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“I Love My Students. I Also Want to Live”: Teachers Demand Safety as Trump Pushes Schools to Reopen

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As President Trump continues to push for schools to reopen even as COVID-19 rates skyrocket in many states, teachers are revolting. “I love my students, and I know that the best place for them to learn is in classrooms where they can collaborate and collectively solve problems,” says Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian. He says teachers recognize that online learning is not an adequate replacement for in-class education, “but I also want to live, and I also want my students to live.” We also speak with Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, which published an open letter to President Trump outlining 14 demands that must be met before schools are reopened, including zero new positive COVID cases for 14 consecutive days.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to the issue of education. I want to ask you about President Trump’s push to reopen U.S. schools even as COVID rates skyrocket in so many states. Major school districts, like Los Angeles and Atlanta, plan to start their semesters with online classes.

I wanted to read from a teacher’s op-ed in The New York Times. Her name is Rebecca Martinson; the headline, “I Won’t Return of the Classroom, and You Shouldn’t Ask Me To.” She’s writing from Washington state. And she says, “Every day when I walk into work as a public-school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that’s what the job requires. But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.”

Jesse Hagopian, you’re a high school teacher also in Washington, editor of Rethinking Schools. Can you talk about what you’re demanding now in Washington state?

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Absolutely. You know, I love my students. And I know that the best place for them to learn is in classrooms, where they can collaborate and collectively solve problems. And it has been heartbreaking to see that experience ripped from so many students here in Seattle and across the country as we move to online learning. And I don’t think that online learning is sufficient or adequate.

But I also want to live. And I also want my students to live. And that’s why I’m joining with thousands of teachers across the country and parents and unions and communities to say it’s just not safe to reopen the schools under these conditions. We don’t have proper ventilation. We don’t have a nurse in every school in the world’s richest country. Or even in the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft and Boeing and Starbucks here in Seattle, we don’t have a nurse in every school. We don’t have proper COVID testing.

And I think that it’s time to redefine what public safety means. Is public safety police brutalizing Black and Brown communities, or is public safety making sure the 150 homeless kids that attend my high school have a place to sleep at night? Right? Is public safety about police in every school building, or is public safety making sure there’s a counselor and a nurse and trauma counseling and restorative justice in every school? Right? And is public safety federal troops in our cities, or is it COVID testing for all of our youth and educators?

And I resoundingly want to side with the folks that say we need to make sure that the money is flowing towards these social programs, instead of to the police and, really, to bailing out the richest folks in this country. I mean, this government could find $1.5 trillion to bail out the financial sector and corporations, but we don’t have the money for personal protective equipment for teachers and students? It’s outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s outstanding right now to watch this debate in Congress. President Trump is taking on his own Republican Party and Republican leaders in saying he will not fund testing. Jitu Brown, your organization Journey for Justice Alliance published an open letter to President Trump outlining 14 demands that you say must be met before schools are reopened. You say there should be zero new positive COVID cases for 14 consecutive days, school HVAC units must be fully functional, teacher-student ratio must be one in 10. Talk about your demands.

JITU BROWN: So, Amy — and amen to my brother Jesse’s comments. I think it is, you know, really just mind-boggling, what’s happening right now.

But I want to say that the Journey for Justice Alliance, with our 36 member affiliates in 36 cities across the country, we polled our members, and then we polled allies, to say, you know, “What would a safe and equitable return to school look like for you?” And so, that’s how we came with those demands.

We’re very clear that in a system that has never even reached the mandate of Brown v. Board, that has never even reached equality, let alone equity, that has never — to make it plain, that has never shown Black and Brown children and Indigenous children love, we would be crazy to just send our children back into a system that has been carnivorous towards our young people. Brothers like Jesse have had to work despite the system, not in concert with the system, not with the support of the system. They’ve had to create their own organizations, where they can come together and say, “What does culturally relevant curriculum look like? How do we get more Black teachers in the school system?” So, we have to make sure that we do — we organize to make sure that schools open the way that we are satisfied with.

Here’s a point. All around the country, janitorial services have been privatized, companies like Aramark. In Chicago and in New Jersey, in other places, schools are filthy. There was a story in Chicago around Mollison Elementary School, which was rat-infested. And several other schools came forward and said, “We are, too.” So, just like they privatized schools and made an inequitable system worse, they privatized janitorial services and made what was once a union job worse. So, do we actually believe that without public pressure they’re going to sanitize schools on a daily basis, sanitize school buses?

AMY GOODMAN: Jitu, we just have 10 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Betsy DeVos and President Trump’s threat to defund schools that won’t reopen?

JITU BROWN: Well, I think they’re doing what, you know, is within their value system. They’re doing — I think Donald Trump is all about reelection. They don’t want to leave office. And I think it’s really important to note that what Betsy DeVos is doing is what she’s been trained to do. What would we expect differently from her? So, the important piece, I think, Amy, is that we’re saying—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JITU BROWN: We’re saying our communities must organize to make sure that these demands are met. And so, on August 3rd, there will be a national day of action, a national day of resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there, Jitu Brown, Jesse Hagopian. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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