Today, August 3rd teachers in Knoxville, Tennessee report to work. Despite climbing COVID rates and fears and anxieties of teachers, parents and students, the superintendent of Knox County schools has not backtracked from his plan to reopen schools. Knoxville, a liberal bastion in a red state, has not broken rank from the likes of Governor Lee, Betsy DeVos or Donald Trump. But will teachers, parents and students fall in line? A look at recent protests against school reopening reveal a growing politicization among teachers and parents that can translate into larger scale collective action.
In mid-July, outside the Andrew Johnson building in downtown Knoxville, a group of concerned teachers dressed in red t-shirts held signs protesting the county’s reopening plans. I was driving by and honked my horn as a sign of support. Many of the teachers belong to the local Knox County affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association. I heard about the event through a Facebook group SPEAK: Students, Parents and Educators across Knox County. About 20-30 people entered the building and 10 of us sat in the overflow room to listen to the superintendent of schools launch his reopening plan. The teachers and parents sat patiently as school board members argued back and forth on whether the board could vote on the reopening plan or not.
Then the Knox County School Superintendent Bob Thomas unveiled the plan which will give parents the option to choose between in-person and online learning. However, unlike other counties in Tennessee that are providing specific case number thresholds such as average daily number of positive cases and average daily number of hospitalizations to determine school reopening plans, there are no similar metrics for Knox County public schools. Teachers are worried that schools are reopening in a far more dangerous climate than when they closed back in March.
I listened to Thomas’ plan to follow CDC social distancing guidelines. Yet, I couldn’t imagine anyone preventing a 7-year-old from running up to other children and hugging them. Thomas also assured everyone that masks would be provided to teachers and students. Yet, across the county, teachers often pay for school supplies out of their own wages. Looking around the room, I noticed that not all county officials wore a mask. One official wore her mask pulled down below her nose the entire time. If a couple of 40 and 50-year old couldn’t manage to keep a mask on, how could any 7-year-old kid do so? The reopening plan also does little to address the very real threat of students and teachers falling ill. Students and teachers who have COVID symptoms are advised to stay home and quarantine. Of course, if any teachers fell ill from COVID, they have to use up their own sick days.
After Thomas ended his talk, teachers and parents calmly proceeded to voice their concerns to the board. One parent appealed to science and told the board that as a doctor he did not feel that it was safe for schools to reopen without at least mandating mask wearing. One parent spoke about her concerns for her child who had an IEP (individualized education program) and how such cases would be handled. The teachers themselves were visibly upset but they held it in. They only shook their heads and I could make out that they were sucking their teeth underneath those masks. The only person in the room booing at the board members was me; a few of the teachers looked at me and nodded their heads in approval. There was one black woman who stuck out not only because she was the only black person in the overflow room but also because she sat down during the pledge of allegiance. But by large, the small number of teachers were eerily compliant. They patiently listened to board members bicker about their fate for three hours. Every voice of concern would begin and end with an appreciation of Bob’s difficult job. Frustrated by the passive aggressiveness of the protestors I walked out of the building. Alongside me was Patricia, a member of the local TEA. We were making small talk about the risky plan to reopen the schools. “You see. This is why we have to vote,” Patricia told me. “Well by then our kids will die” I responded. She shook her head in agreement. I left the meeting bewildered. What would it take for teachers to say “enough is enough?”
A recent survey of Knox County parents reveals their worries about schools reopening amid rising COVID cases. And their fears are not unfounded. Many White House doctors are sounding the alarm that Tennessee could become the next COVID hotspot. The TN Department of Health has confirmed 110,636 cases thus far. The White House has added more TN counties to its “red zones” which are areas that report 100 or more cases per 100 thousand residents in a week. The Knox County Health Department uses a traffic rating system—green for good, yellow for caution and red for worrisome to track the effect of the pandemic. In July alone, the death rate in the county has tripled which has pushed Knox County into the red zone. Testing has also emerged as a serious issue—in the week that it takes to get results, an infected person can spread the virus unknowingly to others.
In response to the rising COVID rates, many school districts around Tennessee, officials have already pushed back the reopening of schools. Knox County schools will reopen two weeks later than initially planned, on August 24th. Teachers report back to work today to start preparing for classes. Other cities have been bolder in their stand against school reopening. For example, Metro Nashville Public Schools was the first district to announce that all students would start the 2020-2021 school year learning at home. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, is considering the same.
But the decision to reopen schools is not only a local decision, and the state’s Governor has finally weighed in. On Monday, July 27th, the day that Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn unveiled the state’s school reopening plan, the Nashville’s Teachers Union staged a mock funeral procession to protest the reopening of schools. One sign taped to the window of a car read: “”Dead teachers can’t teach.” The group of teachers demanded that Governor Lee mandate mask wearing and allocate funding for personal protective equipment for students and teachers and also fund technology access so that students can learn from home. Groups like the Nashville Education Association demanded that school not start in-person until there are no new cases for 14 days. Governor Lee of course did not heed any of these demands. Instead, he assured listeners that reopening schools was a sound decision.
“This decision around in-person learning is based on what’s best for kids,” he said in the press conference. Not only has Governor Lee given the go ahead to reopen schools but he is also allowing schools to proceed with contact sports such as football and soccer. On Tuesday, July 25, 2020 the Governor issued Executive Order No. 55 to allow contact sports to resume. The state depends on revenue from sports like football to fund high school athletic budgets. Revenue from sports alone is about one third of Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s (TSSSAA) annual budget. The Governor’s decision has drawn widespread criticism among parents and teachers who fear for the safety of their children, their students and themselves.
Many school districts are trying to resist the reopening of schools, albeit by fighting within the school bureaucracy. School districts throughout the state of Tennessee are requesting waivers which will allow greater flexibility and relief from state mandates. Among the most requested waivers include those pertaining to physical education, duty-free lunch and class sizes. Tennessee requires schools to schedule breaks for teachers during their students’ lunch period, but because of COVID many districts are keeping students in classrooms for lunch and want teachers to supervise. The board granted waivers to fifty six of the 137 school districts. Teacher groups demand another alternative to taking away duty-free lunch.
This is also the first school year that requires school districts to offer elementary school students two physical education classes per week, for a total of a minimum of at sixty minutes. This is a new requirement mandated by the Tom Cronan Physical Education Act, which was adopted in 2018 as part of the effort to combat childhood obesity in the state. In response to the reopening plans, local districts have pleaded with the state to reduce or to do away with the physical education requirements for the upcoming year. The TN School Board has rejected sixty such waivers from local districts.
Another contentious issue is class size. TN board members refused to sign off on requests from fourty-nine districts that sought a break from the maximum class sizes. In Tennessee, class sizes are allowed as follows: Kindergarten through third grade: average twenty, maximum twenty-five; fourth through sixth grade: average twenty-five; maximum thirty; seventh through twelfth grade average of thirty; maximum thirty-five.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, the number of positive cases in children in Tennessee has arisen by thirty three percent. Doctor Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force recently visited with Governor Lee to urge him to mandate mask wearing and close down bars. The Governor has refused to mandate mask wearing and has left this up to local governments. Knoxville mandated mask wearing late in the game, in early July. This week in response to rising COVID rates, the mayor of Knoxville is shutting down bars to halt the spread of the virus. But to the dismay of students, parents and teachers, schools are still slated to reopen. These and many other issues have led teachers to air out their worries ahead of the school reopening on various Facebook groups for parents and teachers that have popped up since March. “It’s very clear that the Governor does not care about teachers,” one teacher wrote in the SPEAK Facebook group replying to the most recent article about duty-free lunch periods.
For the past weeks, I have read teachers’ and parents’ replies to articles pouring in about the Knox County school board reopening. They share memes pertaining to school reopening; many denounce Betsy DeVos and Republican elected officials. This Facebook group and many others that have been created in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic serve as a collective space to connect with other teachers and parents. However, most of the energy seems to be about voting so and so out of office. But amid the confusion about what to do, one or two people proposed collective action. For example, recently one SPEAK member shared plans for a die-in protest in front of the Andrew Johnson Building to protest the reopening plan, giving instructions on the signs that teachers can bring with them.
Since mid-July, there have been at least two other small protests or “honkathons” against the school reopening plans supported by Knox County teachers and parents. In one protest, a supporter was given a ticket by a police officer for violating noise ordinance. Protests against school reopening are not unique to Knoxville. In school districts around the country, small groups of teachers are organizing protests at state capitols and pressuring school boards to delay re-opening plans. And they may have support among parents and students. A new poll indicates that only 8% of Americans believe that their K-12 schools should open for in-person instruction as usual. Of course, such concerns about schools reopening are being completely ignored nationally and locally. Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary has echoed Trump’s sentiments and called for the reopening of schools. Florida and Texas, the current epicenters of COVID, have already announced plans to reopen schools. The Florida Commissioner of Education has ordered schools to offer five days a week in-person instruction to families who want it. Already, teacher unions have sued to block the order. The AFT and the NEA, the country’s largest teacher unions, have supported these efforts.
Today, August 3rd, teachers’ unions in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Milwaukee have planned a “national day of resistance.”They are calling for police free schools, safe conditions including PPE, testing and equitable access to online learning, federal money to fund school reopening and moratorium on rent and evictions for families and communities. On the other hand, national teacher unions like the AFT pay lip service to the massive funding necessary to deal with the pandemic but have thus far only demanded more testing, funding for personal protective equipment, and that schools follow CDC guidelines of social distancing. The AFT seems to be okay with in-person teaching as long as a “science based plan” is put into place, including daily community infection is below five percent, “effective disease surveillance, tracing and isolation” and offering special accommodations to infected staff. But the precautions needed for social distancing will be difficult to implement because these are the same school districts that have experienced massive budget cuts. The AFT resolutions are toothless. It is very possible that many teachers and staff will fall ill. How will the AFT fight for them? But teachers may not wait around for their union officials to act. The next few months could potentially see more pushback by teachers and parents against plans to reopen. Such struggles could challenge union bureaucrats and build political power among teachers and foster greater connections between teachers, students and parents.
Back in TN, teachers have plenty to organize around beyond the latest crisis engendered by COVID. Underfunding is a pressing issue and the state has the lowest per-pupil funding in the region, and similar situations across the US have catalyzed the “red wave” of public education strikes, including Tennessee’s neighbor West Virginia. In a red state like Tennessee, a possible teachers’ strikes would be even more earth shattering especially because they have been illegal since 1978. Tennessee is a right to work state where teachers can be fired without cause and have their teaching license revoked. But seeing how politicians like Lee and our own county officials are willing to ignore scientific evidence about the virus and sacrifice students and teachers’ health and well-being is motivating many to take action. Even group members of Indivisible East Tennessee, a local offshoot of the national organization primarily focused on electing progressive Democratic party candidates and defeating Donald Trump in November have voiced their support for teacher strikes in the state. Many teachers have responded on the Facebook group stating that their fear of COVID-19 far outweighs their fear of getting fired because of strike activity.
Perhaps the strongest obstacle rebellious teachers face is the way Governor’s Lee’s reopening plans pit working-class parents against teachers. As businesses and workplaces reopen around Tennessee, many parents will be unable to stay home or afford childcare and thus will have no choice but to send their children back to school. “There are a number of working families who need for their children to be in school so they can work,” Lee stated during his most recent press conference. Yet neither the Governor nor Knox County officials have addressed the serious risk that reopening of schools poses to the health of students, teachers and communities.
In the next few months, one of the most important test for teachers fighting against school reopening will be how to connect with working-class parents and students. Working class students and students of color will be pushed by economic necessity to attend school and their exposure to the virus will deal a fatal blow to their families and communities. Therefore, a successful fight against reopening has to bring in these students and their families and at the same time reach out and connecting also with those students that can stay home. Teachers forging connections between themselves, their students and parents can be an important first step to recognizing the deep, underlying and interrelated issues in public education that go beyond the work-place and touch deeply the very fabric of the world we all inhabit.
If you are a teacher or a parent worried about school re-opening in Tennessee or elsewhere in the country, we would love to hear from you. Please reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org