Pennsylvania educators, bus drivers and school workers launch rank-and-file safety committee to put an end to in-person instruction

By Pennsylvania Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee
10 October 2020

We announce today the formation of the Pennsylvania Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee to oppose the school reopenings enacted by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and supported by Democratic and Republican state and local officials. Face-to-face instruction places the lives of educators, school workers, students, and the broader community at grave risk. These measures are not meant to help young people, whose health and lives are placed in jeopardy, but rather to force the entire working class back on the job for the sake of corporate profits.

The resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing across the US and internationally. It has been driven by the bipartisan policy of unlimited financial support to Wall Street while forcing workers to choose between destitution, hunger and homelessness, on the one hand, or returning to unsafe schools and businesses on the other.

Pennsylvania has a patchwork of 500 school districts, each choosing independently whether to open with face-to-face learning, online learning, or a hybrid model that combines the two. Many teachers returning for face-to-face instruction have reported that they have been given one face mask and a bottle of “blue liquid” as a disinfectant, while others have been provided nothing.

Pennsylvania classroom with in-person instruction [Credit: Conestoga Valley School District Facebook page]

The Wolf administration’s Department of Education has refused to issue any safety mandates for reopenings. State guidelines which restrict event sizes to 20 percent of room capacity exempt classrooms. Years of budget cuts to education have already ballooned class sizes, with 30 or more students routinely packed into classrooms.

As a result of relaxed or nonexistent guidelines and years of budget cuts, there is a lack of mask-wearing among students and staff, no social distancing, and no proper disinfecting in reopened schools. Some districts refuse to test students for COVID-19, with children who report to the nurse being sent back into the classrooms.

School bus drivers have been told to keep their windows down and to use a nine-inch fan to keep themselves from getting infected. In bad weather, even such rudimentary measures will be impossible. No additional funds have been provided to increase the number of buses to reduce overcrowding.

Governor Wolf’s Department of Health (DOH) is not tracking the number of cases in schools and is seeking to cover up the extent of the infections. In the few cases where information is reported, the DOH refuses to release infection numbers by school district, falsely claiming that Pennsylvania privacy laws prevent the release of this vital public health information. This was the same excuse used to cover up information about mass infections and deaths in Pennsylvania nursing homes.

Since the reopening of schools and businesses, COVID-19 cases are rising throughout the state. Last Thursday, Pennsylvania reported its highest daily increase in infections since May 8 and the second day in a row with more than 1,300 new cases. Currently, over 165,000 people have been infected in the state, and over 8,299 people have died.

While COVID-19 deaths overwhelmingly strike an older population, the long-term implications of the disease among all ages are still not known. Far too many youths have also been fatally stricken and are clearly transmitting the virus to the community at large.

On September 9, 20-year-old California University of Pennsylvania student Jamain Stephens Jr. died from a blood clot in his heart after contracting COVID-19. Since the return to the classrooms, dozens of educators nationally have died from the coronavirus.

Penn State University (PSU) has reported 2,964 cases since the start of the fall term, which included face-to-face instruction; over 500 are still considered active. Under these conditions, PSU is resuming football on October 24, which will inevitably broaden viral transmission among players and students. With over $100 million in annual revenue from football, PSU is unconscionably prioritizing money over safety.

The University of Pittsburgh has reported 259 cases, quarantining infected students in three floors of one of their massive 22-floor dorms. Those students cannot leave their rooms except to go to the bathroom or for medical reasons, with food being delivered to them.

Next month, the state’s two largest K-12 school districts, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, both under Democratic Party control, plan to reopen schools with in-person learning.

Both the Trump administration and Democrats have adopted the homicidal “herd immunity” strategy, premised on mass infections and deaths, and a universal return to work and school. The implications for school staff are ominous. According to researchers at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 42-51 percent of education workers are at increased risk or “potentially increased risk” for severe COVID-19 symptoms. In addition, among US adults who have risk factors for severe COVID-19, about 34-44 million have direct or household links to schools.

Meanwhile, Democratic- and Republican-run school boards are so intent on forcing teachers into the classroom that they have systematically refused or sandbagged educators’ legal rights to leave or other accommodation under OSHA, FMLA, ADA and the CARES Act.

The main unions who falsely claim to represent school workers—the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania (AFT-P), the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the Teamsters—have criminally enabled the drive of big business to force workers back to schools and job sites, vouchsafing plans for a “safe” reopening of schools and the broader economy.

Further compounding this homicidal role, union officials are often joining with school officials in denying educators their rights to leave, in some cases labeling teachers “just lazy.”

The unions have failed to mount any defense of educators. If they refuse to fight now, when our lives are directly on the line, they will never fight for us. We, therefore, have no recourse but to take matters into our own hands. We urge Pennsylvania educators, parents, students, and workers to join and help build the Pennsylvania Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee, which will fight for the following demands:

To achieve these goals, the Pennsylvania Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee advances three basic principles:

1. This committee is independent from the unions, including the AFT-P, the PSEA, APSCUF, AFSCME and the Teamsters. Educators can only organize and fight based on their own organization, democratically accountable to the rank-and-file.

2. We are independent of the Democrats and Republicans. The election of Joseph Biden will not resolve the crisis of the pandemic but will be used to deepen the attacks against workers and educators.

3. There is enough wealth to solve this problem. While Democrats and Republicans lie and claim there is no money to provide for education, health care, unemployment benefits, the wealth of the rich has been skyrocketing. The CARES Act transferred more than $3 trillion to the wealthy, with the world’s billionaires now possessing over $10.2 trillion. The wealth created by the working people must be democratically controlled and used by the working class in the best interest of society.

We urge all those opposed to the deadly reopening of schools to contact us today to get involved, and help build the Pennsylvania Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee as widely as possible to prepare for the coming struggles.

 

The author also recommends:

Form independent rank-and-file safety committees of educators, parents and students!
[15 August 2020]

A twenty-year-old student dies from COVID-19 at California University of Pennsylvania
[24 September 2020]

Pennsylvania nursing students demand refunds, financial support due to COVID policies
[26 September 2020]

 

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