Detroit Teachers Authorize 'Safety' Strike Over School Reopening Fears

"It's just simply not safe for us to return into our buildings and classrooms right now."
August 20, 2020, 5:16pm
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YouTube/Detroit Federation of Teachers

Detroit teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a "safety" strike if the state's largest school district doesn't allow all teachers to teach classes online during the pandemic. It's the latest in mounting tensions between teachers and school districts across the country over school reopening plans. 

On Thursday evening, 91 percent of Detroit teachers voted in favor of authorizing the 'safety' strike, which means teachers would refuse to teach in-person classes if the school district does not agree to implement a set of safety protocols before schools reopen on September 8. 

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"We've already lost members of our [Detroit Public Schools Community District] family to COVID-19," a teacher said in a video posted online by union members about their reopening concerns. "It's just simply not safe for us to return into our buildings and classrooms right now."

"Our classes have been historically overcrowded," another teacher said. "How can we social distance with classes of over 20 or more?"

The strike vote is the latest in a series of actions taken by teachers across the country in districts with plans to reopen schools for in-person learning. This week in New Jersey, dozens of teachers held a sit-in to protest a public school district's plans for resuming in-person teaching. On August 14, 100 teachers and staff members in Arizona called in sick to protest reopening schools, forcing one school district to cancel its plans. Those Arizona teachers have called for a nation-wide sickout, referencing the 2018 #RedforEd teachers strikes, which spread from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and eventually Los Angeles.  

The Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union which represents 4,000 teachers in Detroit is demanding hazard pay for teachers who work in school buildings, COVID-19 testing for students and staff, assurances that school buildings have proper ventilation and that guidance counselors and social workers have the option to work remotely, concerns echoed by teachers in school districts across the country. This is the full list of demands

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The Detroit school district approved a reopening plan in July that included online learning as well as smaller in-person classes and social distancing policies for when the district reopens on September 8. Teachers have blasted the plan, saying it falls vastly short of protecting the district's 51,000 students in a city that has the highest coronavirus infection rate in the state.

Racial inequalities are particularly troubling in Detroit, which is nearly 80 percent Black. A recent study from John Hopkins University found that Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to become infected with COVID-19, and are dying at twice the rate.

Are you a teacher with concerns about the measures your school is taking to protect teachers and other staff at your school? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch with the author at Lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.

While some of the country's largest school districts, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have opted to remain closed this fall, others have already reopened. Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have begun holding in-person classes.  

Labor organizers have noted that among the country's millions of essential workers, teachers are one of the best positioned to lead a successful fight against the country's pandemic response.