The Indypendent’s editor-in-chief John Tarleton spoke with Aixa Rodriguez on Monday, a New York City ESL teacher who serves on the steering committee for the Movement of Rank and File Educators. MORE helped organize a pressure campaign that Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the city’s public schools amid the threat of coronavirus. Here’s how she and other members of the left-wing caucus within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) made it happen and what they are demanding happens next to protect students, parents and educators.
This interview was conducted for WBAI Evening News, which is hosted by The Indy on Mondays and airs from 6 to 6:30 p.m. It has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Before we talk about the campaign y’all mounted to change the mayor’s mind about keeping schools open, can you elaborate on why you all felt it was necessary and urgent?
There is a moral imperative to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. We serve all children. Many of them are medically fragile. They have different types of disabilities, lung conditions, et cetera. Many of them are being raised by their grandparents or in foster care, or living in shelters, living doubled up. These are kids who can’t practice all of the things that we’re saying to practice to stay safe. They can’t practice social distancing when they, you know, sleep in shifts or live doubled up.
At the same time, we realized that we couldn’t control anything. Nothing was being cleaned. There was nothing happening to keep these kids safe. There was a moral imperative. We all were talking about it, but it bubbled up from the bottom when the teachers were getting sick. Nothing was being done and the stories were coming to us.
The closure was something that came from the grassroots. It came from people who were desperate for help and answers. Our union was not moving fast enough. We felt like we had to take a stand, which is the whole purpose of having a social justice caucus, to make a stand for social justice.
Can you describe in a little more detail how y’all went about organizing that pressure campaign that pushed the mayor and maybe pushed the union leadership to be more aggressive?
They were called, they were emailed, there were online ways we communicated. Usually, when there’s a problem at UFT, they come to us. This happens often enough and we give advice. We give support. And this started off from that and eventually we got people to talk to each other and find out the truth of what was happening.
‘We’re concerned about pockets of people who are going to be forgotten.’
In different schools such as Grace Dodge high school in the Bronx, people were doing things individually and then they came to us. There were people in Stuyvestown writing op-eds and complaining, going to the City Council. None of this started with us. We just decided that that’s our role: to be the voice of the UFT members that weren’t feeling heard or supported.
So it was more like you all were channeling, or helping coordinate, this energy that was bubbling up, and gave it a little bit more focus and direction.
That’s what our goal is, to be the voice for the teachers. That’s the purpose of having a caucus, where we actually let that voice out. You can’t hear it otherwise. Everybody would be like, “Oh, let’s wait another week.” The reality is, we’re teachers, we have seen how far Dorito dust on a kid’s fingers travels. If you just imagine how far Dorito dust goes, you can imagine what germs do.
Now that the decision has been taken, and the mayor has said that the schools will be closed until at least April 20, what would MORE like to see happen next?
MORE has been in touch with our parent allies. The parent allies want to address the sub-populations that have severe needs, particularly students that really need care. We need to have some type of support. The whole idea of having the summer school program was so that there would still be places where people could go. So we definitely need something like that. We need to address food. We need to address healthcare issues. We need to address all those other needs, but mainly we’re concerned about pockets of people who are going to be forgotten.
There is a petition out by a parent who’s been saying, “Hey, give money through SNAP benefits for parents to stock their own fridge. Instead of making us go out to get a grab-and-go lunch, making us go out in desperation to find whatever we need. It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘You need to quarantine yourself, but then come out for a grab-and-go.’”
There are some parents who have young babies, who have older parents in the family. It makes more sense for aid to be directly distributed to those who were already vetted for that need so that they can independently stock up, as opposed to, “Here’s a funky peanut butter sandwich, and some green beans.” Let the parents exercise independence. We want that to happen. We want clarity on testing. We want clarity on graduation for the kids, for the Regents exams. We want clarity on the new young teachers who are coming into the system and haven’t finished all of these things for their certifications.
We want all these answers because we stand to lose some great new teachers. We stand to have a lot of parents because they’re not getting support. And not every kid has a laptop, you know, and it would be nice if New York State would pass some laws and fully fund all of our schools. Robert Jackson has been calling for that to happen.
So many needs to be met.
The teachers who are being asked to come in this week, they’re still immuno-compromised, they still have heart conditions, they still have all of those things. They’re being asked to come in to learn how to teach remotely instead of learning how to do something remotely by home. We need that freedom, to be able to have our elder teachers, our veteran teachers safe. We have another petition up to talk about that, about being forced to come in. The Centers for Disease Control is making recommendations that we’re not following. We want to follow the science. That’s what we’re asking for. Follow the science so that we can be all safe.
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