Schools: workers' control vs closure

Submitted by AWL on 17 November, 2020 - 2:44 Author: Martin Thomas
School students with masks

Ireland’s second lockdown (21 October to 2 December), with schools open, has brought a 75% drop in infections from around 19-25 October to 14 November. The Netherlands’ (14 October, tightened from 4 November), with schools open, has brought a 45% drop so far from a 31 October peak.

Wales’s, 23 October to 9 November, with schools closed to 2 November, ended with rates no lower than 23 October but maybe a third below peak around 29 October. Northern Ireland’s, 16 October to 13 November, with schools closed to 2 Nov, has got rates 50% down from the 12-18 October peak. Belgium’s (2 November for 6 weeks, with school half-terms extended by a week) has got them 60+% down from a 28 October peak.

I don’t know who the “SAGE scientists” are, cited by Patrick Murphy ( Solidarity 571) as gung-ho for shutting (all) schools alternate weeks rather than shutting pubs, cafés, etc. But the balance from recent evidence (above), from the reopening of schools across most of Europe gradually from April, and of scientific opinion, is that shutting (all) schools would probably add little to the effectiveness of lockdown (see opinion from France, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, etc.)

Earlier this year, many governments shut schools first because it was an easy and showy way to “do something”, with costs to working-class students but almost none to profits. Since then arguments from scientists and medics have forced a wide consensus in Europe that schools are lower-risk than pubs, etc., and should be considered an “essential service” like non-emergency medical care.

In a “crash” lockdown (stay-at-home almost 24/7, curfews, borders closed, etc.) like Melbourne’s from 5 August, schools close too, but even in Melbourne schools reopened from 12 October, some weeks before other sectors, and the curve kept going down.

New York City may soon close its schools because the city as a whole goes above a previously-agreed threshhold of 3% positive return from virus tests, even though in schools themselves the rate is only 0.2% positive.

Bars, restaurants, gyms, churches, etc. remain open there, though from 13 November with a 10pm curfew. That is typical of US restrictions: New York City was the only large school district to reopen in September, and generally schools are first to shut, last to open.

Scientists in the USA, epidemiologists or medics or as summarised by serious journalists, seem to agree with European scientists. They have less weight in the public debate in the USA, perhaps because of a general culture of valuing profit-making above social provision.

Patrick’s claims about cases in schools in England are contradicted by the Office of National Statistics. The ONS figures are not to be overrated. They are based on scrappy returns and methodology. But the rise they show is from 0.0% (20 June to 3 July) through 0.2% (29 August to 11 September) to 1.2% (24 October to 6 November) among children from age 2 to year 6, and from 0.1% through 0.1% to 1.9% for years 7-11. No sudden drop with half-term.

There has been a big rise in infections generally, and especially among university-aged people. Infections have spread through adjacent age groups, as they do. The ONS suggests teachers have no higher infection rates than other trades.

There is transmission in schools, especially 6th forms; but the balance of evidence suggests that with workers’ control to win rota-ing to thin out the school days, extra buildings, fixed-up ventilation, extra funding, masks, we could keep schools open, like other essential services, while broader measures reduce overall infection rates.

If I have it right, Patrick does not want schools closed indefinitely until the virus is at very low levels. That would be until (optimistic estimate) summer 2021. This generation of working-class children would lose over a year of education. (Meanwhile, they would not stay locked in for a whole year, so they might get and transmit more infections from private socialising than they would in school).

So, I suggest, the New York City example to draw inspiration from is not the coming closure of schools, but the threatened (illegal) teachers’ strike in September which won a 50-point checklist monitored by committees.

Patrick suggests that the NEU leaders’ call to close (all) schools could help schoolworkers’ battles for such checklists. I think the opposite is true.

The NEU leaders have issued a petition. That is a token substitute for action, not a stimulus for it. So school workers are diverted from putting any pressure on their bosses for a couple of weeks? And even if the petition magically “works” (which it won’t), then everything restarts as before? As in Wales? The union has “got its way”, but nothing is improved.

Look to the school workers’ strikes or threatened strikes in France and the USA, I suggest, rather than to the US school closures.

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