In the midst of Covid’s third wave, attempts to keep schools open — or reopen them where they were closed — are meeting the resistance of teachers, education service workers and students.
The Chicago Teachers Union was forced to summon its members last Sunday. Bent on its back-to-school campaign, it had until now advocated that teaching virtual or face-to-face was a personal and individual decision… even when accompanied by pay decreases and future exclusions on renewals.
But when finally consulted, the vast majority of members voted to keep teaching classes virtually. In need of regaining representativeness, the union agreed to call strikes at all educational levels in the case that any of its members, including preschool and special education teachers, were retaliated against in any way for refusing to teach in person. A radical change in their policy, revealing the extent to which teachers have gained determination. And faced with the force of the strike coming their way, the administrators of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had to agree not only to maintain distance learning but to extend it to early childhood education.
Of course this does not mean that the union is now going to be on the side of the workers. It’s just a step-down in order to regain representativeness. In the agreement it is negotiating, volunteer K-8 (elementary through early middle school) teachers may go to school to meet the influx of students opting for face-to-face learning. It’s a Trojan horse: it will inevitably lead to classroom saturation, forcing elementary teachers who opted for virtual learning to return to the classroom before being vaccinated.
As far as Europe is concerned, the media are much more interested in small skirmishes involving 100s of people in the Netherlands and Denmark than in strikes and movements of 1000s and 1000s of students and teachers in Italy and France. The demonstrations and riots of the far right and shopkeepers take center stage throughout the European press while the much broader and dangerous mobilizations of the workers disappear from the daily summary. In general, the struggles in the educational sector continue in Italy, France and begin to emerge in Spain.
In Italy, the student strikes that broke out earlier this month are continuing across the country. The Italian government did not improve sanitary conditions in schools, it simply delayed the reopening after the vacations by a week and then sent students back to class in the midst of a pandemic emergency. In a student information sheet we can read:.
They kept us in distance learning (DAD in Italian) when we were still in the yellow zone, forcing us into a mutilated education, and they intend to reopen the schools now that the situation has worsened, just after the vacations, with a large increase in contagions and almost all regions in the orange or red zone. The transport situation has not improved at all.
Starting on the 18th, part of the student body called a strike against the return to classroom classes, while others began to occupy institutes and schools in order to demand the minimum hygiene measures necessary for the classrooms to stop being pandemic hotbeds. Faced with the school occupations, which were met with police repression, Rome’s prefect only responded with a subdued trust us [the government] earlier this week.
Meanwhile, quite a few teachers joined the students. Teachers at one school in Frosinone explained it this way:
The school scrupulously followed safety protocols limiting transmission indoors, being able to count on constant ventilation of the premises. Today, given the season, this is much more difficult. Many infections were attributed to family groups, students who were infected outside the school have carried the virus indoors, with the result that their classmates, but not the teachers (engaged in more classes, sometimes in more schools), were forced to stop classes.
Although more and more teachers are supporting the striking students, the situation has not improved and the struggle continues. Students continue to occupy several centers in Rome and other cities while defying the government. This Friday a national teachers’ strike is called in Italy to join the students and mobilizations in 20 major cities.
In France, there has been another national strike in high schools led by trade unions on Tuesday. Many centers have gone on strike independently days before and after Tuesday’s call. One of the main slogans has been the continuing cuts in education. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the French government keeps shutting down classrooms semester after semester. Rather than hire new staff, the government prefers shutting down classrooms and cramming students into the remaining ones. This strike has been joined by day care centers and school services, as well as educational assistants. For the first time in a long time, desperation in one school has caused a hunger strike among the teaching staff.
How has the French government reacted? By complaining about the possible costs to its image of increasing restrictions and suggesting lengthening the February school vacations a little. All this while congratulating itself on having kept classrooms open — without decent hygiene and safety conditions — and presenting it as a source of collective pride:
Within schools, at the moment, contagions are not flaring up, he assured, stressing once again that France was one of the countries that, by 2020, will have saved the most school days for children, a victory and a reason for collective pride.
Improving hygiene and staffing conditions in order to allow safe semi-presence – as requested in Italy and was requested in the previous French strike – is something that is not even envisaged. Either on-site attendance without any guarantee or vacations. That’s all the French government is offering.
In Spain, territorial lack of coordination is still going on. Where in France and Italy the unions implement strikes of school workers and/or students with nationwide calls, in Spain – replicating the disjointed functioning of the state of which they are a part – the unions in each region go their own way… and only where pressure is growing strong enough to force them into moving.
In the Basque Country there are strikes with large followings in education and school services, although the extremely high minimum services of the school utilities have limited what could have been a much larger turnout:
According to him, the Department of Labor considers essential a service that is described as complementary by the Department of Education, therefore a self-serving interpretation of the minimum services mandate by companies means that thousands of workers are being forced to go to work, in many cases with the threat of penalties, violating their right to strike.
In Murcia, the school cleaning workers have also announced a strike, affecting 48 schools. However, elsewhere in Spain much of the action has been driven by students, similar to the Italian situation. From the protests in Asturian high schools due to poor conditions to the call for a student strike in Extremadura against the unsafe return to high schools which was followed by 50% in Badajoz high schools.
The Spanish government, through the mouth of its education minister, responded with its usual cynicism and contempt asserting that schools serve as a tool for early detection of pandemic hotspots.