The United States is now infamous across the world for, among many other things, an extremely poor handling of the Coronavirus, especially given the resources at its disposal. The weeks after the first confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the country were marked by denials of the severity of the virus, or even of the very existence of the virus at all, by the Trump administration. Any semblance of action that recognized the virus as the emergency that it was was not taken until early March, by which point it had had ample time to spread across the country. The actions taken by both the federal and state governments consisted of very selective closures of certain businesses and workplaces, a pitiful and lackluster attempt at providing PPE and other safety equipment to those workers that were deemed essential to keep society and the economy running, as well as the shutting down of most schools across the country and transitioning to online learning for students and teachers.
In reality, these measures taken by various levels of government across the United States were too weak and ultimately insufficient to contain the pandemic, as capitalism is incapable of doing. Eventually even these paltry measures would end up undone by May, not as a result of the dangers of Covid receding or the “curve being flattened”, but instead due to a desire by capitalists and their politicians to increase profits by putting the working class back to work. The results of forcing workers back into dangerous work situations because of the virus are clear from the now over 330,000 deaths from Covid in the United States alone.
One of the sectors of society which faced a slower reopening effort were the schools. Unlike most businesses, schools were not reopened in May and June, but remained closed for the rest of the school year. Any attempt at reopening schools in those waning weeks would have been futile as school would end up closed again soon just by virtue of summer break.
Over the summer, efforts were made towards reopening the schools across the country, and in most cases these efforts have won out. While it’s easy to think of this as being primarily spearheaded by Republicans, Democrats took what is essentially the same position, with politicians such as Bill de Blasio in New York or Joe Biden nationally calling for the reopening of schools and an end to online learning, only without the rhetoric of fervent science denial. School in the fall for many children ended up as either a crowded petri dish for spreading Covid with little safety protections, or as an even more miserable and surveilled location where the fun social interaction that used to get them through the day is no more.
Some students, where it was possible, opted to continue online learning, or simply did not have the choice of returning at all. These students generally remained in the minority. Now that winter weather has arrived and virus cases and deaths are surging across the country, many more students have been put back into online learning and more schools have shut down. While this certainly is a win for public health, it conceals the reality that for many students from working class families, online learning means continued or even increased hardship. Such is destined to be the case under capitalism, where the working class is hurt by all of the supposed solutions of the capitalists. Inequalities in education for working class students are dramatically increased, and certain workers at the schools are hurt by these changes as well. Therefore while schools should be closed to prevent more excess deaths from the Coronavirus, it must be understood that capitalism offers no solutions for working people, and even when choosing the option of public safety, the working class is made to suffer.
The impact of school reopenings on students
For the past several months, school for students of all ages has become even more like a prison than before. Students get in line to enter the school, one-by-one and spread apart as temperature checks are done on them before they enter. The regimented shifts between classes has seen its strictness and regulation increase even further, as efforts to minimize contact have been put into place. Instead of casually walking down the hallway, students get in line and perform supervised walks down predestined routes around the school to get to their destinations. Once in the classroom, students no longer even have the solace of being next to some of their peers that they can talk with to help them get through eighty boring minutes. Now, the numbers of students in the classes are smaller and the students are spread far apart from each other. Masks increase the distance between students in an emotional way as opposed to physical, as students can no longer see each other’s faces. These measures are no doubt necessary if students are going to be in schools, yet this only furthers the case that students should not be in schools. The result of all of these measures in schools is a certain alienation felt by many of the student body, especially for those students of the working class, for whom school has always felt even more like a tiresome and boring ordeal, simply designed to prepare them for their future as workers.
All of this general miserable experience is on top of the actual academic problems that afflict students when attending school in-person during Covid. Primarily, for many students anxiety and paranoia due to worries about the virus, as well as the potential of it infecting them and their family due to their presence in the classroom have only increased the usual mental overload that school brings. Instructions and lessons from the teachers go through one ear and out the other as students are more preoccupied with thinking about the safety of perhaps their peers or families than with the material being taught.
Of course, there are many schools in which this is not the case, and where regulations surrounding Covid are lax and unenforced. In such schools, the aforementioned worry which latches onto students that may live with immunocompromised family members is even more pronounced. Covid also generally spreads much easier, which not only creates problems for immunocompromised students, but reverberates even further to the school staff and the students’ families.
School reopenings for school staff
Keeping teachers at work in schools brings with it a significant risk of them being exposed to Covid. Spending the entire day inside the classroom or hallways means exposure to a vast number of people which then increases the risk of contracting Covid. For many teachers, this does not just mean staying home for two weeks (which may or may not end up paid). According to statistics from 2012, 18.8% of teachers in the United States are over 55 years old. While this statistic has almost certainly changed in some way since then, the fact remains that a good portion of teachers are at an age that is vulnerable to Covid. This means that many teachers, because they have been forced to continue working in-person, either have to deal with severe and painful health complications as they are treated in the increasingly overflowing ICU beds or worse, death.
Teachers across the country have demonstrated an understanding of their dangerous situation and have engaged in walk-outs, sick-outs, and even raised the possibility of strikes in response to school reopenings. Unfortunately, these strikes failed to materialize on a mass-scale due to the hold of the unions over the teachers.
The virus does not just psychologically hamper teachers when teaching in-person through fear of infection. The straining effects of keeping schools open for teachers are much more mundane, and involve the extra work of keeping the classroom sanitary. Enforcing mask wearing and social distancing, along with other health and safety measures, has proved quite difficult and something of a logistical nightmare in terms of effort and cost. The teachers are now the workers tasked with the job of making sure that health and safety regulations are followed in the classroom. In addition to their normal burden of teaching, managing the classroom, and preparing plans, lessons, and assignments, as well as grading student work, much of that labor unpaid or poorly compensated for, teachers will then be saddled with even more work, which will, like most of the previous described work, go unpaid except out of the teacher’s own pockets.
In addition to making sure that health guidelines are followed in the classroom, many teachers have to deal with the burden of teaching both in-person and online. Some schools have offered students the choice of whether they attend classes in-person or online. Teachers are then forced to make a sacrifice. Either they teach the students in-person while filming themselves on Zoom, to the detriment of the online students’ engagement with the course material. Or, they sacrifice their own time and energy towards making sure that those other students have equal and ample resources, through either making instructional videos for them or having separate zoom classes with them. A teacher interviewed by the New York Times spoke about this situation that she is in, and stated that “the days where it’s 13-plus hours at school, you’re just exhausted, hoping to make it to the car at night”. Many teachers have now been tasked with teaching double their classes.
As is typical of capitalism, this work has gone unpaid. Teachers have not been compensated for the immense amount of extra labor that they are exerting, in addition to their “normal” load from before the pandemic. Any case of a salary boost for teachers this past year has been an exception to the rule of miserable wage labor combined with cynical thank you’s. And even where the salaries of teachers are boosted, these increases can often be negated by the PPE and cleaning equipment that teachers buy out of their own pockets, just like they do with most classroom supplies.
Teachers are not the only ones that are conscripted as working class cannon-fodder for the economy and “normality” against the virus. Janitorial staff, who are already underappreciated and underpaid, are, like their companions teaching in the classrooms, required to perform Herculean loads of tasks in order to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the schools. In addition to the cleaning work that they already had to do, they need to use extra precision and effort in disinfecting classrooms, hallways, and buses, all while potentially exposing themselves and their families to the virus. This extra work has not resulted in any extra pay for janitors. Instead, they face demands for increased productivity with no pay raise.
Bus drivers also have it tough with school reopened. In some cases, schools have split up the sizes of students at school each day as part of a de-densification process, with students rotating being either at home or at school. Part of the reason for this is that without doing so, the busses would be so crammed that they would naturally become petri dishes. One student is assigned to a row on the bus on each side of it. This is not always the case, and in some areas the busses take students to school just as before, except with masks and plexi-glass separating the driver from the students. In this case, the busses become serious health risks, all the more so to the bus drivers. The drivers then have to pay, potentially with their life, for the schools staying open. In either case too, whether or not the drivers actually contract Covid, they are compelled to perform more work without any pay raise. The bus drivers are now responsible for completely cleaning and sanitizing their busses after every usage with their normal pay. Throughout all of these cases of the workers in the schools, whether they be teachers, janitors, or bus drivers, there is a common theme: more work and the same pay.
School reopenings for working class families
The children that attend school come home after their classes. This brings with it the risk that the students infect their parents after catching Covid at school. The reverse is also true (and arguably happens more often), that students bring the virus with them from home to the schools. Multigenerational households have been put the most at risk from Covid, with the older members of the household vulnerable to the virus and often contracting it from the younger members of the house. These households tend to be working class, as young workers have for some time been increasingly unable to afford their own homes, and they are also more likely to be Asian, Hispanic, or Black, due to both cultural customs as well as their disproportionate membership in the working class. The damage inflicted by Covid on these sorts of working class and multigenerational families has only been increased by school being open.
School closures for the working class in the United States
Keeping or reverting to online learning and enforcing a general lockdown is not a simple solution to the issues faced by working families in the United States. With schools closed, parents must juggle working either from home or at the workplace with watching over the children. Teachers and the other school staff have faced precarity and even job losses. The students have been subjected to a boring and alienating social experiment which deprives them of social interaction while heaving the same or a greater workload on them. The poorer working class students also face difficulties in participating in their education due to a lack of proper internet connection and other resources. In short, while school closures are certainly better for public health, this option still leaves out the working class under the rule of capitalism.
The effects for working class parents
Having children carry out school from home puts an added burden on many working class parents that spend the day away from home. This year has demonstrated, more so than any other, that nothing is more important to capitalism than the pursuit of its profits, including the health and lives of its workforce. Most parents have been either forced back into work or have simply never been able to work from home in the first place.
The working class parents of younger students in Elementary school have now been facing a challenge. They are confronted with the task of how to watch over their young children that are now attending school from home. For many families this means keeping one of the parents at home, at the cost of being unable to work. Babysitters are a risky option for families with members that are immunocompromised. School closures under capitalism have forced a sizable number of working class parents to choose between working and ensuring that the family has enough to pay the bills, and watching over their young children to ensure that they are cared for throughout the day.
School closures for teachers and school staff
The fact that teachers may in some instances have a smaller workload due to virtual learning is small compensation for the poor situation that large numbers of school staff have been put in. Substitute teachers, janitorial staff, and bus drivers have all experienced similar problems in regards to their employment status working for the schools.
Online learning has largely rendered substitute teachers’ jobs redundant. The beginning of the pandemic and the shift to virtual school in the United States meant job or payment losses for large numbers of substitutes. The day-to-day substitutes that are on-call for days where teachers are sick have been in the worst position out of all of the subs. Teachers are now able to teach their classes from home even while sick by simply sending out filler assignments. This means that these subs have largely been “thrown under the bus” as a Nevada substitute remarked in March. Many of them have simply been fired outright, others find themselves trapped in a continual precarious position. What makes matters worse for substitute teachers is that even in cases where the pay of teachers in situations like this may be covered by union-negotiated agreements, the substitutes, especially the day-to-day ones, are often left out. According to Francisco Negrón, who is the chief legal officer of the National School Boards Association, “in most cases . . . day-to-day substitutes are not included in collective bargaining agreements.” This means that school closures and online learning bring with it unemployment and destitution for many substitute teachers.
Janitors find themselves in a similar position to substitutes. With the lack of use of school facilities, the work required by janitors has significantly decreased. Due to children not attending the schools, there is only an occasional need for cleaning in the school such as special events or routine maintenance. Besides those circumstances, many janitors have been put on the dole. Whether or not they have been retained depends in many cases on the unique circumstances at the school in question, such as to what extent their learning is online, the funding that the school has to make use of, and whether union agreements include them. Regardless, the number of janitors that have, like the substitutes, been laid off or otherwise put in a precarious work position has been large and a widespread distribution of the vaccine as well as the end of winter are far away and provide little solace to janitors that have been out of a source of income.
Perhaps in an even worse position due to school closures under capitalism than the janitors are the bus drivers. Online learning has meant that the job of the bus drivers at school has become obsolete, as children no longer require rides back and forth from school. Therefore, school districts throughout the country that have turned online have laid off bus drivers in droves. This means job loss and economic privation for these workers. In most of these cases the bus drivers haven’t been able to secure any sort of pay from the school for the duration of the time that they haven’t been working.
Cafeteria workers are in essentially an equal state with the bus drivers during online school. Like the drivers, the job of the cafeteria workers has also been made redundant in many cases. Some schools with hybrid learning or, if they are able to afford it, have been able to keep the cafeteria workers serving food to children that need it, yet this is something out of the reach of most students in the working class and they must instead find meals at home. Cafeteria workers have been laid off across the United States and by the end of the year this has resulted in massive job losses. They have been treated as expendable, a far-cry from the cynical appreciation for essential workers that was paraded in March and April through military aircraft fly-bys. The workers in schools have suffered incredibly from school closures under capitalism, and for many of them it has meant losing their livelihoods and having to find work elsewhere if possible.
Online learning for working class students
Finally, what must be examined are the effects of online learning for the students themselves. School has already before the pandemic been a mind-numbingly boring and alienating experience for many students. It is an institution that has been designed to prepare students for their future role in society as proletarians. Not only does it teach them some of the skills and education necessary for them to function as efficient workers. It also trains children in a regimented routine that parallels their future daily schedules of work, errands, sleep, repeat. This is accomplished through having students wake up at ungodly hours, complete the daily pilgrimage to the bus stop, get herded to school and then sit still for six or seven hours while teachers that are exploited themselves feed them information as if the students are recording devices. The students are then given their nightly homework assignments, often so hefty that they are forced to sleep an unhealthy number of hours, with sometimes the only method of mitigating such sleep deprivation being a near-complete abstention from fun or recreational activities, something which only further contributes to the alienation and mental health issues suffered by many students. All of this activity which is so deteriorating towards the mental and physical condition especially of working class students is carried out just so that they may capture the possibility of not being trapped in a vicious cycle of debt for the rest of their lives when they go to college, which represents the hope of leaving the working class for a better life.
Schoolwork is already a boring and debilitating ordeal. While there is the end goal of getting the proper grades and habits to be admitted into a good college or university after middle and high school, in the moment all of that work tends to appear to lose its purpose. This issue has only been compounded through virtual learning. The lack of being in an actual classroom where one is truly able to interact with their teachers and peers, as well as the absence of being in an environment where our bodies are conditioned to do that work, have both had negative effects for students academically. They have been expected to fulfill their usual tasks in their rooms by themselves where it is easy to lose motivation and feel removed from their schoolwork, as their permanent environment for work is now one that they associate more with freedom from their school work. This has been a noticeable trend and has negatively impacted the grades of many students.
Besides lacking motivation to complete work, the fact is that the online learning process has in many ways become an experience of self-learning for many students. The limitations of online learning are quite easy to be felt as subjects become harder and more advanced, and crucial concepts related to those subjects become harder to be conveyed through Zoom calls and without human interaction. Many students have been left to teach difficult subjects to themselves at home using textbooks or online explanations in the absence of a real interactive and effective learning environment. The absence of in-person engagement with the teacher, coupled with the same academic expectations for the class, means that many students have been facing extra hurdles in their learning which hurts their grades and dampens their futures for getting into college.
Regardless of the previously mentioned challenges, for some students those aren’t even issues at all. This is not because they have found ways to surmount them, but because they don’t even have the prerequisite to dealing with those problems in the first place. That is, for a large number of children, 9 million exactly (out of a total 56 million), internet access and/or access to a computer is simply not a reality. As is typical of American capitalism, there is a racial dimension to these statistics as well, with blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and other ethnic minorities bearing more of the brunt of this lack of access to the internet. Facing even more challenges than that, some 1.5 million students will also experience homelessness during the academic year (although those numbers may be considerably higher given that those are statistics from 2018 and don’t account for the mass wave of evictions that appears grimly possible in early 2021). What these numbers and this reality mean for these students is that they are essentially excluded from the education process for this year. They are going through the experience of missing out on a crucial year in their life that is needed to allow them to have the least chance of surviving on the job market in capitalism. For these students, under capitalism even the safer option for public health results in their abandonment and getting thrown under the bus.
What option exists for the working class?
There are many obvious problems with reopening schools or keeping them open. The experience of school is significantly diminished for the students attending, resulting in an even more alienating eight hours of their day. In the schools that do not even have proper Covid safety precautions, the schools and the students themselves easily become carriers for Covid. School staff such as teachers, janitors, and bus drivers, like many other workers in the United States, become conscripted as cannon-fodder for the process of the reification of wage-labor, with their deaths from Covid seen as a necessary sacrifice. Increased amounts of labor are also unloaded on all of them with no boosts to their salaries or wages. In other words, they face increased exploitation this year. Working class families that live in multigenerational households are put especially at risk by keeping schools open, as the young students may then transfer the virus to their older relatives that live in the house. The safety and continued existence of tens of thousands of people depends on keeping schools closed so that Covid in the United States and in the world has greater difficulty in spreading, something which seems like an impossible wish at the beginning of 2021.
However, it is also just as necessary to point out the limitations and problems that will still affect working people because of capitalism with school closures. Working class parents are torn between watching after their young children throughout the day as they attend school from home, or going to work to keep the bills paid. Substitute teachers, janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers have throughout the year found themselves having been laid off and lost their jobs, as the jobs that they filled are no longer necessary for the schools due to online learning. Students face a more challenging learning experience with nothing to compensate them for it, often having to teach themselves the material of their classes due to the limitations of online learning. The students of the poorer and more exploited sections of the working class also encounter an even larger difficulty with online learning, as they in many cases do not even possess a proper connection to the Internet for financial reasons.
Schools should obviously be kept closed to prevent the spread of Covid, yet this is only one piece of the puzzle. Keeping schools closed while keeping alive the capitalist system that brings with it the exploitation and destitution of the working class leaves everyone in the same position as before. The United States, like every other country in the world, is a capitalist dictatorship where political power is concentrated in the hands of the owners of capital, whether they be private multinational companies or the state itself. Whatever form these owners take, they all share a common interest in maintaining their class dictatorship over the vast majority of society, those who produce the very capital that they own, the working class. The capitalist class has its interest in squeezing every last ounce of profit out of the working class, and even during pandemics and crises, when working people need relief the most, the capitalist class refuses to lend a helping hand. In fact the capitalist class proves itself to be even more greedy and miserly in such times, unless it comes to spending huge amounts of capital on the national and international security forces of capital, the police and military.
That is why it is useless to talk of any sort of solution to the woes faced by working people if the system of capitalism is maintained. This system is predicated on the exploitation and domination of the working class by the capitalists, and on the monopoly of all political power in the hands of the capitalists. Therefore the working class has lost before it even fights if it aims only at piecemeal reforms within the system, hoping to somehow mould a system diametrically opposed to their interests into being a little less suffocating. The only path forward for the working class is international revolution against the capitalist system. To go down any other path only means taking different routes to surrender and continued exploitation.
Workers need a party to express these international shared interests in ending their own exploitation. This is the task that the Internationalist Communist Tendency globally and the Internationalist Workers’ Group in the United States strive towards fulfilling.
Whether schools open or close, the winner in both cases is the capitalist class and the eternal losers are the workers. The only option for workers is to see the false choices that this system offers for what they really are and fight back.
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Hall, Rachel, and David Batty. “’I Can’t Get Motivated’: the Students Struggling with Online Learning.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 May 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/04/i-cant-get-motivated-the-students-struggling-with-online-learning
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