Covid 19: Close the schools or keep them open – the worst of all worlds!

Plugging the holes is not enough, it’s time for a revolution in education

Sonja Grusch, Sozialistische LinksPartei — ISA Austria

The question of whether to “keep schools open” or “to close schools” is a heated and polarized debate. Governments have done little, or nothing for months to prepare for the second, and later third wave. Now, in a number of countries, a second, or even third lockdown has been called. Yet viable ‘solutions’ for dealing with the situation in the schools are non-existent. The half-hearted proposals that are made neither deal effectively with the virus, nor meet the requirements of the children, the parents or the teachers. Once again, responsibility for a social problem is shifted onto individuals

Putting the economy first

Even in Lockdown situations, where schools and childcare centres are supposed to be closed, parents are not being given the right to special childcare leave. This is so even in those advanced capitalist countries with still relatively strong elements of a welfare state and/or strong trade unions such as in Austria or Germany, let alone in the rest of the world!

In practice, governments are relying on the good will of the companies. Employees will probably have to wait in vain for them to grant leave. After all, there is already a large herd of “black sheep” companies, who have failed to provide adequate safety precautions. Company interests are always more burning than those of the staff, and this is more true the easier staff can be replaced, and the more difficult the economic situation becomes.

So, in many countries, employees are desperate as they need to go to work and don’t know what to do with the kids. This is especially so for single parents, most of whom are women. Many are working in frontline jobs like health, retail or education themselves. As one father from Belgium comments: “You could take parental leave between May 1st and September 20th and get a small payment, 122 euro per month for a half time leave, which is a shit sum of money and even this was not a right, you needed to get formal agreement from your employer”.

At the same time, people working in schools — that is teachers, administrative staff, social workers, cleaning staff and others — are also concerned for their own health and those of their families. They often also need childcare for their own children to be able to work. Older teachers are not allowed to see their grandchildren, but have to work with groups of children. These total government failures mean that one group of employees is played off against another! Parents report that they are under pressure from school not to send their children, which they cannot succumb to for job reasons. Kindergarten staff and teachers report pressure from parents to keep their schools working as normal.

Divide and rule

But these interests are not really contradictory, but are because different parts of the working class are forced to work and live under the same parameters. It is the interests of the capitalist economy that are put first. It wants to have “its” workforce at its disposal, without having to take on the onerous care obligations. The different approaches to deal with this issue by various regional and national governments are no more than the reflection of the pressure of the different factions of capitalism and their interests. Ultimately, this is a classic “divide and rule” scenario that serves only one purpose: to have the labor force available to the extent necessary for companies to continue working. Irrespective of what they say, they are not concerned about the kids or their education, but they need the schools primarily for childcare. If the rulers use the “best interests of the child” as an argument, then this is — to put it bluntly — a lie. They have not shown such concern before.

While the phase of the pandemic and the politics of governments are different in different countries, our approach is universal: the question is not whether schools should be open or not. The issue is what conditions should be in place so that schools can be safe and open in the future. Key to this is that all schools that are safe and accessible to all, free of charge, in which sufficient and well-paid staff are employed, and where learning, playing and relaxation can take place in interlocking all-day classes. Schools should place the needs of students, teachers and society at the centre, not those of business interests and austerity.

Why school closures became necessary

In the debate, a wide variety of studies on children, adolescents and the risk of infection, contagion and disease are being quoted. In itself, this demonstrates that science is not objective, but is used or conducted to further particular interests. But the truth is that infections occur when many people come together for long periods in closed rooms. This includes many workplaces, public transport and of course also schools and kindergartens.

It has now been proven that the risk of infection among children barely differs from that among adults (although the mortality rate in the event of an outbreak of Covid-19 does differ). But schools are not only made up of children, but for the most part of adolescents and adults including many teachers, cleaning and secretarial staff, and those working in canteens and large kitchens, many of whom are over 50 years old, i.e. in a risk group. There are the employees of the transport companies who bring them from A to B twice a day. And they all have families. So even if children themselves do not fall seriously ill, school and the way to school are unsafe places.

No preparation leads to chaos

On the schools issue, politicians have rightly lost a lot of trust. Over the summer vacations, hardly anything was done to prepare, yet when the schools were due to restart, they declared everything was well organized, although the experiences of all those involved in the schools showed the opposite. There are countless examples of the complete failure to prepare for the second wave.

In most cases, no or insufficient numbers of masks are provided for the staff. In Vienna, Austria, despite the propaganda there are several cases where 2 FFP2 masks were given to teachers, who were told they were to be reused for several weeks.

The various digital learning platforms are constantly breaking down because no additional staff were hired during the summer months to respond to the massive increase in usage, despite explicit requests from the people working on them. In countries where there were school closures in the spring, it became clear that pupils from a poorer background might not have the necessary technical equipment. Sometimes laptops were purchased, or donated and handed out. But they are often defective or not internet capable.

While in the spring, the situation was new to everybody, including the government and it was widely accepted that mistakes and shortages could happen, since then months have passed. The necessary steps should have been started then, but nothing has been done. The real experts are those on the ground — the teachers, students, cleaners and secretaries who all have very concrete suggestions including:

  • the conversion of vacant office and hotel rooms into classes in order to provide sufficient space for smaller groups and distance learning — this also requires a changeover to project-based learning in order to avoid frequent changes of rooms and teachers;
  • the employment of all available teachers and similar specialists to be able to accompany the resulting additional small groups in class;
  • the right for everyone in the school and those who belong to vulnerable groups to be involved in other ways — in distance learning or in the development of materials;
  • the timely provision of all necessary teaching materials: copies, books, but also laptops and computers. The big tech companies are currently making extra profits, they have more than enough to guarantee the necessary support for all students, if necessary by confiscating these resources;
  • the provision of free quality Internet for all households — again, if the operating companies do not provide it, they must be taken over in the interests of society to implement this measure.

The replacing of pseudo school autonomy, which is mainly intended to administer shortages, by a nationwide school start plan, which could have been developed over the summer to cover all aspects of school needs. Material for online schooling, projects and other safe ways to teach could have been developed, as well as the preparation and distribution of laptops. A plan for how to split classes, get extra rooms and prepare for safe teaching could have been put together. This goes also for transportation where now countless young people have to squeeze into packed buses, trains and trams. Instead of all schools starting at the same time, school starts can be staggered. Those companies (private and public) running public transport, providing school buses need to be given a plan of where and when what resources are needed. Private operators who are not willing to participate or try to make a profit from this should be taken over in the interests of society and transferred to public ownership.

  • the development of mass testing capacities for the public sector, financed by the extra profits of online retailers and the pharmaceutical industry, among others is needed. For example, all students and teachers could be tested weekly or more often to prevent clusters and to locate super-spreaders;
  • the replacement of pseudo-expert committees by motivated and appropriately paid teachers and teacher trainees to develop centralized forms of instruction that make meaningful learning possible with distance learning, outdoor teaching, and in very small groups was needed.

This would probably mean less emphasis on exams, more real learning about social issues, solidarity, health care, etc. than would normally be found in regular teaching. Countless teachers are willing and able to contribute their knowledge here — but they are overwhelmed by the mills of bureaucracy, demotivated and forced to do often pointless and even dangerous work.

Thinking outside the box

The crocodile tears of businessmen and politicians about the “importance of schools for the development of kids” are no more than propaganda. But parents, teachers and social workers and, of course, the children themselves have genuine and honest concerns. Not only is there the need to provide care for children so parents can go to work, there are also worries over the psychological and social consequences.

The desire for “normality” is absolutely understandable. But it is also important to see that Corona has exposed many of the deep problems in education, that have long been known about. Instead of demanding “under Corona, try to maintain the inadequate, often even lousy normality as much as possible” it is necessary to think outside of the capitalist box and demand “it’s time for real change, including in education.”

The myth of school as a beautiful place

School has undoubtedly changed a lot in the last hundred years and is no longer the horrific institution rehashed in countless novels. Getting together with other children and young people and “getting out” of the family and home is an essential and positive aspect of growing up, as well as education itself. But the figures also show that the exclusively positive picture that is currently being painted does not correspond to reality.

Not a word is now being said about the fact that fear of school, of classmates, of bullying, of exams etc. are not marginal phenomena. In Austria and Germany, and in other countries figures will be similar, 50% of all students have exam anxiety including sleep disorders and loss of appetite. 12% take legal stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks, 6% take tranquilizers, one third of students generally find everyday school life stressful, and about 23% have an eating disorder. This has not been dealt with by providing sufficient social workers or psychiatrists, in many countries there are none at all in schools and even where they exist, they are no more than a drop in the ocean. They were amongst the first school services to be cut in the austerity drive of the last decades. In Austria in 2019 the total school psychology service equaled just 158 full-time positions (while at the same time Austria pays for 183 MPs) — for over 1.1 million school students. Even before Corona, it was estimated that at least 10% of all students have mental health issues! And the same goes for teachers, who are often victims of burnout and other diseases linked to stress. In Belgium even before Corona 40% of all sick leave was linked to stress related illnesses.

In many cases, the school is also a refuge for children who are confronted with violence and abuse at home. Here, the problem can be identified and, optimally, help can be organized. In the case of a lockdown, not only do the problems at home come to a head, but this possibility of providing help is eliminated. This exacerbates problems, which, however — and this is how honest we have to be in the debate — was only inadequately dealt with before, because of the lack of social workers and corresponding protective facilities.

When school students in the current situation declare that they would like to go to school because “finally there is time to ask questions and to go through the issues with the teachers ”, this shows how great the structural deficiency is under normal (capitalist) conditions.

The current situation should be used to fight for real improvements:

  • a permanent reduction in the size of classes and groups;
  • a cleaning up and cutting down of the curriculum by representatives of teachers and students;
  • the abolition of the system of learning for exams just to forget immediately after again, away with marks and learning in a competitive instead of cooperative way the employment not only of additional teaching staff, but also of secretarial staff, social workers and psychologists;
  • the rebuilding and renewing of school buildings.

School is far from “having a good time” — even without Corona

Another fear is that children will have “lost time” due to a lockdown — but what is actually meant by this? Behind this is the idea that we live in a society where “only the toughest, or best educated” have a chance. Those who have a disadvantage in education have a disadvantage in life — and with the unfolding economic crisis, this is becoming even more important. But beside the fact that everyone currently has the same problem, let’s turn the question upside down: What’s so bad about a school year that looks completely different? Not only can children easily “catch up” if they receive the necessary support, but the question is whether it wouldn’t be a good opportunity to take a look at what is actually being learned and how.

Students also have beneficial experiences from the lockdown situation — they have learned to manage their time better. It may be that “technically” the curriculum has not been completed. So what? Students have learned a lot about how media works (how to judge fake news and sources), about natural sciences (how viruses are transmitted, where they can live and for how long, how transmission works…), about the world (where is this China actually located, who is this president of Brazil and why can Russia test the vaccine on army recruits), about international production chains and how the economic system does (not) work (why are there too few masks, disinfectants, PPE), about which jobs are really important (health, retail), etc. They have learned about racism and social inequality. They have had experiences with racism and class differences (why are young people with a migration background much more strictly controlled by the police for compliance with the Corona measures than the rich and powerful) and with the fact that not everyone’s the same after all and does not have the same opportunities (because apartments are of different sizes, Internet access is of different quality and some have laptops while others don’t). Very little of this is verifiable knowledge that “the economy” demands, but it is important knowledge and experience nonetheless!

The question of passing or failing tests or even if a class could be finished was a major issue in Northern Ireland. In August youth protested successfully against the attempt by the government to use an unclear algorithm to fix or “adjust” results of exams that could not be held, which left school students with worse results. The protests forced the government to retreat. The Socialist Party, ISA in North Ireland, demanded the abolition of the transfer tests and the suspension of all other exams for the duration of this crisis, with guaranteed access to higher education for all who want to study.

What kind of perverse system is this, where in such an exceptional situation people have to worry about their child losing a few weeks of “normal” schooling? The reality is that for a long time now, parents have had to support schooling. In Austria, 40% of all students need learning support from their parents several times a week, 25% daily. 70% of parents find this a burden. In addition, about 25% of all students need tutoring, 18% actually pay for it — annually families spend about 100 million euros on this. According to a study by Mark Bray, Director of the Centre for Comparative Education Research of the University of Hong Kong back in 2012 the market for private tutoring was 2,2 billion Euros in France, 1,5 in Germany, nearly 1 billion in Greece and even in much poorer Romania 300 Million! In Japan “Juku”, private companies tutoring students in 2011 made a revenue of 8,6 Billion Euro. All these are pre-Corona figures!

  • corona should be used to finally abolish the grading system that has been shown not to support learning;
  • all school students should be given an automatic pass this year without being punished for difficult circumstances;
  • for a completely different school and education system that is oriented towards the needs and abilities of the students and society, not the companies.

Such a system has long been necessary, but is in conflict with the capitalist system, in which people are only valued as workers and consumers. Instead of accepting any further deterioration caused by the corona, we need to go on the offensive.

Corona has also exposed the long outdated system of splitting topics into “subjects” instead of treating them holographically as a project. When ‘Education’ Ministers explain in press conferences that “everything is working” and that they “have a plan”, those actually working and learning can only wonder how far they can actually be from reality. In many schools, windows cannot be opened, there are no facilities for washing hands and a lack of cleaning staff. Apart from the fact that many students still do not have the technical tools for distance learning, and no room in the home for study, the idea of having one lesson after the other, just online instead of face to face ignores the fact that teachers are supposed to supervise students in distance learning and in school at the same time. All of this is not practically possible — nor does it make pedagogical sense. Projects that students can work on together over several days make much more sense — a concept that has been long proposed, but fails because of the rigid subject canon. Teaching by subject is retained because it is much easier to establish “comparability”. One subject — one testable topic — one test — one result. The fact that hardly anything useful comes out of it is secondary, much more important is that in this way a disciplining of the students and their adaptation to the system can be enforced. Corona reveals in stark form how far removed from reality the whole school system is.

The moral pressure to do extra work “now in the crisis” is enormous. It is striking that this pressure is directed in particular against employees who are not supposed to be paid for extra work or who are supposed to work under special risk. This is especially true in the health and education sectors. The narrative is constructed to suggest that proper pay and Corona-safe work are unreasonable demands that are in conflict with the rights and needs of children. In Belgium and other countries, the government even suggested cutting holiday time for teachers due to corona. It is to be expected that the next round of attacks on the rights and working conditions of teachers is being prepared by governments for “after” corona when new cuts will be implemented to pay for the billions spent to safeguard business. In an open letter, teachers in primary schools in Austria wrote: “We are obliged to expose ourselves to this increasing risk, even though we would like to protect ourselves and our families.”

It is no exaggeration to say that companies — and that includes the public sector — are trying to test how far they can go in watering down wages and conditions. If employees manage to combine childcare and home office under a lockdown situation — why should they not also work in the future “alongside” a sick child on care leave? In the education sector, teachers are currently working countless hours of unpaid overtime. They are creating new teaching materials, hygiene plans and trying to organize laptops for students. They have to pay for their own internet, printing, cell phones and office equipment, just like the students. It is certain that after Corona, attempts will be made to keep and further push such unpaid extra work.

  • for full pay for all the work that teachers, nursery nurses and support staff are involved in;
  • a return to school and kindergarten when it is ensured that sufficient tests and protective equipment are available from the first day — this will only be possible if this is produced and organised by state owned companies and not left to the market.

A new concern for “the poor”

Now crocodile tears are being shed about those left behind, the poor and disadvantaged. We should be clear, these problems existed before the coronavirus and the ruling class was indifferent then. There were already schools where expensive calculators, laptops, but also special clothing, tools and accessories are part of the necessary basic equipment. Starting school is a serious financial burden for countless families every year. And this burden has been increasing for decades as a result of the drying out of the education sector. Today even in those schools that are paid by the public and that are officially free, parents often have to pay some kind of “school fees” by paying for copying and extra materials. Corona makes this imbalance obvious, but it has always existed and is a consequence of a class society! Education is an important right and school closures carry the danger that the social gap will widen even further. But the reverse conclusion is wrong: even a good education cannot lift the injustices of capitalist class society. It is important to defend the basic right to education, and it is important to fight for a system in which education is equal for all, regardless of origin!

  • full funding of the education system, no privatization of costs, free access for all.
  • free extra support for all who need it — by properly paid and employed staff!
  • all educational resources must be available free of charge, in good quality and sufficient for all — independent of Corona!

And where are the trade unions?

The performance of the teaching trade unions differs between countries. In some, especially where rank-and-file structures and a militant tradition exist, the unions demand secure working conditions and even organise protests. For examples in the Spanish state — in the Basque country and in Andalusia — education unions organised strikes in September. Socialismo Revolucionario, ISA in the Spanish state, explaining how public money has been shifted to the private schools under decades of neoliberalism make clear: “The return must be properly planned, not improvised, and who knows better than education workers what is best in terms of health and safety, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic?” In France, trade unions argued for schools to close — but it was the youth that finally organised protests to push for the demand. In Britain 2021 is starting with pressure from below with mobilisations from various trade unions of the education sector against the unsafe school openings. Tens of thousands have participated in online meetings to prepare for further action.

In other countries, the unions have completely surrendered to the wartime-like calls for national unity. In these cases, union leaderships ultimately follow the government line, internalizing it and rejecting any independent class position. While some teachers’ unions are prepared to stand up for their rights, some of those organising other parts of the class argue in favor of “keeping schools open”. At the end of the day many unions follow the government’s perfidious game of playing off one group of employees against another. But the union has the task to represent ALL employees, to fight for safe and good jobs for all and not to pass the pressure from the top down!

Teachers and kindergarten workers, who have been suffering for months from extra workloads, health risks and social pressure, feel increasingly abandoned by the official trade union structures. So as not to leave those organisations in the hands of a rotten bureaucracy, it is necessary to organize on the ground, on a workplace level independently, if necessary, of the official trade union structures to exchange ideas and to fight for their interests. It is students, teachers and parents who have had to bear the brunt of decades of cuts in education, and now the “optimization” and adaptation to the needs of the economy under Corona. Every problem that the education system already had, is now being displayed in a sharper form. To simply say “the schools must remain open” misses the real problem by miles.

The unions need to fight for safe schools.

  • every attempt to make teachers, staff, parents or kids to pay — directly or indirectly — must be rejected and fought against;
  • the unions must organise and fight for the right of all workers to stay at home with their kids with full pay if this is necessary due to health/pandemic reasons;
  • schools must be opened on the bases of sufficient resources and a plan that is democratically developed by the people working and learning in schools — and not by “experts” paid by big business and its governments.

What is needed is nothing less than a genuine educational revolution, a completely different school system, fully financed, with sufficient resources and content and methods that place learners and teachers at the centre as partners. But such an educational revolution is necessarily part of a fundamental change of society.