We cannot discuss public education without discussing a broader set of demands that reflect real and new commitments to Black and Brown lives.The COVID-19 pandemic is compelling a national reckoning. Working-class people need public schools but do not trust political leaders bungling their way through this crisis. Those same leaders know little of the structural shortcomings of our schools—understaffed, often overcrowded and always underfunded. These individuals may claim that Black lives matter, but if their policies continue to foster structural, deadly violence against Black individuals via the pandemic, then those claims are pure hypocrisy.
Black and Latinx children make up more than 80 percent of public school students in Chicago. Their communities must be served with the tools needed for remote learning. These communities are also the most dependent on critical services that schools provide—from meals to before- and after-school child care—and residents are more likely to work in essential jobs, have insufficient housing and health care, and suffer higher levels of pre-existing health conditions.
Our union and partner teacher unions in cities like Los Angeles for years have been the canary in the coal mine in battling these trends, which are converging in catastrophic ways in the era of COVID-19. Much of our work in this moment has been about safety, but also about a broader call for racial justice triggered by the inequities the pandemic has exposed. We are tired of seeing performative gestures like advertising campaigns, hashtags and “Blackout” days from a corporate America that has largely been silent on real intervention in communities of color.
COVID-19 has laid bare vast inequities in our society, while civil unrest and protest have exposed systemic racism. These two issues converge in our public schools, to the detriment of a disproportionately Black and Brown student population. We cannot discuss public education without discussing a broader set of demands that reflect real new commitments to Black and Brown lives.
Though it is beyond the purview of Chicago Public Schools, the government should fund—and Mayor Lori Lightfoot should advocate for—a moratorium on evictions, expansion of food stamps and extension of unemployment benefits, in addition to offering universal basic income for families with school-aged children.
If politicians are truly concerned about our families, they must ensure broadband internet service and devices for every student, and a remote learning plan that is engaging and humane—not simply a stale seven-hour school day stuffed into a new, online package.
A recent poll conducted by our union shows that the public is in strong support of CPS providing internet access and a laptop to all students, increasing the number of teacher assistants available during remote learning to support student and family learning needs, and providing learning opportunities to parents and caregivers on how to assist students with remote learning.
These changes don’t just represent the present but work we will need to continue in the post-COVID future. Our union’s guiding principle throughout this pandemic has been our responsibility to advocate for educators, students and their families, and the communities we serve. Educators started mutual aid groups and solidarity funds to help students and families who were experiencing hardship. We also collaborated with WPWR-TV/My50 Chicago to televise lessons for families without internet—a program we’re continuing this fall. And with the few weeks we have left in the summer, educators are working hard to prepare for remote learning—participating in professional development, researching websites and apps to help us teach effectively, creating digital lessons and classrooms, and overhauling curriculum to respond to the trauma our students have experienced the last several months.
Now is the time to reimagine public education for our city and country. Government at all levels has forked over hundreds of billions of dollars to big corporations in the name of recovery. Why not money for cleaning, wireless hotspots, digital devices and properly ventilated classrooms? Why not hire nurses and additional staff to help with trauma brought on by the pandemic and, in Chicago and other major cities, a long summer of gun violence? Why not warm, running water and windows that open in our schools?
The labor movement and the fight for the soul of public education unites parents, students and educators nationwide. We fight racism and we fight for our schools, but this time the stakes are higher. This time, we’re fighting for our lives and the future of the profession we love.