On the Monday that district schools reopened in Palm Beach County, Florida,944 teachers declared themselves on sick or personal business leave. It is the first school in South Florida to reopen and is a sign of things to come. So far, 64 teachers in the district have quit their jobs, 82 have gone on indefinite leave, and 278 have been allowed to work remotely. Over the next week, almost 900 were absent. Schools could not find substitutes and the result was even greater overcrowding of children... and outbreaks began.
Other Florida counties began reopening schools in August and within 15 days nearly 9,000 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed among children. The infection figures keep growing. Since August 10, pediatric hospitalizations have increased by almost 20%. Bus drivers are terrified and point out that social distancing rules within buses cannot be met.
The school year in Kenosha began on September 14 with a co-educational model in which students were given the option of taking virtual or in-person classes. Although the school did not reopen completely, new cases emerged in just a few days. Across the United States, infected teachers were dying during the first days of early openings.
276 teachers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reported that they were going to be absent on the Monday that classes began. Other school workers did the same although no figures were released. As a result, seven schools in Kenosha were forced to hold exclusively virtual classes throughout the week. Although many blame the district's school workers' union, Kenosha Education Association (KEA) denies any involvement in the wave of absences. We believe them.
When hundreds of school workers notified the seven schools last Sunday that they would not appear for work on Monday, the school district issued a notice saying that the schools would go virtual for the entire week. Officials began investigating the absences to find out whether they were legitimate or not. The school district stated that it would investigate teachers whose absence was not legitimate and take appropriate disciplinary action. The district concluded on Tuesday that most absences were legitimate and were due to illness, bereavement, symptoms of COVID-19, the need to care for sick family members, or preventive quarantine after contact with infected people.
School officials were trying to reassure the public that the wave of absences was not a covert protest. But in doing so, they exposed the main argument against the reopening as justified. The result was something like saying: There's nothing to worry about, it's not a strike, it's just that the teachers are sick or mourning.
The danger, of course, is not going to go away after a week and the school workers will still face it on their return. What happens now is up to them, not to the trade unions. After Monday's absences, the union stated that the district's schools needed to start classes virtually. But they didn't coordinate any strikes before to prevent the opening of the schools and won't do so now.
New York schools closed in mid-March on the initiative of school workers, in defiance of the unions. They reopened last Monday and 100 school buildings have already reported positive cases. As expected, neither the teacher's union nor the local union of school bus drivers will do anything. One bus driver stated:
I am concerned about the reopening of the school. It is frightening. If they do, we'll have an outbreak, and the city will have to close down again. More people will die. I haven't heard from my union; it doesn't say anything. The teachers' union said they were going to strike. But they didn't. They don't care.
Hundreds of teachers in Livingston Parish called in sick Wednesday to protest not only the reopening, but the hike in the price of their health insurance, a de facto wage cut. The union, the AFT-affiliated Livingston Teachers' Federation, is trying to control the teachers' resistance by limiting it to a single day of protest.
In Fulton County, Georgia, teachers protested during their lunch breaks. The unions [remained on the sidelines.
On Tuesday, both teachers and parents in Decatur,](https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/fulton-county-teachers-protest-students-early-return-classroom/NTB2JBFJVRFBHL5JC7XKPNK74I/) protested against the early reopening.
In South Carolina, many teachers are quitting their jobs so they don't have to go back to school. Not only because of the danger of the pandemic, but because of worsening working conditions. Low wages, rising insurance costs, and poor conditions due to lack of educational materials and increased workloads preceded the pandemic crisis, but are being accelerated and exacerbated by it.
Workers are unhappy but show little interest in unions or activist groups associated with religious communities and NGOs. Some three hundred teachers took a personal day off Wednesday to protest their stagnant salaries and lack of funding for education. The protest was organized by an activist group that also urged the teachers to contact the elected authorities. Since the goal was for the movement to spread throughout the state, the level of participation was seriously lacking. In fact, it did not close schools in any districts or cause major disruptions.
The current situation and the unions
Across the United States we are seeing growing opposition to school reopening. Some workers use the days off available to them for illness and personal business, others protest in various ways, and still others simply quit their jobs.
The situation is extremely dangerous and the unions, instead of addressing the situation, are working hard to help reopen the schools. They only get involved when taking over the protest becomes the only way at their disposal to ensure workers will not prevent school reopenings.
In general, teachers' unions in the U.S. are among the most reluctant to go on strike. It is true that many states prohibit both strikes and collective bargaining by public employees. But even in states where this is not the case, their approach is the same: the UFT has not participated in a strike since the 1970s.
The 2018 strikes, which began in West Virginia and affected several states in the country, were not initiated by the unions. In fact, they were strikes involving school workers, not just teachers. Canteen workers, school bus drivers, janitors, administrators... all imposed the strike together, with or without union authorization. That is why, as even the unionists admit, the unions could not stop the movement.
Their move then was to try to take control by authorizing the strikes underway before the movement turned into a generalization of assemblies. The unions planned strikes of only one or two days, but couldn't stop the workers from making it go on indefinitely. Nor could they prevent the strike from continuing, self-organized. Then, the unions reached an agreement with the legislators and tried to force the workers back to work.
But this did not stop the unions from defeating the strike in the end and trying to sell a miserable agreement as a victory. A deal that meant a drop in real wages for the workers because it did not affect their health insurance price hikes. In other words, the unions, even when they support the strikes, do everything they can to neuter them.
And now, their goal is none other than to ensure the reopening of schools, at any cost, whatever it takes. And it costs workers' lives. They want the schools to reopen for the same reason as all the governments of the world want it: to send parents to work and to recover the economy, that is, the profitability of national capital's investments. Workers, on the contrary, respond to a human, universal, non-national need: to stay alive, not to infect others, to have access to medical care.
It is true that the actions taken so far by workers have been very limited. But they are a first attempt at independent resistance. And they keep growing. Not just in the US, but also around the world.