Contrary to the media’s message, which keeps insisting on school being a safe place and that children do not transmit the Covid, the data indicate a vastly different reality. In Spain, educational centers are already the third focus of infection, ahead of the health care sector. In Germany, which is in an earlier phase than Spain, 11% of traceable chains of infection begin in educational centers. Corroborating all this, epidemiological and statistical studies comparing the effects of state policies on the rate of reproduction (R, the average number of people infected by a patient), show that closing down schools reduces the peak incidence by 40-60% and that refusing to close them would increase transmission of Covid by 24%.
The impact of schools on the development of the pandemic and the threat to students and workers is evident. It is not surprising then that strikes break out around the world to improve health conditions or directly close schools. And in fact, they have spread to all the continents affected by the Covid. From the most remote rural India to Canada via Algeria.
In India the Anganwadi system of nurseries employs hundreds of thousands of workers per state. Victims of governmental neglect – the workers have not been paid for months – and dying from the pandemic, the Anganwadi staff have staged massive strikes throughout the fall demanding the payment of overdue wages and better conditions against the pandemic, along with other government contract workers. In Africa, there are teacher strikes in two Algerian high schools due to the lack of preventive and disinfection measures.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the strike in Entre Ríos province is restarting to avoid the return to the classroom. In Canada, workers at a school in Toronto strike over the outbreak of cases in the center, while the unions keep turning a blind eye:
My colleagues and I are following the developments very closely and wondering what will happen next. At the same time, our union remains very calm. It’s like the school boards and our union are keeping us in the dark.
The rapid escalation of Covid cases in Quebec and across Canada has also caused a strike movement of school support staff, which clamours against the understaffing and overwork caused by Covid.
And this is just a small sample of the strikes that are taking place in educational centers around the world to improve the conditions of workers and students. However, these strikes are born in isolation and they collide with the first stumbling block facing most strikes.
The first stumbling block: organization and coordination between centers
All these strikes represent in principle many education workers around the world and even within a single country, but in reality, due to their atomized and uncoordinated nature, they tend to be unable to assert their needs. Class struggle is, after all, a correlation of forces. As long as strikes remain isolated, they represent, at best, the struggle of a group of workers.
This move from a strike confined to a center or region towards a greater territorial extension seems to be one of the most limiting steps, most difficult things for a strike to achieve successfully. However, since the end of September, several attempts have been made to organize a greater number of affected workers. In South Carolina, the teachers who were fighting against the abysmal anti-Covid measures decided to organize a virtual assembly among the members of different schools. However, the assembly finally served to attend the seminar of an activist group and to call regional politicians instead of organizing a struggle or a strike in the affected centers:
About three hundred teachers took a day off for personal business on Wednesday to protest the stagnation of their salaries and the lack of funds for education. The protest was organized by an activist group that also urged the teachers to contact the elected authorities. Since the aim was for the movement to spread throughout the state, the level of participation was very poor. In fact, it did not close any districts or cause major disruptions.
In the absence of a real base in the educational centers – teachers demonstrated on an individual basis – and of a mass of educational workers on their side, the attempt failed.
In France, in the context of a series of isolated middle and high school strikes, the teachers of the academic city of Bondy went on strike due to the lack of personnel and the inadequacy of security measures against the pandemic. And the strikers took another step forward, they called for coordination between striking centers:
All of these dysfunctions clearly demonstrate the institutional mistreatment of all students and staff. To date, this disregard is expressed in particular by the lack of response to our requests for a hearing with the region and the administration. This situation is shared and denounced by many schools. We express our full support and ask for coordination, so that both the administration and the region know that this situation cannot go on.
There was no coordination at the end. But strikes kept on breaking out in schools all over France from the end of September to early November, center by center. In Liévin (in the north of the country), the strike denounced the lack of safety measures. In Toulouse, https://www.ladepeche.fr/2020/10/13/toulouse-au-lycee-bellevue-des-enseignants-entament-une-greve-pour-denoncer-le-non-respect-du-protocole-sanitaire-9136165.php”>they had neither the means nor enough hydro-alcoholic gel, the correct distribution of which the government never bothered to secure. In Briançon, there was a lack of material and cleaning staff, so that classrooms had not been cleaned properly since the beginning of the academic year . Center by center the strikes raged for similar reasons without ever meeting or working out a common platform that could be embraced by workers from all schools in the country. This, on the other hand, would have been easy because in France it was no longer just a problem of overcrowded classrooms due to lack of personnel: the lack of hygienic measures endangered staff and students even where there was a correct number of students per class.
Strikes work, we need to keep pushing
Pushed by the rank and file, French unions called for a nationwide strike last week. From Monday to Friday, hundreds of schools went on strike. For instance, in Marseille alone 57 day-care centers and 158 schools went on strike. After a whole week of strike to achieve improvements in the sanitary and hygienic situation in the schools, the French government gave in on Friday and allowed remote education in the high schools (lycées) to reduce overcrowding in the classrooms.
After this victory, the strike will continue in high schools and colleges from today in order to ensure that remote education and the reduction of the number of students per class is extended to primary and middle schools. From the South to Normandy the strike will keep pushing for better health conditions for all education workers and students.
The important thing is that strikes work, and not just the big strike in France. Even some small strikes in Spain have managed to improve conditions in private schools. For example, some centers like the Terra Roja high school in Santa Coloma de Gramenet (Barcelona) had elaborated for this academic year teaching plans with mixed in-person and remote teaching, taking into account the pandemic. However, the Spanish government imposed mandatory attendance and vetoed the school’s teaching plan. After demonstrations and a strike threat, the local government backed down, provided the center with means against Covid and allowed for mixed teaching. This is a victory, although in a single center. To positively affect the whole of education – and the struggle against Covid – these measures should be extended to everyone, something only possible through the generalization of a strike.
In the correlation of forces we spoke of above, it is not only the workers in the education sector who can fight for the needs of all. All our children go through the education system. The rest of the working class also carries weight and can join the education workers, extending the strike to other sectors.
For instance, we are witnessing the nursing homes becoming full of Covid cases while the government and the media are dealing with issues of higher priority for the ruling class. The residencia Vitalis, in Cádiz, is going on indefinite strike after suffering more than a hundred infected and 13 deaths. All workers count. We must organize together in assemblies and in our workplaces to confront a government and a ruling class who value their benefits over our lives.