Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Upstairs/Downstairs World of Education Under COVID

The education workplace feels more and more like Gosford Park

COVID has been a test of American society, one that we have completely failed. It has also further exposed pre-existing realities that were not as close to the surface. If anything, it has exposed what a grossly unequal and stratified society that we live in.

In areas where public schools have been closed, private schools have been open (including the one where I teach.) Actually opening schools in a safe manner under COVID requires monetary support and funding, something being deprived from public schools. Poorer students are less likely to have reliable internet and to live in place where schooling from home is comfortable. It's more likely that their parents have to work outside of the home. They were already struggling, now they are underwater. Meanwhile, wealthier parents in schools that are shuttered can afford to be pod people and pay someone to be their children's governess. It's like a return to the 19th century. On top of this, they have the kind of white collar professional jobs that allow them to work from home, allowing them to avoid steep day care costs if they are not pod people.

Others are not so lucky. Not only must they work outside of the home and sometimes confront angry customers who refuse to cover their faces, they are more likely to live in the kind of crowded circumstances where the disease spreads easiest. That's the result of the country's crisis in affordable housing, which was hurting people before but is now killing them. 

Those of us who are lucky enough to have better housing and steady work during this mess can still see the hierarchy play out in more subtle ways in the workplace. This is especially the case in education. Administrators get to sit in their offices without being exposed, often without their masks on, while teachers are there in the trenches in the classroom. The admins also get to make decisions about opening and closing, which impact them the least. They can make those choices without bothering to take the concerns of their faculty into account. After all, they're just the people teaching the students. 

Meanwhile those teachers have completely altered their pedagogy and teaching materials. We have been forced to do our jobs in entirely different ways that we were never trained for. In the hybrid classroom we get to try to teach in two different worlds at once, real and virtual. Sometimes this means constructing two lessons for the same class. Our reward will be firings, furloughs, and pay cuts. The government is refusing to help state and local governments, meaning public schools and universities are screwed. Private schools are seeing students leave due to the cost and fund-raising dry up in the midst of a recession. 

In higher ed there are stories of universities slashing whole departments and tenure track faculty members. Those same institutions still have football coaches who are the highest paid public employees in their state. They still possess an army of deans whose only purpose in life is to make their faculties  do stupid shit just to justify their useless positions. 

I know a lot of teachers and profs who are furious about this situation. I know multiple educators very close to me who contracted COVD at institutions that were irresponsible in their handling of the virus. Without any radical action the inequalities in education, already festering, are going to defeat any possibilities for future change. I foresee a scenario where teachers start quitting en masse due to burnout, and public schools start de-professionalizing teaching by plugging in untrained employees who can at least apply a pre-set digital curriculum. At the college level adjunctification will overtake the totality of entire disciplines. Those fortunate enough to live in the right zip code will still have a good public school education, and will get accepted into universities what have not been converted into glorified vocational schools.

The only way forward is to join together and fight. It's time to tell the "bone spurs" types among our colleagues that they need to orient their dissatisfaction away from unproductive spite towards action. It's time to tell the "company men" among our colleagues that the company will throw them away if they feel like it. It's time to tell our bosses that they need to make a shared sacrifice, and if they want our labor, they have to listen to us. It's time to demand that the government actually fund public education and do right by our students. 

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