Discourse

New York teachers demand schools reopen, launch new national organization to fight unions, politicians

Teachers have been misrepresented. Many of them want to go back to school, but unions and elected leaders are keeping schools closed.
Libby Emmons
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

Teachers unions across the country don't want schools to open. They claim that it's too dangerous for them to be in contact those that have the lowest vector of COVID transmission—children. Yet they refuse to grapple with the cost of not educating America's youth.

Teachers have been misrepresented. Many of them want to go back to school, but unions and elected leaders are keeping schools closed.

Teachers for Open Schools knows that school closures are harming kids. They are a new group founded by elementary school teacher Eleni Filippatos and Stephanie Edmonds which counters the claims of the fearmongers and demands that schools should reopen.

Teachers unions are keeping the schools closed

When asked who is keeping the schools closed, Filippatos said "Teachers unions."

"I think there's been alot of fearmongering," she said. "When we were discussing the reopening plans this summer in New York City, there were threats to go on strike." Filippatos said she "got on a call with our district union rep, and she said 'you have to be prepared to go on a strike, this is life or death.' And many of us said 'we don't want to strike."

"So this narrative that we hear from unions who are supposed to be representing us, as teachers, they're representing a very specific voice that's not representative of all of us. And that's why we started Teachers for Open Schools, because there are plenty of us."

Filippatos said that "...we take the virus seriously, we want our children to be safe, we want our teachers to be safe, but we're seeing that we are safe in schools. To say that this is 'life or death,' or that if we go back 'there's going to be lots more funerals for kids,' these types of messages are fearmongering and they're not based on evidence or fact."

Pediatricians have spoken out saying that kids should be back in school, as have the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The National Education Association and the United Federation of Teachers have made demands as to what needs to happen before schools can reopen, including massive building retrofits and HVAC system overhauls.

The Great Barrington Declaration, penned by epidemiologists, stated unequivocally that "Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity."

The National Education Association is the largest union in the country, representing nearly 3 million educators and education administrators across the country. The United Federation of Teachers is also in the top five, and reps the teachers in New York City, the nation's largest school district. Teachers unions have the power. If they say schools can't open, then schools can open, but they might not have any teachers.

Biden's 100 days to reopen schools is a farce

President-elect Joe Biden has announced his plan to get K-8 schools open by the end of his first 100 days in office. "Another 100 day challenge is opening most of our K-8 schools by the end of the first 100 days in the spring," Biden said. "Look, we can only do that if Congress provides the necessary funding so we get schools, districts, communities, states, the resources they need for so many things that aren't there already in a tight budget."

"I was extremely disappointed when he came out with the 100 days," Filippatos said. "Because 100 days is way too many. Schools should have been opened in September, and of course there's no 'one-size fits all,' and decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, but that's not what we're seeing. We're not seeing data driven decisions."

"Yes, there are costs associated with reopening, I don't think it should cost billions." She cited PPE as a cost and a necessity, as well as staffing to keep class sizes small. But staffing, she said, doesn't mean the school district in New York, for example, needs to go on a hiring binge.

"We have so many people in central offices who are certified teachers, instructional coaches, and people who work in curriculum and instruction, those types of positions, not necessarily our principals and superintendents. But there's so much middle management, and many of these people are certified teachers. All I've seen in my experience is one ULIT [universal literacy] coach who was sent to the classroom, but that doesn't do a whole lot."

Filippatos said that her school has been bringing in substitute teachers to balance out the workload and keep class sizes small to accommodate social distancing. The science is not yet conclusive on whether six feet of distance is necessary. It may be possible to provide adequate social distancing with three feet, which would increase classroom capacity.

Learning loss could be permanent

Filippatos has seen first hand the problems with school closures. As a third grade teacher in New York City who instructs English learners, she said that "they're struggling alot." Many of her students "...are reading not proficiently, and a few who are at a kindergarten level."

She said that she tweeted about the "...challenges of doing this remotely and how she just can't wait to be in person, because teaching kids to read really can't happen through a screen. And one teacher wrote back to me 'have you tried?'"

Filippatos has tried, as have so many teachers. She said that the successes are small, compared to what can be achieved through in-person learning. A big part of the driver for her efforts to get schools open is the learning loss that kids are experiencing. She said that she hope that they can get that learning back once kids are in school, but that "...the sooner we do it the more of a chance we have and the more of a chance we give these kids. If we stay another year, if we keep kids an entire year out of school, that's very hard to recover from."

Learning loss is something that we've seen among refugees, and we know how damaging it is for kids to lose years of education. "We see these gaps," she said, "this is not a new phenomenon."

"There's going to need to be alot of intervention, we can't just put them into a class of 32 kids and expect that it's going to be recovered magically. We need to keep the class sizes small, but intervention is going to be the only way we can do this, not just pretending like it never happened."

School closures are a failure of social justice

Wealthy and middle-class parents have been pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them into schools that are open. As parents have seen the problems with remote learning, those who are able have found better options for their kids, and not waited for their schools to catch up to their children's needs.

That there have not been spikes in cases or deaths surrounding open private and parochial schools shows just how unabashed the lie of schools closures is.

Filippatos said that "...this is going to have long term effects on our public school system. When parents leave, it's not likely that they're going to come back to the public schools unless there's some incentive or reason for them. But we're going to be dealing with immense learning loss," she said.

"Those kinds of moves," she said, "of people leaving public schools, I think they're going to be lasting. That's not temporary. This is going to widen the achievement gap, it's going to make the racial and social economic divide even greater. Lots of the students who are poor and living in cities and not having access to in-person learning are students of color, and students whose native language is not English."

"I've found it so upsetting and ironic," Filippatos said, "because we're at a point in history where everybody is fighting for social justice and racial justice, but how are we ever going to achieve that if we're keeping black and brown kids behind, we're letting rich kids go to school, and we're not letting them go to school."

Our society has been talking for so long about how important it is to have education for all of our children, and now it's as though there is an intentional removal of education advocacy for the kids who really need it.

"The damage is far done," Filippatos said, "that once we are back to any semblance of normal, how will we recover? When you've lost so much school, you've lost the opportunity of the prime time to learn to read, that's so hard to come back from."

Literacy used to be a driving concern for educators, and now it appears to be an afterthought for administrators who are thriving on fear.

"Once we have third and fourth graders who can't read, it's going to have long term effects on children through adulthood," Filippatos said. Literacy programs used to be a cornerstone of education advocacy. That is obviously no longer true.

Where are kids who are not in school and not at home?

"Alot of students are not home when we're virtual," Filippatos said. "So I have students in daycare centers, and in other people's homes, and in big facilities where I'm not even quite sure where they are, but there's lots of people there. Sometimes they're wearing masks and sometimes they're not, and they're all different ages, and everyone's on their computers, and it's loud. There's toddlers crying."

"School is a safer place for many children," she said. "We're actually, by closing schools, potentially doing more harm to students whose parents are working and have to find other places to send them."

"Who are we really serving when we are closing schools?" Filppatos said. "It's not the students."

Media misrepresentation of teachers

The going line in the media has been that teachers are too fearful to go back to school, but in Filippatos experience, that's just not the case. There are teachers who are concerned about their health and are teaching remotely for that reason, but "we're split about fifty/fifty," she said.

The media representation of teachers makes it seem like most teachers are pro-closure, but there's reason to believe that this is not the case. "Alot of teachers have just stayed quiet," Filippatos said, "because you get alot of retaliation when you speak out."

Teachers for Open Schools is asking those teachers who want to go back to school to say so. Filippatos believes that they will find "power in numbers" among teachers who want to go back to school, and know that kids are safer when they're in schools.

In Florida, a little girl's mother was shot and killed while she was on her virtual learning call.

Chicago Teachers Unions' refusal to go back to school is shameful

Chicago Public Schools haven't been open since March 2020, and when they tried to open, they were threatened with strikes by the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has refused to allow teachers to return to work while the city struggles to educate the children of the city. CPS has had to hire what amounts to classroom monitors to supervise remote learning in the classroom while teachers stay off site and behind screens.

"This is not an academically sound approach," she said. "I think it's shameful," Filippatos said. "And especially that union leader who posted herself in Puerto Rico."

"It was not shocking to me at all," Filippatos said of Sarah Chambers, the Chicago Teachers Union rep who advocated for school to remain closed due to safety concerns while she sunbathed on a beach in the Caribbean.

"I see it every day," she said, noting that there are teachers who have been taking advantage of the medical accommodation, but aren't afraid of the virus. These are people who advocate for virtual learning, teach from behind screens, adn post images of themselves at parties, or traveling, belying their lack of fear over the virus.

Mental health is on the decline for students

Filippatos and Edmonds are troubled that there is not more concern for the mental health of students who have been deprived of education and socialization. She said that people are "turning a blind eye" to these serious issues. "When it comes to other types of deaths," she said, "rare cases of children dying of COVID, that's what we're hearing about, but we're not hearing about these suicides. And the rates are skyrocketing."

Suicidal thoughts are increasing. Across the country, mental health professionals are seeing more and more young people who are considering or attempting suicide. Arizona, Oregon, Illinois, Washington State, and so many other localities are seeing this increase. In Chicago, a 9-year-old took his own life. In California, a little boy shot himself while he was muted with his camera off on a virtual learning call.

High schoolers have been forgotten

"In New York City there's been no discussion of getting middle and high school back, and that's unacceptable. They're still children," Filippatos said.

"They're developing in a crucial part of their lives, where we expect them at the end of high school to contribute to society, whether that means going to college or entering the workforce. I don't think that we're setting them up for success in that."

High schoolers may have an advantage with technology and virtual learning, but they are being deprived of "so much that can't be done online." Some students are also taking on extra responsibilities, including getting jobs to help support their families while parents have lost work due to lockdowns and business closures, or taking care of smaller children at home while parents work. Some students, Filippatos said, are watching virtual learning happen on their phones while they are employed at jobs.

"On top of it, we're seeing an increase in teenagers having to work, they're trying to support their families and they're not in school, so they might have their class going on their phone while they're working a job."

Kids are falling behind as they sit in front of screens all day learning little more than how to create text boxes in Google slides. The evidence is in from across the country. Many kids don't have access to the broadband or tech needed to support remote learning. Plenty more kids can't manage to learn anything via screen. And the statistics on kids who have dropped out, not signed on, or simply disappeared from public schools is staggering. We exist in a knowledge economy and in depriving our kids of an education we are bankrupting the nation.

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