“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Jan 17, 2022
Students from Boston, Brooklyn and Maryland, all the way out to Seattle, Oakland and Redondo Beach, organized protests last week over the schools’ failure to protect them from Covid. Young people in Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas added their voices and their feet—as did those in a few smaller Michigan towns.
Some students asked for more or better masks, and regular testing while they are in school; some wanted remote learning re-established for several weeks, while waiting for the Omicron wave to recede. Some wanted both.
The schools have become the arena in which capitalist society’s inability to organize a response to Covid plays out. We are more than two years into this pandemic. But Republicans and Democrats continue to amuse themselves, pretending to battle over mask mandates and vaccine mandates, while the rate of infection and hospitalization spirals. But on one thing they agree. Today, both parties want schools up and running, both want students back in the classroom.
Sure, they both came up with “good” reasons: last year’s remote learning was a disaster for students.
They said it, and it was. Children suffered academically. How could they not? The schools serving ordinary children were not set up to deliver a decent education remotely, and neither party invested the vast resources that would have been necessary to make it work. But children also suffered psychologically and socially, cut off from their peers, cut off from all the activities and human interchanges that allow us to develop. For anyone too dense to understand that reality, consider this: teen suicides increased in 2020, the first year of the lockdown, compared to the year before, and then climbed even higher in the beginning of 2021.
Politicians who were seriously concerned about students’ well-being would not have stuffed students back into the same old unsafe classrooms, with too many students in too little space; with not enough air circulation and filtering; without any attempt to provide every student with the N95 masks that authorities have long known were the most efficient—at least one new one for every student, every week, if not more often. And the CDC—if its concern were “science”—would not have reduced from ten to five the number of days someone sick with Covid needs to stay home. But schools, like other workplaces, were being forced to close because too many teachers and staff were out sick or in quarantine.
Schools were not re-opened for the well-being of the students—despite all the sanctimonious words spouted by politicians like Biden and DeSantis, and despite the “science” cited by Fauci and Redfield. The schools were re-opened because big (and not so big) business wants them open. Business wants its profit machine to go on working, and business can’t make profits unless the workforce is back in place.
Put it in class terms: the capitalist class wants the schools to run. Proposals by their officials for masks and testing and temporary pauses end up being ways to maintain the schools as holding pens so parents can be at work. Their masks are band-aids they paste over the injuries they inflict on students, teachers and parents.
That doesn’t mean that last week’s protest was useless. Far from it. The young students who started the protest, organizing themselves to do it, can be the cutting edge of a new movement, one that grows and involves all the actors who really have a stake in the game: the students, the teachers and the parents. Such movements are the only thing that holds out real promise in the middle of this crisis.
The parents in most of these cities are none other than workers who face the same dangerous risk of Covid in their workplaces that their children face in the schools. The possibility of developing a power that can change the whole game resides in those workplaces when working people pull themselves together as a class.
A struggle by all the working people who have a stake in this game has the possibility to shake this system to its very core. Yes, we are not nearly there yet. But to get there, someone needs to start. And last week, some students did just that.