Union battle over New York school re-opening

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 12:57 Author: Martin Thomas
New York schools protest

The USA currently has a much higher rate of infection than the UK, with a Covid-19 death rate about 120 times bigger (proportional to population) than the UK, and a proportion of tests showing positive about 10 times bigger. In most big cities in the USA, schools are restarting online-only.

New York was the hardest-hit area early on, but now has a lower rate of infection than many areas in the USA: about three times as many confirmed infections and deaths per day as the UK, relative to population.

New York City’s schools are due to reopen to students on 21 September, with workers going into the schools to prepare from 8 September. The reopening-to-students will at first bring them back only a few days a week, so that class sizes can be kept small.

It was at first scheduled from 10 September, and put back to 21 September after a threat from the teachers’ union to strike in defiance of NY state’s Taylor Law banning stoppages by public employees. The union is particularly concerned because New York state has an older teaching workforce (one-third of them over 49: England has one of the youngest teacher workforces in the world; Italy, Spain, and Sweden among the oldest).

The postponement deal (see here) provides for monitoring schools against a 50-item union checklist, regular testing of students and staff, and criteria for school re-closings in case of infection spikes.

As of 7 September, schools are in their second week back in England, and fifth week back in Scotland. Across most of Europe, schools have been reopening since mid-April. The major exceptions are Italy (reopening from mid-September) and Spain (already started reopening, but opening staggered in some areas across September).

The experience since April suggests that it may be possible to reopen schools without setting off a spiral of infections. There are no guarantees, and there is much we don’t yet know; but in Sweden, schools (other than the equivalent of sixth forms) stayed open throughout, including at times when the country had a high infection rate. Teachers did not incur a higher infection rate in the way that hospital workers, care workers, bus workers, etc. have done.

In Australia, the starting-point for the new spike which has caused a new lockdown in Victoria was the quarantine hotels and the private-contractor security guards there, not the schools (open since May across Australia).

And schools have a higher claim to be an “essential service” than pubs, cafés, gyms, cinemas, etc.

School workers’ unions have generally supported reopenings, but demanded measures to limit infection. Most important is workers’ control over the precautions, through elected health and safety committees using the best expert advice they can find. Elected student representatives should be added to those committees. The committees should feel confident to insist on temporary school closures when necessary.

Unions also need to demand extra money for schools to pay for such measures as improved ventilation.

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