Detroit teachers vote safety strike

August 29, 2020

From the September-October 2020 issue of News & Letters

Detroit— Ninety percent of the members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) voted to authorize a safety strike, which means they will not teach face-to-face but are willing to work remotely. The DFT president maintains that the union was not adequately included in the re-opening planning. Several teachers doubt that 20% of parents will actually send their children to school on Sept. 8. Most parents, students, and educators want to return to classroom learning, but COVID-19 forces everyone into choices unthinkable six months ago, choices that could mean life or death. People have to make these choices when school funding is challenged, when many doubt schools can be safe for students, teachers, staff and their families, and when it’s too early to know the ramifications of remote education.

Trump’s politicized defiance of public health guidelines has helped the coronavirus to become so widespread that return to in-person learning, the best educational setting, is grinding to a halt. One high school in Georgia suspended a student who photographed crowded hallways. (See “Youth in Action,” Sept.-Oct. 2020.) It closed a few days later for disinfection and now has 1,600 students and staff quarantined.


Trump, cheered on by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is forcing school reopening with nary a dollar to pay for the increased costs. The Michigan Superintendent of Schools reported that, although the state received $175 per student for COVID-19 costs in the CARES Act Funds, the actual cost was around $400. School closures in March left Michigan school districts with a budget shortfall averaging $700 per student.

In Michigan, the legislature finally agreed to let state schools open fully virtually. Teachers have given their all to do their best teaching amid chaos, and want to return to their classrooms. In Arizona, one district in Phoenix could not reopen because of a teacher and staff sick-out.


The class and racial divides in U.S. education are deepened by this pandemic. Essential workers, majority Black, Brown and lower-wage, need their children in school so they can go to work. Special needs children (including English language learners) can’t receive support services unless they are in school. Black people are four times more likely to die of COVID-19 and Latinx seven times more likely.

Parents, students and teachers rightly fear the loss of quality education. Remember when you were in school and had a substitute teacher, what did you learn? How did you behave that day? (Don’t answer.) Today, the substitute teacher is a device, a computer! In isolation, children see, hear and talk to the teacher, but everyone knows there is no real control of student work, or a setting for them to learn appropriate group behavior, without adult physical presence.

Even the youngest child quickly learns how to mute the microphone not just for cooperation with the class but for their own distractions. As a Detroit high school senior said, “I don’t want to do online. There are too many distractions at home. The phone is addicting: when I get a notification, I open it and I don’t get out of it.”

One promising development is parents and teachers cooperating to self-organize small learning “pods.” Neighbors and extended families with similar standards of hygiene and social distancing pool resources, share adult support and enable expanded social experiences in relatively safe settings. Even a pair of “study buddies” could help offset the negative developmental impacts of prolonged isolation.


We will not know for years what children have learned while out of school: about public health, the economy, politics and media manipulation and their own schooling. A 16-year-old explained that he was laid off from his job at a bicycle shop because manufacturers and distributors were not sending them enough bikes, an unexpected global economic analysis not generally taught in high schools. Worse, we don’t know all the mental effects: fear of the virus, disrupted lives and loss of friends and family.

Now, the whole country can see deep flaws in American education. How can we go forward, centered on the needs of the children to realize their true humanity?

—Susan Van Gelder

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