Damn the Torpedoes!
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That fairly describes the plight of America’s teachers as the Omicron variant rips across the country.
I wrote last March about the teaching profession in crisis but that turned out to be like writing about the Titanic approaching an iceberg from afar. Now we’ve struck it head on and are taking on more water by the day.
America’s teachers, primarily in public schools, are caught in a political maelstrom not of their own making. It is no surprise that so many are prepared to jump ship. In my home state of Colorado, 2/3 of teachers are contemplating quitting. In Missouri it is 80%.
The pressure is on all sides. In Chicago, where the teachers union called a strike, parents are suing and Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pressing them to get back to work. The suit is backed by the Liberty Justice Center, a right wing organization that fights against unions and vaccine/mask mandates. They are unsurprising zealots for school choice, charters and vouchers, stances that fit neatly into the catastrophic narrative I describe in this post.
To sustain the seafaring metaphor, circumstances have created a perfect storm for the assault on America’s public schools and teachers. Pandemic fatigue is undeniable. Even my fingers are tired of writing about it. Persistent right wing lies have persuaded many to believe that Covid, particularly Omicron, is no more a threat than the common cold.
Conservative courts, especially the Supreme Court, seem inclined toward the paraphrase of New Hampshire’s rather prescient motto: Live Free AND Die. SCOTUS seems poised to rule against mandates of any kind as they sit in their mandatory masked and vaccinated privilege. Parents are understandably fed up with on-line school. The dependence of our economy on “school as childcare” is clearer than ever before.
And teachers are stuck in the middle, with no real allies. They, with or without unions, can stay home to protect their health and risk their jobs, or go to work and protect their jobs and risk their health. Under these conditions, who would aspire to be a teacher? The forecasts are dire.
The various media are slow to the story - at least the true story. In New York City, as just one example, new Mayor Eric Adams is pandering to parental and media pressure by fiercely insisting that schools will be open, “Damn the torpedoes.” For a real-time description of what happens when you damn the torpedoes, read this thoughtful post by an NYC student. If you have the time and stomach for it, read the thousands of corroborating comments from teachers and other students. Many if not most schools have absentee rates of 40% or more and so few staff that substitutes, if they can find them, have to cover three or more classes.
It is rather astonishing to find that a government’s response to a deadly pandemic is to warehouse hundreds of thousands of kids in poorly ventilated spaces, with limited adult supervision, wearing (if they are compliant) inadequate cloth masks as they uselessly wile away the hours in anything-but-study halls. In New York City, particularly, this is a powerful demonstration of the priorities of capitalism: herd the children of the poor and working class into facilities that are like prisons so that their parent(s) can take a pandemic-crippled public transit system to fulfill their underpaid responsibilities in the “service” industry, often providing for the comfort of wealthy folks who send their own kids to private schools.
Arizona is showing the way of the future, as they have done with Cyber Ninja “audits” and voter suppression. The latest nonsense comes from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R-duh) who promises to illegally use pandemic relief funds to provide $7,000 vouchers for any students whose schools close temporarily or move to on-line learning. Il Ducey already created a similar voucher option for students in schools with mask or vaccine mandates.
The Liberty Justice Center and other conservative/libertarian forces are doing what they’ve always done; working to undermine the public institutions that serve civil society. Mark my word. These concerted, well-funded efforts to put public schools and teachers in a suffocating chokehold, are likely to finally sink the ship. Teachers will quit in droves, forcing larger class sizes and even less manageable school communities. Parents and students, understandably frustrated by these developments, will take the paltry cash and run for it to for-profit charter schools or religious schools. Already cash-strapped public schools will lose per-capita funding, further exacerbating the problem. It promises to create an accelerating downward spiral, not unlike the churning vortex where the Titanic once sailed.
And the privileged, mostly white, families who send their children to private or suburban public schools will cluck sympathetically and just keep on keeping’ on.