Resisting the Re-opening: An Interview with Two Texas Teachers

In an interview for Section 44, Snehal Shingavi spoke with Ken Zarifis, the President of Education Austin (a merged union local of both NEA and AFT), and Luke Amphlett, the Consultation Chair and Executive Committee member of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.  Ken is a long-time activist in Texas and has been leading the charge against school re-openings.  Luke Amphlett just successfully pushed back attempts by the San Antonio school board to put him on administrative leave for speaking out against in-person schooling while the risks of the pandemic were still extant.  And while the national debate about school re-openings rages on, teachers in Texas have found ways to fight back locally.

Q: What are teachers’ worries about school re-openings?

KEN ZARIFIS: Teachers are worried about kids and parents dying.  As they look around the country, they see pockets of people coming together, and we see a spike in COVID rates.  They are in fear for their health and their lives.  No one got into education thinking that they would be risking health and death to teach.  The alarm is not unfounded. We hear it from school employees and teachers every day.  The fear is based on what we see in the news and in science and should be respected.

LUKE AMPHLETT: There is no homogenous thing that teachers are thinking.  If we wanted to investigate any group of workers as socially constructed, teachers would be the place to look.  Teachers are so shaped and formed by ideology, their entire conception of themselves is bound up in their identities as teachers.  There are loads of people who are excited about going back to places of work that might kill them.  Teachers are reproduced as instruments in the capitalist machine to produce docile workers, but also reproduced as workers who should not protest.  Their real sense is that they have no power in their workplace or in the city.  The discussions we have are about how there are no unions in Texas, how it is illegal to have unions in Texas, all these misconceptions.  And there are other people who are engaged and excited to do something.  They are having different conversations about how to fight: through legal means, through petitions.  There are so many people who want to do something but are looking for outlets for that desire.  

The exception to that is in some of the cities: Austin, where there is a union that has led and organized, in Houston, and in Dallas.  In San Antonio, we have a completely different situation.  I belong to the largest union in San Antonio, a combined NEA/AFT union, San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel (“the Alliance”).  A lot of educators are scared for their lives.  Even though things like school shootings are a normalized part of the workplace, COVID is very new and frightening.  Over 75% of teachers in a survey considered leaving the profession or retiring.  It is felt explicitly as threats to themselves: many of them are older, have older family members that they are caring for, the lack of good health care.  The conversations we are having are ones we have not had in decades.  The temperature of the water is increasing quite rapidly, and this is what it feels like when the water starts boiling.

Q: How have school districts responded?

KEN ZARIFIS: Early, the Thursday before spring break, people were told not to come to school, and we have not been back since.  There was a patient approach at first.  But the information came in like a flood, and the decisions needed to be made quicker.  The biggest problem has been in the plan: what is the plan?  The school district has been slow in coming up with a clear plan for schools that is transparent and accessible.  For instance, a bus driver contacted me: what happens when a child refuses to put a mask on?  That is not something that a bus driver is supposed to have to think about or deal with.  What is the plan for situations like that? How will social distancing actually happen in the classroom? How will teachers keep five and six-year-olds separate? How?

Only 120 kids have returned to campus.  Those 120 are specific special needs children who are not medically fragile.  What we need is to know what happens when the numbers increase over time.  What is the procedure when someone is diagnosed?  What is the information flow?  What are the protocols around quarantine?  Early versions of a “plan” included guidelines cut and pasted from the CDC.  There has been no specificity in the planning.  We need clarity for the community, children, guardians, teachers.

I have been pleased with the current administration.  The union put out our 23 demands and the first was to push school off until September 8.  And we argued that there should be PD (professional development) around technology to bring children back to school effectively.  Those trainings and PD opportunities were vital.  We put our demands forward to the school board.  We met with the School board on Tuesday (August 24), they were looking at the calendar, and we asked about the 10-month employees (bus drivers and teaching assistants) who don’t have employment, can’t collect unemployment, they have to find other work. It would have left the 10-month employees out of a paycheck for an additional three weeks. Telling us at the last minute left us with no options but to organize our members to speak out. We met with members, reached out to community partners, and asked our allies to push for: 1) September 8th as a date for the instructional online start date and to pay the 10-month employees during the three-week extension.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wanted teachers and TAs to come back to school because the expectation was hundreds of students would be back in classes.  The union was able to push back and get the school district to agree teachers and TAs did not need to be in class and the work could be done with a voluntary workforce. Unfortunately, some principals are ignoring the directive and requiring TAs to return to campus or use their leave.  Principals and directors are not following agreements that we were able to negotiate with the district.  There is no uniformity in enforcing the district directives.  There has been intimidation from school-level leadership requiring people to come in and work or face the threat of not getting paid.  

People’s focus has been too much on schools and not enough on life.  We need to make sure that children, teachers, and workers are safe, healthy, and alive.  Education comes next.  People tend to default to their expertise in a crisis.  The district defaulted to creating a curriculum.  But when we talk about priorities, it must be health, safety, and life.  When it is education, it becomes an agenda.  And that’s when politicians have been stepping in and muddying things up.  We will get to education.  It will get there in time.  

There has been a lack of conversation about how we adjust our expectations in a time of such enormous, global crisis.  Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime.  And I think that universally, at least in the US, there was a need to return because we are so strapped to the dollar and the bottom line that we cannot see people’s lives through the hunger for profits.

In our capitalist system, we have two major problems: 1) economic issues and 2) racial and equity issues.  What we do filters down in every part of this country, we make equity decisions through a fiscal lens.  It limits what we can do.  What I would like to be able to do is to use an equity lens to make fiscal decisions, and that would put the focus on human beings and that would put the people who have the least at the center of our concerns.

LUKE AMPHLETT: If you were to look across school districts, you would see the minimization of risk and the dismissal of concern, and the amplification of excitement.  You see one of those things weaponized against the other.  When we raise concerns, the school district brings up the teachers who are excited.  When we bring up our fears, they say we have been hearing about teachers who really want to go back to teaching.  The majority position is really a fear that schools are not really ready.  We are about to go into the Fall and flu season, and the question remains, why are we opening schools in this moment.  The pandemic has just claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Q: What has Education Austin’s response been to the BLM movement?

KEN ZARIFIS: We are embracing BLM.  COVID has taken an immediate priority, but after the beauty of seeing people in the streets saying we will not put up with this anymore, it made us feel compelled to make a statement; but I did not want to be the kind of person who just puts up a BLM sign in their front yard and does nothing else.  You have people putting up BLM stuff on social media who are still defending what the cops do.

There are three areas we can address: 1) what are we, Education Austin, doing to be anti-racists, 2) what are we doing to hold the district accountable, and 3) what are we doing to hold the AISD police accountable.  ATA and the NEA (1966 merger) – the union, too, has a history of racism.  So, we put together a statement about how we deal with the cops on school campuses, how we produce an anti-racist curriculum, etc.  We are going to send our union staff, our executive board, and campus leaders to diversity training to address the issue of racism and white supremacy. COVID did not create our racist system, but it has exposed it in rather stark terms.  It was already exacerbated with police violence and the murdering of black men earlier this year by white police officers and white men. The lack of health care in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community has proven extremely stressful for the Latinx and Black communities as their positivity rate has consistently run higher (more than double in the Latinx community) than the overall population.  We are tasked with being anti-racist in everything that we do.  That means embracing BLM, that means listening, that means listening to our members.  It means thinking about what it means to allow guns in school.  We are not going to be coopted into committees.  We want something real to change.

LUKE AMPHLETT: There is a massive variation.  It is impossible to ignore, but educators have managed to ignore it.  I am a part of a radical caucus in my union, called PODER, where we won the election in my union.  We have been working in our union for several years around racial justice, around policing, around changes to the curriculum.  We have developed statements and positions around BLM.  We are a part of national reform movements in teachers’ unions — UTLA, CTU, etc. – moving towards social justice unionism and away from industrial unionism.  We were a part of the August 3rd movement: about defunding schools, BLM, and safe school openings.  It is emergent in San Antonio, but it is becoming more of a focus for our local as a whole. 

For everyone who teaches, this pandemic shines a light on racial inequities.  Capitalism unequally distributes the costs and benefits of everything: the costs of COVID has been overwhelmingly born by Black and Brown and poor people.  In San Antonio, that is the West and South of the city, segregated, with underfunded schools.  It is uneven across the state: there’s good work being done in Austin and Dallas and other places.  We are the only radical caucus that has taken power in our union, and we are hoping to push culturally relevant teaching and pedagogy, calling on our student allies, and thinking about rent, mortgage, health care, and all of the social issues that affect education.  San Antonio has one of the worst records of police violence against Black people of any city in the state.  Our goal is defunding the police as a means to abolition.  

Q: What is Education Austin doing next?

KEN ZARIFIS: We are finding a real opportunity with this moment, through Zoom and online work.  We are getting access to people that we have not been able to reach, talking to new members.  We have been able to get people to see what kind of work the union does.  And that has helped immensely in our recruitment efforts.  

Our biggest priority is keeping people safe by putting in-person instruction off as long as possible.  Right now, the superintendent has the approval of the board to continue this four-week suspension another four weeks.  We would like to get through the winter break.  Any flattening of the curve that has happened has been largely a result of schools being closed.  The lack of in-person learning over the summer, with the second largest employee pool in the city not at work, has been immeasurably helpful in slowing the spread of the virus.  

It is okay that children will not learn in the same way.  I compare it to my son who was born prematurely.  It took time for him to catch up physically with his peers.  It is going to take time for us to get back on track.  It is going to be okay if it takes longer.  And ignoring the reality of the pandemic will not make things better.  

We are not going back, and you are not going to cut our budget.  Northside ISD in San Antonio has the only superintendent that has been fighting, threatening to take the TEA to court if they cut their budget.  Keeping people safe is our top priority, education is our second. With the pandemic we have an education opportunity that otherwise would never happen. It is like a district-wide classroom working in real-time to develop an online presence with technology and learning new ways of teaching.  Public education has failed to embrace technology—and this is an opportunity for us to work through the bumps of online education and how to make it exciting. If they do not, they are missing the chance to be transformative.  The district likes to talk about innovation and transformation, but it is actually a lumbering beast that never does anything but mutter empty words.  Public education embraces problem-based learning—imagine treating the district like a classroom, where unprecedented learning could happen for everyone to plan, predict, succeed, and perhaps most importantly fail forward.  Districts do not like to fail, but it is the best way to grow and to create 21st century learning for all students.

The district has embraced problem-based learning, and they would do well to take on the same processes that they are teaching.  They need to learn how to deal with the failures and learn how to fix things and that could be a tremendous model, modeling how we work together to solve the problems that face us during COVID and beyond.  

Q: What is PODER doing next:

LUKE AMPHLETT: Everything we are doing right now is focused on stopping the reopening.

The union had been focused on service-oriented unionism: members call the union and ask for services, to use its infrastructure to solve teachers’ problems.  We are focused on building up membership to solve their own problems, by building rank-and-file capacity and democratic control of the union.  We are working on students’ rights issues, but everything right now is being swamped by the question of reopening: because these are working class issues, racial justice issues.  Our fight about school re-openings is a racial justice fight and a class justice fight as well.

Q: What do you think about what is possible in Texas?

KEN ZARIFIS: In terms of what is happening in Austin—I look at El Paso, Dallas, Cy-Fair in Houston, and San Antonio—what we see is the awakening of Labor in Texas.  A couple of years ago we saw it develop in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and across the country.  While I was talking about this movement, we did not think that the red wave could become a state-wide movement, but it spurred us into a lot of local actions.  Because there is a legislative session, a few months from now, we could build for a state-wide action.  But if we are able to push back against the return to school agenda, get commitments from teachers to stay home to teach, to not go to campus, and put pressure against the district, should they demand it.  If we can build locally, we can seriously talk about a more widespread movement throughout the state.  We are thinking about strategies and trying to deepen our local efforts.  If it is happening in the ultra-conservative district of Cy-Fair, it could happen just about anywhere. 

[ed.  Cy-Fair ISD is where Snehal Shingavi went to school and is one of the more conservative districts in the Houston area].

I have a lot of hope for this, for labor.  The Red State rebellion that happened two years ago is finally coming to Texas, and it is a shame that it has taken COVID to spur us into action, but it is great that it is happening.

LUKE AMPHLETT: There are real possibilities and they are impossible to predict.  We work with a lot of the caucuses that led the uprisings two years ago and a part of UCON network: united caucuses of rank and file organizers.  

It is latent in Texas, just below the surface, but it is closer to the surface than it has ever been.  We are having conversations that we have never had before.  There is such an ideological component to collective action and a legal component as well.  We have seen micro-uprisings across the state.  

At my campus specifically, there was a huge explosion of organizing over the last couple of weeks, as it became clear that the safety plan really was not there.  For the first time, more than a third of the campus together, published leaflets and demands, delivered a letter to the President, made the letter public, sent the letter to the Trustees.

The safety protocols for our campus are now much better than they would have been.  And we have seen other campuses mirror the campaign that we led.  None of those things are as exciting as the Red State Revolt, but they are beautiful, local campaigns about workplace power.  If you look at the places where the uprisings have been successful, they are the places where there has a been a deep commitment to campus-specific organization and building power at that level.  What we are more likely to see in Texas is people quitting rather than going on strike as a response to COVID.  As we see the economy worsen, attacks on the public sphere, etc., the organizing around COVID is going to put us in a good place to deal with the next horrible crisis that comes our way.

Students are the great untapped, unorganized base of potential power for local actions.  A lot of them are radical, willing to act.  I do a lot of student organizing around student rights and policing.  And recently when I was retaliated against for speaking out against the reopening and the lack of a plan, students and recent graduates came out in force and got me reinstated within three days.  The things that I look for in terms of hope: union organizing and labor organizing that transcends old ways of thinking about membership and thinks about the wider connections that unions have to the larger community.  When we think about housing, race, policing, the larger issues that affect all workers.  Unions are one of the few places in this country where we can organize labor power.  There is a real possibility of hope about organizing labor, but also transcending organized labor into a broader social movement.

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