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The Growing Fight Against the School Death Trap

Teachers, bus drivers, health aides, and other school workers are organizing against a culture that is trying to feed them into the jaws of the pandemic.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

A special education teacher at a public high school in Queens remembers a week in April when, almost every day, she learned another student at her school had lost a parent or grandparent to Covid-19. Now she fears reopening this fall—even with a hybrid learning model like the one proposed in New York—will trigger another wave of grief. 

“I feel like they’re sending me back to orphan my kids,” she told me, asking to remain anonymous because she fears professional repercussions for speaking out. She misses seeing her students in person, but all the talk around opening in a masked, socially distanced, constantly sanitized environment reminds her of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” None of the plans she’s seen seem realistic for her overcrowded school, and she’s worried teachers will spread the virus to students and their families, many of whom live in multigenerational households. She lost a parent in high school and is horrified by the prospect of more kids going through the same—and feeling complicit as “a vector of death.” 

With more than 144,734 Americans lost to Covid-19, teachers and school staff around the country share her worries. A recent study from South Korea found that young children can infect others, and kids over 10 can spread the virus as effectively as adults. Of course, schools cannot open without the workers who keep our education system running—teachers, bus drivers, custodians, food service personnel, paraprofessionals, school nurses, and others. Many fear that going back will put them, their families, their students, and their communities at risk. According to an Ipsos poll conducted in May, nearly one in five teachers would quit if they had to return to school this fall, and around half have considered leaving their jobs. Some are writing their wills.

A growing number of education workers are asking their school and union leaders and elected officials to postpone reopening until the virus is under control. A national movement, Refuse to Return, calls for staff and students not to come back in person “until our counties report no new cases of Covid-19 for at least 14 consecutive days,” the outer window in which experts say 99 percent of symptomatic people will develop signs of infection. Since Harley Litzelman, a high school history teacher and union organizer in Oakland, California, launched the campaign in late June, affiliated Facebook groups have formed in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 80,000 people have signed the Refuse to Return petition. On July 27, local organizers are planning a Day of Action Against Pandemic Inaction, with car caravans, remote protests, and phone and email drives targeting their school superintendents and local and state officials.

Much of the discussion around reopening has worked backward from the premise that schools must provide in-person learning in some capacity. Litzelman wants to flip that logic. For him, it’s not just about refusing to put himself, his students, and his fiancée, who has asthma, at risk: It’s a rejection of the idea that Americans must “normalize the constant death of our neighbors” to keep the economy running as the pandemic rages on. While an initial call to action directly addressed teachers, Refuse to Return aims to engage nonteaching staff, parents, students, and “even people unrelated to education, because ultimately this campaign is about preventing greater community transmission everywhere.” 

“It is our responsibility to exercise our power as workers to force our leaders to do what they have refused: end this pandemic,” Refuse to Return’s sample resolution reads. “Our demands are intrinsically tied to the movements for racial justice, as Black and Brown communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of this pandemic and will continue to do so if elected officials force students and staff to return to campus before it is safe.” According to CDC data, Black and Latinx people in the United States are three times as likely to contract Covid-19 as white Americans and almost twice as likely to die from it. Litzelman sees connections between the pandemic, school shootings, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—all lethal failures of a capitalist system in which leaders “acclimate Americans to the idea that this is just something that we deal with.” 

Litzelman points out teachers have more leverage to stay home than many American workers, including other school employees. About 65 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. belong to unions, and despite the myriad challenges of teaching and learning remotely, it’s possible for them to do their jobs online. 

In contrast, Sequoia, a nonunion health tech who works alongside the school nurse at an elementary school in Aurora, Colorado, is “between a rock and a hard place” this fall. If a student or staff member becomes infected, “I will be coming in direct contact with them when they come to the clinic, and I will be around them for an extended amount of time,” she said. But if her school doesn’t open for in-person learning, she doesn’t get paid. 

Sequoia’s paychecks continued after the school shut down this spring, since her position was already budgeted, but her district, like many around the country, is now facing a deficit. Some of the ideas floated to reduce costs include “charging children to use the school bus, upping athletic fees, getting rid of nurses and replacing them with my position, which I think is completely crazy, especially during a pandemic.”

She and the school nurse share a small clinic and will have to borrow an isolation room from another department. If they have more than two people at the school showing symptoms, Sequoia doesn’t know what they’re going to do. But at the same time, she can’t imagine not coming back to her students if the campus opens. “It would be like abandoning the Titanic as it goes down. I’m like, that’s my ship, I’m going to go down with it,” she said.  

Sequoia joined a Facebook group affiliated with Refuse to Return and has emailed Governor Jared Polis, asking him to make a decision about reopening because she feels Colorado’s school districts are dragging their feet. When the school year starts on August 17, she’d ideally like to begin remotely, despite the fact that her son, who has autism and is nonverbal, has struggled with online learning. “It is easier to bring a child back up to their level than it is to bury a child,” she said. “So if it means keeping the kids safe and they’re behind a little bit, then so be it.” 

Covid-19 is already killing school workers, even before the doors open for fall. In Arizona, three teachers shared a classroom to give virtual summer school lessons. Despite wearing masks, sanitizing, and maintaining distance, all of them tested positive for the virus, and one, Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, died in June. In Florida, Jordan Byrd (no relation), a 19-year-old college student who worked as a school custodian, recently died after contracting the virus. The school’s principal and his wife, who is the principal of another school in the area, both tested positive and experienced “relatively mild” cases.  

“Our school family is devastated,” a teacher at Jordan Byrd’s school wrote on Facebook, according to a report in the Tallahassee Democrat, “and this occurred with no teachers, paraprofessionals [or] students on campus. If this disease spread in the school where masks were required, social distancing, and other safety measures were in place, imagine what it will look like when kids are arriving on buses, sitting in classrooms, walking the crowded halls, and eating lunch with no masks.” The Florida Education Association, which represents around 150,000 educators, including public school teachers and staff, is suing the state, arguing that returning to school before the virus is under control violates the state’s constitution. 

Chuck Paquette, a veteran school bus driver near Syracuse, New York, who’s been in public school transportation for over 30 years, knows three drivers who’ve decided to retire early rather than chance their health going back to work. He says he’s no alarmist but is taking the risk seriously: Though he recovered from Covid at home in March, he deals with lingering effects and understands there’s a risk he could become infected again. Even with a mild case, “I’ve never been that kind of sick in my life.”

Paquette wonders about the logistics of going back: What happens when a kid on his bus tests positive? If he has to quarantine, will he be forced to use his sick days? Will he be given masks to hand out when students inevitably arrive at the bus stop without one? “What do I do when I’m driving down the road and Johnny says, ‘Susie took off her mask?’” he said.

In Detroit, protesters blocked school buses from transporting students to summer school, which was offered in person on a voluntary basis. Two students were confirmed positive for the virus after an activist group, By Any Means Necessary, sued, and a judge ordered the Detroit Public Schools Community District to test those attending face-to-face classes. “There should have been a foot put down, children’s lives in danger,” Todd Weems, a bus driver who quit, told Detroit TV station WXYZ.

Refuse to Return’s messaging doesn’t call for an actual strike—which is illegal for public school teachers in many states, though that didn’t stop a wave of walkouts in 2018—but Litzelman wanted the name to convey “a commitment to militant action.” While some unions, including United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union, have called for a fully remote reopening and are advocating for broader social justice policies, many “have not wanted to take as aggressive a position as the one we have.” However, he’s seeing the campaign language get picked up around the country, and groups including Louisiana’s Jefferson Federation of Teachers and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association in California have adopted the central demand of “14 days, no new cases” before resuming instruction in person.

Around the country, educators are drawing on their collective power. In March, the threat of sick-outs from rank-and-file teachers union members helped push New York City’s schools to shut down as the virus spread. “When I look through the literally thousands of posts in all of the different groups, we see stakeholders and school staff of all varieties,” Litzelman said. “If we all refuse to return, we will all protect one another.”