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Local, state, and national officials are lying to Texas communities about COVID in schools. As part of their forced economic “reopening,” officials and administrators are scrapping safety plans, distorting statistics, intimidating teachers, holding funding hostage and ignoring the science of COVID spread in order to send as many children back into school buildings as possible. The effect has been predictably devastating, especially to vulnerable working-class communities, as COVID cases continue to surge.
Where is the state’s reaction?
Texas is one of 49 states currently in what the CDC calls “unchecked community spread” and in the “highest risk.” The state is currently ranked 3rd in the country for most deaths and most cases. An average of 316 people are dying of COVID in the state every single day, and the number is still rising.
The state has the power to undertake decisive action in times of emergency if they want. In response to a 2018 school shooting, Governor Greg Abbott quickly conducted three roundtable discussions with impacted parties, resulting in the School and Firearm Safety Action Plan, 17 new school safety laws, and $339 million directed in the state’s two-year budget toward “school safety” that year.
As Texas faces 20,000 new cases of COVID every day, Abbott stated that he is not planning on implementing another desperately needed quarantine to stop the spread. “School safety” has suddenly disappeared from the agenda of Texas officials.
Abbott’s latest executive order puts profit over human lives in complete disregard for working people. As per his order, “In areas with high hospitalizations as defined below, any business establishment that otherwise would have a 75 percent occupancy or operating limit may operate at up to only 50 percent.” Cities like El Paso are utilizing prison labor to relieve their overwhelmed hospital and morgue systems, but Abbott continues to sacrifice more lives to keep profits flowing.
In this same executive order, he authorized public schools to operate by the “minimum standard health protocols found in guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).” TEA is the Texas state body in charge of public schools. The “minimum standards” are to wear a mask, wash one’s hands, “social distance,” and follow a set of protocols once one has been exposed to COVID. Teachers are trying heroically to protect their classrooms, but the TEA “safety measures” in place are little more than a smokescreen to divert blame to individual teachers for the TEA’s systemic recklessness. As the state far surpasses the previous peak’s numbers from this summer, schools continue to remain open.
State agencies and local districts ‘pass the buck,’ feign ignorance
Abbott and Texas Republicans often soak up the blame for the state’s most draconian policies. In reality, risking people’s lives for profit has been a bipartisan consensus. Abbott has only set the tone of the conversation while school administrators, divorced from the reality of classrooms and often working from their home offices, dictate which students should return to classrooms and when.
On November 5, the TEA announced that districts have the authority to end online education for struggling students averaging a 70 or less in their classes, or who have poor attendance. Districts in turn gave this authority to principals, who instructed teachers to make lists of students who they would recommend forcing to return to school in person. The result has been a downward chain that passes “responsibility” for the spread of COVID directly to teachers and diverts from policymakers. In San Antonio, struggling students were forced back into schools the same week the city reached a 9.4% COVID positivity rate.
San Antonio schools have also completely ignored their own thresholds for restricting in-person attendance as COVID cases rise. In the San Antonio Independent School District, the plan was to begin a slow phase-in of teachers and students. When the city’s positivity rate was lowered to 5%, SAISD planned to return 50% of students to classrooms. If the positivity rate reached 10%, schools were to switch to 100% virtual learning.
The 5% threshold only lasted one week. Currently, the city is at a 17.5% positivity rate, nearly double the metric that should have triggered a complete closure of in-person education. Not only has SAISD reneged on their own guidelines, they have continued admitting students.
Some districts, such as Austin Independent School District, have attempted longer remote learning periods during the holidays. This was not a concession given freely but won with the struggle of hundreds of teachers who participated in “sick-outs” during October to protest in-person returns. Still, AISD’s attempts were quickly met with the wrath of the TEA, which has promised to withhold up to half of the funding from school districts that go digital.
To add insult to injury, superintendents and school boards are weaponizing social justice language to force vulnerable children into classrooms. They claim that going 100% virtual will affect working class Black and Brown students disproportionately. These same students and their families have the least access to healthcare, meaning that they are the most vulnerable if they contract COVID. If schools are suddenly so concerned about struggling students, then the solution is to “bridge the digital divide” by providing free, high-quality internet service and devices to working-class children.
School leadership has adopted the line that schools do not spread the virus, but “communities” do. First of all, schools are part of the community; they do not exist in a vacuum where the rules of COVID are different. Second, science bears out that while children experience milder COVID symptoms, they are still likely to asymptomatically spread the disease to family members. This nonsensical argument is a paper-thin denial that is designed to “pass the buck” one last time, blaming the victims of COVID themselves for getting sick in some nebulous “community.”
Thus the “buck” gets passed down between levels of administrators who often place their own careers ahead of community safety. Abbott begins the process by forcing the “reopening” of the state. Municipal governments, looking out for local business profits, claim they have no authority to defy Abbott’s orders. School boards claim they will lose money if they defy TEA mandates, and principals claim to just be following orders from superintendents. While teachers’ unions have fought tirelessly to protect their communities from COVID, administrators are routinely buckling at the slightest pressure. It is clear that school districts have no intent to follow their own “reopening” guidelines. If left unchecked, many districts will continue forcing students back into classrooms “for the economy,” i.e. so that their parents can go back to work for disaster-profiteering corporations.
How do we fight for safe education?
COVID has exacerbated the class struggle in schools nationwide, especially in states with openly hostile policies such as Texas. Teachers’ unions have been pushed to their limits, but have risen to the occasion as best as possible to fight for the safety of their communities. At the same time, school districts are retaliating against teachers– especially union organizers – who speak out against their dangerous policies. The fallout of COVID, and the ultimate response of communities to reckless disaster profiteering and forced “reopenings,” remains to be seen. But we know that concessions and protections for working families will not be dispensed “from on high” by Abbott, the TEA, school districts, or administrators looking out for their own careers and corporate profits. These concessions must be fought for in collective struggle! When we fight together, we win!