless, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has approved despite the mayor’s refusal to implement it. Our colleagues and supporters may feel more motivated to support our refusal to return to campus if they are not discouraged by the progression of the disease elsewhere. It could be prohibitively difficult to convince parents that their kids’ teachers in Sacramento won’t return to school because of a new outbreak 500 miles away in San Diego. But again, this proposal is the floor, not the ceiling. Smaller states or multi-state metropolitan regions may prefer to organize differently.
Though the specifics should be determined in conjunction with independent public health authorities, we should be demanding from our local, state, and federal governments a set of public health measures implemented on the same scale as the countries that have best controlled the spread of COVID-19. Though these countries have different, overlapping strategies, we could borrow the best practices from several: Cuba’s mandatory mask wearing, promising antiviral medications, and effective contact tracing; Vietnam’s rapid, proactive, and precise decision-making; or New Zealand’s full lockdown and elimination strategy.
While our safe return to campus is specifically tied to epidemiologic data and projections, the organized exercise of our power should also empower us to demand the economic relief that our students need but our government has refused. Our students’ families are not safe if their students are bringing the virus home from school, but they also are not safe if they face homelessness, hunger, and untreated medical problems because their governments fail to protect them during this crisis. Our nationwide action could also amplify demands for basic income, rent and mortgage cancellation, and free healthcare for all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (if not permanently).
To weaponize the power and privilege we have as teachers is to cultivate a new sense of self-sacrifice. We’ve been taught to glorify the endless sacrifice of American teaching. This propaganda has relieved the state of responsibility to invest adequately in our youth and our future. But our willingness to do anything and everything for our students could lead us in a different direction. It could lead us to exercise the deep, structural power we have over the American economy to achieve what both political parties have failed to accomplish: an end to this pandemic.
If you were horrified by the dystopian, disease-ridden classrooms I described in my previous piece, if you shudder at the thought of the viruses your children will bring home to you, if you cannot study while you fear that your classmates might kill you, I ask: What are you willing to do about it?