Teaching Profession

Across the Country, Teachers Rally for Safe Reopenings and Police-Free Schools

By Madeline Will — August 03, 2020 4 min read
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In at least three dozen cities across the country on Monday—from Los Angeles to Baton Rouge, La.—teachers took part in car caravans and socially distanced rallies to protest against reopening school buildings and police officers in schools.

The actions were part of a “National Day of Resistance,” organized by a coalition of local teachers’ unions, the Democratic Socialists of America, and left-leaning national groups. The coalition is demanding districts not reopen school buildings “until the scientific data supports it,” ensure equitable access to online learning, and maintain safe conditions when schools do reopen, including small class sizes, personal protective equipment, adequate cleaning, and COVID-19 testing.

Other demands include police-free schools, rent and mortgage cancelations, direct cash assistance to those unable to work or who are unemployed, a moratorium on new charter schools or voucher programs, and a pause on standardized testing.

“None of the plans for reopening schools across the country are adequate,” said Cecily Myers Cruz, the president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, which is part of the coalition, in a statement. “Most do not adhere to the latest science, nor sufficiently close racial disparities or provide enough funding to open schools safely and equitably. ... Educators, parents, and students refuse to be guinea pigs or denied basic human rights of housing, education, medical care, child care, and sustenance during a global pandemic.”

As the start of the school year approaches, school districts are still finalizing their reopening plans, deciding between fully remote, fully in-person, or a combination of the two. According to Education Week’s database, 11 of the 15 largest districts—including Los Angeles—have decided to start the semester completely virtually. But for those districts that are planning a return to in-person instruction, there are many unanswered questions, leaving teachers feeling scared for their health and safety.

Monday’s protests are the latest in a series of actions by teachers across the country. Last week, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said “safety strikes” are not off the table if schools reopen without what the teachers’ union considers to be appropriate safeguards.

See also: Teachers Are Scared to Go Back to School. Will They Strike?

The AFT has said school buildings should only open in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent, and where there is effective contact tracing.

A Range of Demands

The protests that took place on Monday were all centered on the common set of demands, although each locality had their own agendas.

In Milwaukee, where the district has a phased plan to reopen school buildings, art teachers made fake gravestones with phrases like, “Here lies a third grade student from Green Bay who caught COVID at school,” and “RIP Grandma caught COVID helping grandkids with homework.”

Teachers’ unions in Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., are demanding that Comcast provide internet access for all students, free of charge. Schools there are starting the school year remotely.

In many cities, protesters called for the removal of school police officers over concerns of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Several school boards across the country have voted to suspend or dismantle school policing programs in the wake of the high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people, such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Others, like Chicago, have voted to keep school police programs in tact despite student activism.

“Black youth, along with other young people of color, have suffered under the pandemic of police violence and COVID,” said Jonathan Stith, the director of the Alliance for Educational Justice, a national collective of youth organizing groups, in a statement. “They are fighting back, and their demand is clear: They won’t go back to school buildings with cops or COVID-19 in them.”

Still, some teachers and onlookers have expressed concern about teachers’ unions tying issues like school police and charter schools to the debate on reopening schools. Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education, told Education Week last month that it could feel “opportunistic for folks. It undermines your credibility.”

For instance, Bob Sikes, a high school science teacher in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., said he would prefer teachers’ unions focus on ensuring safe conditions for teachers and students when school buildings reopen.

“They’ve used [reopening] as a wedge political issue for agendas that just should not be part of negotiating,” he said. "[That’s] stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with good practices for the classroom. ... We gotta make it about the schools and the kids.”

Photo: A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest Aug. 3 in Los Angeles. —Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.