Posted July 2, 2020
I am a 7th grade teacher in Boston Public Schools, a member of the fledgling BTU Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), a member of the PUEBLO neighborhood coalition of East Boston, a DSA member, and a member of Solidarity.
The Covid crisis has upended the lives of students and their families across the country and world, and has forced teachers to reinvent curricula and teaching methods within days. On top of that, schools are going to enormous efforts to provide food, rental support, cleaning supplies, health supports, and critical information in a family’s native language to not only students but families as well. To the outside observer it may appear as if schools are taking on entirely new roles, but in fact these are roles that schools have always been expected to fill. But now, the need is higher, the resources are fewer, and the methods of support are more challenging than ever. And as in all crises, the inequities between low-income and high-income cities are being laid bare and exacerbated, and the inequitable impact on students’ access to education is tremendous.. Although the education system is more broken than ever, and morale is especially low (anecdotally, we rarely have any kind of staff meeting without at least several people winding up in tears), this situation presents a somewhat unprecedented chance to rethink what schools could, and should, look like in the long run. It is important that teachers, students, families, and unions determine what the new normal in education will be, before corporate reformers do it for us.
School’s Role in Mutual Aid Efforts
To my knowledge, none of my 105 students have parents who are “working from home.” They are either laid off and running out of money, or working, highly exposed, and in many cases, getting sick. Further, due to immigration status, many were ineligible for a $1,200 stimulus check.
As a touchstone for many families, particularly among the largely Spanish-speaking population of East Boston, my school is situated to provide an important information-sharing and coordinating role in the East Boston Mutual Aid network (EBMA). EBMA is coordinated by various community groups and neighborhood leaders. There are two sides to the network: the food and resources side, and a substantial educational component. In order to provide for our school’s families, the Family Support Team has been working with EBMA, as well as tapping into our own staff’s resources. For the last several months, we’ve coordinated the efforts of 50 staff who have volunteered to buy and deliver groceries to the 100 families that we know of (there may be many more) who are facing food insecurity. We have also partnered with EBMA and particularly an urban farm in East Boston who, for about six weeks, provided us with 50 hot meals each week, which teachers spend hours delivering. (It should be noted that BPS does have meal sites set up for students to pick up food daily. However, these BPS meals are pre-packaged, small portions, not particularly nutritious or appetizing, and impossible for quarantined kids to pick up).
As staff have been providing grocery support to families, it has also been important to us to empower the neighborhood organizing as best we can. One way we are doing this is by connecting families to the educational and informational side of the mutual aid. There have been various teach-ins and webinars about tenant rights and other topics run by the neighborhood groups in East Boston and Greater Boston, including City Life/Vida Urbana. As teachers it is easy to contact families quickly to connect them to these resources – I can text 105 parents in 30 seconds – so that is a power we are trying to make good use of. While some (probably less than half) of these resources are sent in emails to BPS, this is grossly inadequate communication. The vast majority of our families are more comfortable communicating via phone calls and text messages in Spanish, which is how teachers communicate most effectively with parents throughout the year.
Reimagining Schools: A Return to Normalcy is Not the Goal
Where do we go from here? How do we harness this collective energy and organizing capacity to create more radical demands and actions? It is important to keep in mind that many people were living and learning in horribly stressful, inadequate, and unstable conditions before the COVID crisis hit.
Right out of the COVID gate, our Boston Teachers Union created a Common Goods platform. This included calls to cancel MCAS – our high-stakes end of year test – and to put a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Both of these demands did pass at the state level, and soon thereafter our CORE group successfully pushed BTU to sign the Housing Guarantee petition that would cancel rent outright for those unable to pay. But these are just some first steps.
We (several like-minded teachers and I who are coordinating the Family Support Team) are also trying to use this moment to push thus far well-meaning but politically disengaged teachers to take the next step beyond just donating money. These teachers are willing and eager to help students that they know. The question is how to get them to see the larger systemic injustices facing BPS students (fight for someone they don’t know, if you will), and understand the underlying problems that are creating these financial crises for our families. How do we turn this often well intentioned charity into an organized resistance aimed at the root of the problem? As a small part of this effort, I plan next week to host a zoom-action-party where staff can come and work together as we sign the Housing Guarantee Petition, call our State Representatives to push for a bill that would give stimulus checks to people regardless of immigration status, etc. I believe this is also where CORE becomes especially important, as a body of teachers dedicated to pushing our union to the left.
This is a chance for educators and parents and students to rethink schools and what our priorities are. Some concrete initial ideas are as follows:
- Educators pushed to get MCAS canceled, and we were successful in that. Year after year, we have always been told that cancelling MCAS is impossible, and yet here we are. Permanently cancelling (or significantly restructuring/reducing) MCAS is no longer a pipe-dream.
- Parents are getting a chance to homeschool their kids, and largely determine the curriculum for themselves. We are seeing parents spending more time outside, gardening with their kids, talking about culturally relevant ethnic studies, allowing more play time for kids of all ages. When we return to school buildings, it will be important for educators to gather this data from parents, and ask parents and students what they want emphasized in our curricula. We should also go a step further by inviting family members in to school as guest speakers, particularly when it comes to teaching students the history of their own countries, cultures, and immigration stories.
- Within two weeks of school closure, BPS ordered 20,000 chromebooks and many internet hotspots (let it be noted that we spent days driving around and delivering these chromebooks and hotspots, while teachers and students in wealthier and whiter districts spent that time starting their online learning routines). Chromebooks and internet access are incredibly important learning tools for students, especially high schoolers applying to jobs and colleges (not to mention their parents needing to apply to receive gift cards from the soup kitchen, apply to the Rental Relief Fund, etc.) If Boston was able to get computers and internet access to all students within a couple of weeks, it should have happened a long time ago. And at the end of the COVID crisis, these resources should not be taken away.
- When we return to school buildings, it is likely that there will be significantly reduced class sizes. This could revolutionize teaching strategies and community building within a classroom, and we may need to fight for class sizes to remain small (with increased numbers of school buildings and school staff, of course).
- Although online platforms have been important in these last several months, it has become clear to any parent, student, and teacher in doubt that online school is a wholly inadequate replacement for the real thing. Many teachers are worried about corporate online schooling, and all kinds of ed-tech companies swooping in and chomping at the bit to turn a profit and take advantage of this crisis. It will require concerted organizing to keep the corporations at bay.
Teachers, counselors, administrators, and nurses are working around the clock to not only educate our students, but to make sure they are healthy, housed, and fed. While these efforts have reached incredible new heights as more and more students are in crisis, it is a job that school staff are well-versed in even in the best of times. With physical schools closed, the extent of services that teachers and other school staff normally provide has become increasingly clear to the public. As we re-open, schools need to be properly funded as the social service catch-alls that they are, school communities need to continue to be integrated with neighborhood organizing efforts, and teachers need to organize and fight for the re-imagined schools we know our students deserve.