Pages From Working Class Life: Cincinnati Public Schools

When stories of the novel Coronavirus flooded the news cycle this February, the tone of conversation in the workplace rapidly shifted from stupid, casually racist jokes to frantic worry. In Cincinnati Public Schools, a handful of my students arrived to class wearing latex gloves. A few had masks. Others found great humor in coughing on each other. Rumors circulated among teachers about the possibility of schools shutting down. As panic spread and COVID-19 cases increased nationwide, our superintendent sent a string of robocall voicemails, her voice calm and steady--and concerningly hollow, ensuring the CPS community that we would not be shutting down on her watch! Academics remained a priority, and we would soldier on. She maintained that the district would do everything in their power to keep staff and students safe, but she failed to specify how. We received a handful of calls in that vein the first couple weeks of March. At that point, there were 26 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state of Ohio. Being in my classroom the week before the governor called for the entire state to shut down felt wildly bizarre. Significantly, we were promised to be equipped with sanitation supplies that never came. I was uneasy being near the kids and my colleagues. I washed my hands obsessively. When Governor DeWine mandated that schools be shut down, I breathed a huge sigh of relief but also felt quite anxious because my superintendent had already sown seeds of doubt that she would act in our best interest.

Cincinnati Public Schools, like the rest of the nation, was poorly prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. However, while navigating an unprecedented pandemic, the teachers in my district prepared for remote learning, an entirely foreign concept to many of us. It was clunky and it was messy, but we stepped up to the challenge and were quickly learning and applying new skills, conducting classes on Google Meet, and tirelessly reaching out to our parents and students to check in on their safety, health, and to inform them that class was still in session. Many teachers on my team, including myself, even drove to students’ houses to deliver district-made packets. Remote learning poses a huge challenge to high poverty districts like CPS. Many of our families don’t have internet access. If they have internet access, they may not have a device. Device rollout was inconsistent and slow, and we were unable to provide a laptop for each student. In my experience, my classes remained mostly empty, and I was fortunate to get a couple handfuls of students to attend them. There were a few families we were never able to get a hold of after schools shut down. The message I’ve received from our union is that the board of education was not at all happy with what transpired during spring’s remote learning--an experience that, once again, few of us were prepared for and were fumbling to handle during a global emergency. I have heard that this informed their decision against remote learning in the fall.

This summer was shrouded in tension as the district outlined five ill-conceived plans for returning to school in the fall. In the meantime, the country grew restless under quarantine. Many people were out of work and stable incomes. Many people just needed a haircut and wanted to go to Olive Garden, and they were quite upset that they couldn’t. We watched as country after country, all of which effectively went into appropriate lockdown procedures while their governments addressed their welfare, managed to flatten the curve. Quickly, the “we are all in this together” narrative fell flat as America politicized a pandemic, and educators became pawns, once again. Parents in the community advocated for schools to return in the fall, as they had to return to their jobs. Where would their kids go? On the surface this seems like a reasonable question, but it actually exists to evade more urgent and obvious ones: why are these parents being forced during a pandemic? How have we become so enslaved to capitalism that we can't stop it for anything, not even temporarily to quash a deadly plague?

One idea that became the face of the in-person school argument revolved around students’ social and emotional learning. Keeping them isolated from their peers would be irrevocably detrimental to their social skills, parents argued. However, this argument doesn’t hold up in our current crisis. The schools students will be returning to will be ones in which they, their peers, their teachers are masked. They will be forced to social distance. They will have their temperatures taken. They will not be able to collaborate. And what of when disaster inevitably strikes? How will it affect students' emotional state when their friends or teachers disappear with a case of COVID and possibly do not return? The risk is too high. Not to mention, our case numbers in late July largely exceed the rates they did when we shut down fully.

The board of education ultimately voted for a blended learning plan that broke students into groups and had those groups attending in-person school two to three days a week with the remainder of the days being held online. That same plan sees teachers back all five days of the week. This plan demoralizes teachers by increasing responsibilities to include disinfecting after each group, enforcing public safety codes such as students wearing their masks, walking students to their next class while we are simultaneously supposed to be disinfecting, and—oh yeah—congregating in a building with hundreds of other people during a public health emergency… Teachers were notably absent from discussions for this plan that would be impacting our lives, the lives of our families, and the entire community. Our options after the plan was finalized were to put ourselves at risk, take a one year unpaid leave of absence, or leave the district.  Teachers looked to the board and union to sort out the contradictory details of the murky plan. First, it discriminates against high-risk groups. Further, it doesn’t answer the question for what the protocol will be when a case of COVID is present in the district, in the school, or in the classroom. Who will quarantine? For how long? How do we know this is safe and in accordance to CDC guidelines? Moreover, the plan positions all teachers as expendable. The board knows the risk they are taking. They simply do not care. And why don’t they care? Our funding is based on students in physical seats. Why this rule still applies during a global emergency, I couldn’t tell you. But the board has threatened that a remote learning plan would somehow be more expensive, without releasing any budget to support this argument, and they would have to lay off more teachers, aside from the hundred plus they let go or moved this July.

Since the district announced these plans on June 29, COVID-19 cases have spiked considerably. As of this writing, there are 80,186 confirmed cases in the state of Ohio. There have been over 3,000 deaths. Why would we shut down the state at 24 cases and reopen at tens of thousands? I expected our union to immediately come forth with a statement condemning the reopening plans, but no statement came. Instead, we received a few tepid messages reminding teachers of their options regarding sick leave. As I watched union after union across the country step up against their respective boards on behalf of educators, I wondered, “Where is my union representation?” I reached out to a colleague who wondered the same. We attended school board meetings, held online (irony abounds!), to voice our frustrations to the board. In attending these meetings, we recognized that teachers across the district shared our concerns, our worry, our disgust. Still, we were met with hollow reassurance, from board members wearing their masks incorrectly or not at all, that these plans were in our best interest.

Thanks to the encouragement and assistance of DSA co-chair, Daniel Merrill, I reached out to teachers and began to organize a coalition of rank and file members who longed to see stronger leadership from our union and accountability from our school board. Our group created a message thread, a Facebook group dedicated to the safe reopening of our schools, a social media campaign, and a petition which has garnered over 1,500 signatures in under four days. We have been sending letters to board members around the clock. I’ve connected with teachers who have incredible experience organizing and creating effective, goal-oriented campaigns. Our petition and letters to the board have gained the attention of WLWT, who featured snippets of our petition comments and sound bytes from our letters. While a couple members of our union initially met our campaign with vexation because we did not fully trust their efforts, we have expressed that we need open lines of communication and common goals moving forth. Our union representatives are an excellent resource, but they needed to be pushed by teachers thrust into a life or death plan to embolden the union to take a clear stance against in-person learning while the pandemic persists. They released an explicit statement pushing for remote only learning to start the year. This is all a great start, but we have so much more work to do. Thankfully, we have built momentum and a cause that many teachers believe is worth fighting for.