Healthy democracies don’t hate their teachers. But the last year has made clear that powerful Americans do—on both sides of the political spectrum. And until this changes, our democracy, our children, and our futures are in grave danger.
As an educator with ten years experience teaching in New York City, I have never felt so hopeless about the future of public schools in this country. The first week of 2022 was a nightmare for both teachers and students, but instead of offering support or investment in measures that could help schools survive this Covid surge, politicians and pundits attacked us for asking for minimal Covid protections. These attacks came after a particularly brutal year for education: Since 2020, teachers across the country have been threatened by fascists for teaching about race and human rights.
Indeed, attacking teachers and schools over both Covid-19 and “critical race theory” is a primary Republican organizing strategy. As of December of 2021, eight Republican-controlled states had passed anti-democratic laws restricting teachers’ ability to teach the truth about US history. In Tennessee, teachers who teach about the history of racial discrimination risk losing funding for their schools. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators passed a law that would result in multi-thousand-dollar fines for teachers who mention topics like race or equity. In Texas, teachers are being required to teach “both sides” of topics such as the Holocaust and slavery. And in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has introduced a bill that would empower parents to sue teachers for teaching the truth about US history. Meanwhile, just last week, a school board in Pennsylvania explicitly instructed teachers not to teach about the January 6 insurrection.
Through it all, the White House, the federal Department of Education, and the Democratic Party have done nothing to defend teachers or public education. Biden didn’t even comment on the anti-CRT furor until this past November. He did, however, quietly pull funding to upgrade school buildings from his Build Back Better plan during negotiations last fall.
Meanwhile, the very real dangers kids and teachers face in schools—like Covid-19 or school shootings—have been met with learned helplessness from the media and leading Democrats. Instead of demanding gun control legislation or mandating basic Covid mitigation measures in all schools, Democrats have succumbed to the pressures of the Fox News propaganda machine, making them more concerned about how they “message” their position on CRT than the reality that children are being murdered by assault weapons in school, anti-vaxxers are threatening teachers and principals for enforcing basic Covid safety measures, and thousands of children are getting sick.
And now, a year after a fascist insurrection and nearly two years into a pandemic that has upended the education system, teachers like me are under renewed assault simply for asking for basic protections during a Covid surge that is sending record numbers of children to the hospital. In cities across the country, teachers have spent the last month asking for no more, and no less, than adequate testing, masking, and improved ventilation to prevent Covid from spreading in schools. With few exceptions, most districts have ignored our pleas, resulting in the Covid chaos we saw in schools last week. While the media has consistently skewed these requests as radical demands to shut down schools, in fact teachers like those in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia have resorted to asking for temporary remote schooling only after school districts refused to increase testing or improve ventilation and masking.
What makes the chaos of the last week particularly frustrating is that it could have been avoided. Even though everyone knew an Omicron surge was coming, most school districts failed to ramp up testing, masking, or ventilation—all of which would have made it easier to keep kids in school safely. Instead, districts did little to prepare for this ultra-contagious phase of the pandemic; in New York City, educators and families were told by their new mayor—who is determined to keep schools “open” but has so far refused to make them safe—that “swagger” would protect them from Covid, a nonsensical and profoundly inhumane message for a city that has lost tens of thousands of people to the virus.
As a result, schools opened in the new year with neither a plan to keep students and staff nor a means of educating the hundreds of thousands of students who have stayed home, either out of sickness or fear for their health. It has been the worst of all worlds. Teachers have been stuck at home, sick with Covid or caring for sick family members, unable to safely staff the basic elements of a school day. Meanwhile, those teachers who are still well enough to go in to school are being exposed to Covid-positive students on a daily basis and will soon end up sick at home, like many of their pupils. As it is, student attendance is abysmal; in New York, “an average of roughly 290,000 of the city’s 938,000 students missed class” every day for the preceding two weeks of school (that is, both the week before the break and the week after); last Friday, only 44 percent of the city’s students were marked present. Schools are not functional right now, but instead of support, all teachers have gotten from the media and politicians is hate.
This time, the vitriol isn’t just coming from Republicans, but also from leading “liberals” who conveniently refuse to hold politicians accountable for failing to implement basic mitigation strategies to keep schools open but are extra-eager to attack teachers’ unions demanding things like soap in the bathrooms and minimal Covid testing. Right now, Chicago teachers are asking for randomized Covid testing for a mere 10 percent of kids. Private schools, of course, tested 100 percent of kids before returning this January.
If districts were willing to pay for more Covid testing, better masks, and building upgrades, not one school would need to close down. Teachers wouldn’t be home sick en masse or forced to fight for safety through pickets or strikes.
But once again, instead of standing in solidarity with teachers, instead of actually investing in entirely reasonable, proactive measures to keep kids and staff from getting sick, teachers have been abandoned to a cult of individualism and scapegoating by people who would rather do anything than confront the fact that a fascist movement is intentionally destroying every remnant of democracy we retain—including public schools.
What unites all these attacks are the right-wing, anti-union billionaires who benefit from them: The anti-CRT furor is a coordinated attack on the institution of public education and multiracial democracy, designed to justify defunding public schools and replacing them with segregated charter schools and voucher programs. The current attacks on teachers over Covid safety demands serve the very same purpose. The hedge fund managers and billionaires who have funded the charter school and school voucher movements for the past two decades are the same elites who stand to benefit from this latest raft of anti-teacher, anti-union vitriol.
The failure to confront authoritarianism and the failure to defend public schools and educators from Covid is the same failure. When an institution is a cornerstone of democracy, you fight for it, you fund it, and you respect it.
Democrats ignore attacks on teachers and schools to their peril. There is no democracy without public education. There is no public education without qualified, caring, and dedicated teachers.
But teachers are worn down and a mass exodus is coming. This week, I’ve seen hundreds of social media posts from veteran teachers ready to quit the entire field. Every teacher I’ve spoken with is heartsick, furious, and exhausted. Public schools cannot survive if all the teachers quit. Which, again, may well be the goal.
The question is whether politicians will wake up and realize that if they don’t stand for both democracy and educators now, soon there will be nothing left.