Teachers’ unions and COVID-19: time to step up

William Paul  – 2020-04-22

It has been crystal clear from the beginning, that the COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a medical crisis. The federal government alone is hurrying to get over $100 billion out its doors to prop up businesses, but also to people who desperately need money to get through the economic crisis that is entangled with the pandemic. Everywhere, we’re coming to realize that market fundamentals like price competition and just-in-time supply chains, don’t work when entire countries can’t get the ventilators, proper masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment they need, to ensure the safety of front-line workers facing people who may or may not be carrying the COVID-19 virus. It’s reassuring that individuals and companies are stepping in to print face shield and ventilator parts on 3-D printers or change production lines to make hand sanitizer. But given all we know and have learned about epidemics for the past generation, there is something fundamentally lacking when we are short of supplies in the first place.

It’s been a little more than a month since governments declared an emergency and shut down schools, most stores, playgrounds and other so-called “non-essential” spaces. We’re getting their message: “Wash your hands, don’t gather in groups, stay at home…” Given the circumstances, this is good policy; it underscores the point that we won’t get through the medical crisis if we don’t take individual responsibility to ameliorate the problems.


Shock…and questions

That’s all well and good, but the initial shock of the pandemic is starting to wear off and inevitable questions are arising. Premier Doug Ford may look competent now in the midst of the crisis, but why did his government decide to cut millions last year from public health funding? Why did it curtail inspections of some of the long-term care residences in which many seniors have died after exposure to COVID-19? How much pressure were industry lobbyists able to apply on the government to make such a decision?

The questions keep coming and point to the responsibilities of the Ford government in setting up dangerous conditions. Why did it end the universal basic income program trial, soon after it took office?  Why did it go back on the Liberal government’s plan to end required sick notes and insure that workers got sick days? As Henry Giroux wrote in The Bullet recently, the crisis we face now , “…is deeply rooted in years of neglect by neoliberal governments that denied the importance of public health and the public good while defunding the institutions that made them possible.”

He goes on to write that “…it has been a central pedagogical principle of neoliberalism that individual responsibility is the only way to address social problems, and consequently, there is no need to address broader systemic issues, hold power accountable or embrace matters of collective responsibility.” Individual responsibility won’t be enough to get through this or any other major challenge we face after COVID-19, but governments rooted in the corporate thinking of maximizing profit and growth at the expense of security, are not happy to see people act together beyond following instructions like keeping two metres away from one another.

Collectively, people make uncomfortable demands like a decent minimum wage, a basic income, better public health care, housing, faster action on the environment and so on. Just look at the kicking Ontario educators took recently because they fought Doug Ford over class size, mandatory e-learning and major cuts to schools across the province. They even went beyond that, working with parents, community members, progressive politicians and other unions in the fight – not just over what Mr. Ford was doing to education, but to the province in general. This is the collective responsibility leading to action that neoliberal governments certainly don’t want.


Teachers and collective responsibility

So, it’s really encouraging to see some educators continue to push this collective responsibility in the midst of COVID-19 despite the fact, like most other people, they have to stay at home. This is especially true of major American education unions. In January 2019, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) held a 6-day strike to return community schools to be places of learning with smaller class sizes, school librarians, nurses and counsellors to support kids from low socio-economic areas with more black and brown students who were routinely subjected to random searches by police and administrators, as their more affluent peers went to private schools. It took UTLA over a decade to win political support and develop the skills of LA teachers to the point that they could organize communities and engage parents and groups within them, to fight hard for better schools.

It was similar in Chicago. Since 2010, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has elected activist leaders willing to take on politicians to improve conditions of schools and neighbourhoods. It fought for a publicly-elected school board; it pushed former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to give schools more resources rather than allowing them to be closed and turned over to private operators because they don’t do well on standardized tests. Like teachers in Los Angeles, the CTU pushed back against charter schools which drain resources from the already beleaguered public schools.

These educators and activists understand that schools must be more than places to contain students. What makes their activism stand out is the conviction that the school must be a neighbourhood hub – a place where families send their kids to learn but also a place where they go for health services and counselling; it’s a park, a playground. It’s a meeting place for collective discussion and action. Some communities need more homework support, affordable housing, access to better food or support for immigrants. Other communities need “sanctuary schools” out of bounds to immigration officials looking for people to deport. It varies, but schools, educators and their unions realize that they have to focus their efforts organizing at the ground level.

They also understand how easy it is for governments to divide people, to make them think that it’s up to individuals alone, to pull up their socks and work harder or better – that there isn’t something larger than their own actions to explain why they can’t get decent jobs, a safe place to live, good food, medical attention – the list goes on. And COVID-19, the worst pandemic in generations, has turned terrible situations into desperate ones.

Some unions really grasp this point; they’ve upped their game since COVID-19 struck. They don’t lose sight of collective responsibility and continue to support their communities. United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) website has pages of resources for parents about school closures, online learning along with help for families that need help getting access to food. There’s a section entitled “Common Good and Community Resource Demands” that includes:

“As the fifth largest economy in the world, and with a total reserve of almost $20 billion, California can afford to do the right thing and support our families.

We call on the city, county, and state to create a healthy, socio-economic safety net for our students, working families and communities, including these common good and community support demands:

  • Outline clear health and safety protocols for the home.

  • Provide 15 additional paid sick days a year to all workers in Los Angeles County, to align with quarantine period for COVID-19; additional paid time off for those who do not have sick days with their employers. 

  • A weekly disaster stipend for working parents to stay home with their children without losing pay.

  • Remove all economic barriers for COVID-19 testing and treatment, including eliminating all insurance co-payments and deductibles.

  • Create a network of food and supply distribution centers.

  • Free and reliable broadband internet access and access to electronic devices for students while at home.” and more

Click on the Chicago Teachers Union site and you’ll find the latest updates – on COVID-19 in Chicago schools. One of them for instance, is a call from CTU President Jesse Sharkey calling on Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot to support low income families: “We must now shift our focus to protecting students and families in this crisis, educating them to the best of our ability, and making not only their survival, but their recovery, a priority.”

There’s another section full of resources for people needing food, immigrant and refugee services, employment information, housing, money, health care and education updates – that’s just part of the list. Another click gets you to “Illinois has a #RightToRecovery from COVID-19” linking anyone interested in joining …”a coalition of elected officials and community organizations, we are working on legislation to ensure public health, safety, and aid to the people of Chicago and Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic and other future public health emergencies or disaster.”

It’s a similar story with other educators’ unions across the US. The Virginia Education Association offers several pages of information like “Corona Questions: VEA Can Help.” The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City offers Coronavirus updates and supports local nurses. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) offers similar help.

These unions are in sync with their communities.  They recognize that they need to interact with families and students, to let them know that they have resources for all kinds of support beyond delivering the curriculum online. The best sites also recognize the intense political work that needs to be undertaken not only during the crisis but long after.


Where are Ontario’s education unions?

This is what Ontario educators’ unions should be doing. Yet their websites are remarkable for their lack of activity, especially considering the support from families and communities they received throughout the protests against Ford government cuts last year along with strikes and other job actions more recently. Much was made of the importance of a collective fight against so many retrograde Tory policies. But the pandemic appears to have sucked all the wind from the unions’ sails.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) issued some statements about school closures and distance learning. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers (OECTA) has a bit more: a $20 000 donation to Feed Ontario, a statement about the pandemic and some links for more information. Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has nothing about COVID-19 on its site. Its local affiliate, Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT), offers a video about the need for equity in remote learning, support for migrant workers and updates on the pandemic available only to teachers.

What’s going on? Here is a tremendous opportunity to show solidarity with the families who have supported educators for the last eighteen months. So far, Ontario educators’ unions look like they’ve taken a pass; it’s incomprehensible when there’s so much to do. They could work with local advocates to provide comprehensive lists of resources; they could share some of the activities and lessons teachers are using in classrooms; stories about how families are being affected by the pandemic and economic crisis. They could advocate for a return to policies like the basic income plan and proper public health funding.

They should warn Doug Ford that he better not use this crisis as a reason to cut education funding. Educators must have some good ideas about how schools can recover when kids finally return to them. As NDP Education critic, Marit Stiles pointed out last week in her interview with School, once kids go back to school, they will need more support and guidance to help them catch up on what they have missed.

Education unions will fail if they don’t continue to engage and support their communities over huge issues that don’t take a break during a pandemic and will likely get worse once it’s over. As my colleague and retired teacher, David DePoe insists, “Ontario teachers’ unions will never change unless they formally ally with parent, community organizations and other unions to fundamentally challenge social  inequality, especially anti-Black racism and women’s position in society.”

For now, it appears that they are following the standard playbook: keeping to themselves while missing the fundamental importance of collective effort and responsibility. It’s time for them to step up.