We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction at Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that which social reproduction theorists have long emphasized: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning—in other words, care work—is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.
A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical position. It is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care. The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farmworkers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series, “Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care,” is designed to remind ourselves that it is the roles of stockbroker and corporate executive that are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so.
If you have a story for us, please write to the series editor, Tithi Bhattacharya, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The week of March 16, my boss tried to kill me. Not just me—there are more than 100,000 school workers in New York City, from classroom teachers like me, to paraprofessionals, from guidance counselors and secretaries to speech therapists and librarians, and more. The week of March 16, our bosses at the Department of Education tried to implement policy that would kill all of us.
The week before, the week of March 9, was a strange one in New York City schools. The COVID-19 pandemic was spreading through the city and the country, and school managers were desperately trying to make it seem like they had a handle on the crisis. Teachers and other school workers received instructions on how to wash our hands properly, as if that had been the problem all along. New work rules were imposed upon custodial staff. Teachers like myself were urged to report custodians who didn’t regularly wipe down the doorknobs. Teachers were also encouraged to provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for our classrooms.
All of these alternately patronizing and punitive measures served to distract us from the obvious fact that social distancing is impossible in public school buildings. This is especially true in New York City, where class sizes and school crowding have increased dramatically under the reign of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s spent the past decade slashing public school budgets and preaching austerity for everyone but the wealthiest New Yorkers. As a result of Cuomo’s fanatical commitment to making public school budgets more “lean,” our classrooms and school buildings are overcrowded, and the idea of people in these buildings maintaining a six-foot distance from one another, is laughable.
So, the week of March 9, we frantically washed our hands in between classes and fielded nonstop questions from our terrified students, most of whom were wondering if schools were going to close.
“I don’t know,” we told them. “I hope so.” By the middle of the week, attendance started to drop. The kids used the hand sanitizer we provided more and more frequently.
That same week, rank-and-file school workers and city residents circulated a petition demanding that the city’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, close schools to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of our city’s residents. More than 108,000 people signed the petition. Questioned about the petition on March 12, Carranza dismissed the concerns of these 108,000, saying he’d keep schools open “until 108,000 epidemiologists” got in touch. So, 108,000 epidemiologists not being available, the schools stayed open as the virus spread.
In fact, we later learned later that Carranza hadn’t just ignored our petition, but had specifically instructed school administrators to keep reported cases of the coronavirus secret. Where I teach, colleagues with presumed cases of COVID-19 (at this point, it was already pretty much impossible to get tested) were told by administrators that teachers were welcome to let their coworkers know about their medical condition, but that administrators wouldn’t be notifying anyone about possible workplace exposure to the virus.
I suppose this is where I should mention that I have a cardiovascular condition that puts me at increased risk of dying from COVID-19. I’m on daily medication and doing fine, but when Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio went into the weekend on March 13, insisting that the schools would remain open, I was freaked. So, when the Mayor changed his tune two days later and announced on Sunday, March 15 that city schools were closing, I was very relieved.
Then, I read the whole announcement. Actually, schools weren’t closing at all. Students were being kept home from school buildings that were, as 108,000 New Yorkers had already warned Carranza, high-risk viral incubation zones. While the city’s 1.1 million students stayed home, however, the city’s school workers were ordered to report back to work the week of March 16 for our “transition to remote learning.”
What do we learn about our elected and appointed leaders—all liberal Democrats, in this case—from their decision to send more than 100,000 workers from thousands of communities across the New York area into school buildings that they’ve deemed a threat to public health? What do they think of school workers if they say schools are closed while we’re in the buildings, breathing the air, inhaling the viruses? What are school workers to our supervisors if they think the building is empty while we’re in it? Our bosses tried, in effect, to kill us.
And why? At the high school where I teach, supervisors told us we were reporting to work in the midst of a pandemic to get “battle ready.” Mayor de Blasio told reporters that teachers were reporting to COVID-infected buildings because we were now operating on a “wartime footing.” In reality, the week of March 16 was a week of trainings on things like Google Classroom and teleconferencing technologies—technologies that are specifically designed so that workers don’t need to be in a designated physical space to use them.
Since the week of March 16, dozens of school workers from across the city have been officially counted among the casualties of COVID-19, and there are undoubtedly dozens more as yet uncounted. Beyond that, there’s no way to calculate the full number of family members, friends, fellow commuters, and others who were infected by students and school workers, all because Carranza and the managers who serve him ordered us to report for a week of school without students.
What is remote learning? Across the city, every Monday through Friday since March 23, more than a million children are required to spend hours staring at illuminated screens that force their bodies into unhealthy postures, destroying their spinal integrity and eyesight. All day long, these children are required to complete a series of tasks presented to them on these screens, and submit their completed tasks to teachers like me. The primary purpose of this work, as Governor Cuomo has made clear, is to keep the children indoors and occupied.
We teachers also spend our days at screens. Supervisors monitor our screen activity, making sure that we spend the required number of hours at the spine-destroying screens, creating learning tasks for our students to complete. Throughout the day, I now get emails to my work account from technology companies offering me the opportunity to purchase their remote learning products. At the end of the week, I submit a log of my attendance.
Teachers have been ordered to log our students’ attendance, both formally and informally. When remote teaching began, we were told to have students log in during the time our classes would normally meet, and declare themselves “present.” We’ve also been directed to log “meaningful student engagement,” and to consider such engagement evidence of attendance.
Students who do not log into our classes at the designated time may be classified as “truant.” Parents and guardians who do not compel their truant children to log in and engage with instructors via their illuminated screens may be classified as “negligent.” Negligent parents and guardians may be deemed “unfit.” The city may send officers to remove children from the care of “unfit” parents or guardians and place them in city-run housing facilities.
Remote teaching represents a radical approach to privatizing the city’s public schools. Teachers continue to plan and deliver lessons to our students. Meanwhile, responsibility for the primary function of public education, which is to warehouse the city’s poor and working class children so that their guardians can go out to make money for capitalists, has been shifted from the state to that most private of spheres: the family home.
Politicians like Carranza have framed the state’s extraction of free labor from millions of parents and guardians around the city as an opportunity to strengthen family ties. “I think parents are going to have fun,” Carranza told one reporter, “if they have the opportunity to sit with their students as they’re doing some of these assignments.” Beleaguered parents and guardians—already reeling from the emotional and economic impacts of the quarantine—have been less enthused about being enlisted by the city as unpaid quasi-instructors.
For his part, Governor Cuomo has been characteristically unconcerned about the burdens remote instruction place upon New York’s poor and working-class families. In fact, Cuomo announced on May 5 that he sees the pandemic as an opportunity to “reimagine” public schooling so that remote instruction becomes a permanent part of how education works. To help with this process, Cuomo announced that he’s partnering up with Bill Gates, a figure whose impact on public schools over the past decade has been far more destructive than any coronavirus could ever hope to be. It’s hard to watch Cuomo, liberal Democrats’ hero of the moment, praising human death and misery as an opportunity to privatize and destroy public schools, and not think back to President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”
If we take post-Katrina New Orleans as an example of how liberal policy makers will attempt to transform schools in post-COVID New York, we should expect the wholesale destruction of public education in New York unless they are stopped. After Katrina, the local government in New Orleans partnered up with wealthy “reformers” in the Bill Gates mold to replace the city’s public schools with a web of unregulated, privately-run charters.
The results in New Orleans have been an unmitigated disaster: neighborhood schools were transformed into “no-excuse” test-prep boot camps where students of color are harshly disciplined by an overwhelmingly white teaching staff. Veteran teachers, many women of color, were forced out (or fled the system) and were mostly replaced by young white teachers with little to no training at low wages. Ten years after Katrina, student reading and math levels lagged well behind their public school counterparts in the rest of Louisiana. New York City’s parents, students, and school workers, already overwhelmed by the demands of remote instruction, should be terrified to hear Cuomo fantasizing about a post-COVID world where remote instruction is adopted as educational innovation.
Discontent among parents and other members of our school communities create organizing opportunities for school workers. Carranza, de Blasio, and Cuomo kept us in school way too long because they don’t care if we live or die. They will tell us to go back before the schools are safe, because they don’t care if we live or die. They don’t care if our poor and working class students live or die. Our bosses don’t care if those students bring the virus home to their families, and our bosses definitely don’t care if our students’ families live or die. All they care about is getting businesses up and running so that their friends can make some money.
We have to say “No.” In New York, school workers in the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) are organizing in anticipation of a premature back-to-work order. MORE members are building solidarity with parents, students, and other workers from around the city. We’re doing mutual aid and strike support work for nurses, Amazon employees, and other essential workers whose bosses are trying to set policy that will kill them, too.
Teachers from around the city and the country need to coordinate our efforts and craft our demands so that when Cuomo, de Blasio, and Carranza come for us again, we’re ready to fight.