LA Teachers Won a Safe Schools Reopening by Organizing

United Teachers of Los Angeles won a strong health and safety agreement ahead of returning to classrooms later this month. They won it the old-fashioned way: organizing rank-and-file teachers to demand an agreement that benefits teachers, parents, and students.

A teacher at Westminster Elementary School in Venice joins demonstrators in a car caravan in downtown Los Angeles on February 20, 2021. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

After a year of remote classes, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will soon welcome cohorts of students back to school campuses for hybrid learning now that Los Angeles County is in the “red tier,” the second-highest tier of COVID risk levels after the “purple tier,” as designated by the California Department of Public Health.

Opening campuses will affect more than just students and teachers. LAUSD schools are central to the communities they serve. LA County has been in the purple tier for most of the 2020–21 school year, but it has finally transitioned to red, which allows for in-person instruction. LAUSD’s superintendent, Austin Beutner, announced an April 19 elementary campus phased reopening after the “Sideletter Agreement” with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the city teachers’ union of which I am a member, was finalized.

The agreement isn’t perfect, but it is very strong. That strength wasn’t benevolently bestowed upon us by district management, of course — it’s the product of our union’s insistence on a safe reopening, backed up by years of rank-and-file organizing (including our 2019 strike) and an orientation toward bargaining for the common good.

But this isn’t a moment of celebration. The safety of schools and the ongoing fight for schools our communities deserve is dependent on our ability to maintain and continue building a strong and militant membership. That membership now has to focus on enforcing the Sideletter Agreement.

In March 2020, UTLA joined the chorus of teachers across the country calling for a school shutdown to save lives against COVID-19. A few days later, LAUSD announced the decision to close campuses on Friday, March 13. The closure made many LA residents, including me, realize just how severe COVID-19 was and would be.

Looking back, it’s impossible to determine the number of lives that were saved by the decision to close school campuses. Unfortunately, other industries were not spared in the same way.

Throughout the pandemic, Los Angeles’s local governments prioritized private companies’ revenue by keeping malls open, maintaining domestic and international travel, and allowing unsafe working conditions to persist at the virus’s peak. If our country had effectively responded to the pandemic by implementing contact tracing, passing rent and mortgage relief, and providing working-class families with safe childcare support, we may have been able to minimize community spread and flatten the curve beyond the summer.

We did not, and in one year, Los Angeles County has seen more than 1.2 million reported COVID cases and over 23,000 deaths. The number of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) cases is up to 116, with one death as of March 6, according to the LA County Department of Public Health. MIS-C is a rare but serious complication associated with COVID-19. Figures like these have left many parents feeling uneasy about sending their children into schools this year.

Not only has COVID-19 resulted in illness, death, and loss of income for millions, but it has also highlighted the critical role public education plays in working-class communities and society as a whole. Schools are only as safe as the communities they serve, and COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted low-income communities that depend on public schools.

LAUSD, to its credit, met the challenge by expanding meal and supply distribution to students and their families. District superintendent Beutner seems to have adopted some of the “common-good” bargaining priorities insisted upon by UTLA during the 2019 strike. The union used our contract fight to organize local stakeholders around a set of demands that benefit not just our members but also students and communities. It’s how UTLA won full-time school nurses, librarians, community schools, and a raise during the strike.

While our campuses have been closed to students this year, LAUSD and the workers who make it run have provided quality remote instruction as well as critical services that our austerity-battered social safety net did not. Our district provided more than 100 million meals to working-class and poor communities; iPads, Chromebooks, and Wi-Fi hotspots for students; free COVID testing; and additional remote support services for families.

LA teachers on strike in Los Angeles, CA in January 2019. (Milwaukee Teachers Education Association / Flickr)

Despite the impressive response to the virus, LAUSD hasn’t been immune to the political and financial pressure to reopen campuses. The ongoing pressure from elected officials, the media, and a vocal minority of anti-union community members has led to a year of high anxiety among some UTLA members. From the pandemic’s early days, educators were fearful about being forced back into campuses until lower case numbers, vaccinations, and safety protocols were ready.

Teachers and students in other large urban school districts like Chicago and New York have suffered from unsafe reopening plans and working conditions. Many LA teachers feared they would face the same dangerous working conditions that would ultimately harm students living in multigenerational households the most.

This fear became the fuel for our rank-and-file UTLA member engagement to demand the safest return possible for teachers and students. The three safety demands for campus reopening, that were ratified by members with a 91 percent approval, are full vaccinations for school staff, returning only when LA County is out of the purple tier, and enforceable safety conditions and protocols at every school.

One of the major challenges to UTLA members and other teachers’ unions in navigating the reopening has been the fractured public support for educators after attacks by the ruling class, including many liberals. Despite popular support for the Red for Ed strike wave in 2018 and 2019, teachers have seen less public outcry against being forced back into unsafe schools. Even President Joe Biden has been critical of schools staying remote and is trying to incentivize school districts that reopen campuses with additional funding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently relaxed their six-feet distancing guideline to three feet, seemingly to make it easier for schools to resume in-person learning.

Even though the circumstances have been difficult for meeting, UTLA member activists have engaged other members in conversations about the reopening plans and to establish clear priorities for working conditions at their schools. On a given evening this year, UTLA rank-and-file members could be found video chatting, texting, and making phone calls to ensure other members in their school were informed and engaged in the bargaining process as much as possible. This is a muscle many members first flexed in 2019 in preparation for the strike. And just like during the strike, we also worked to connect parents to the fight for a safe school campus reopening.

At my school in central Los Angeles, one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic, the other teachers and I held an evening UTLA parent meeting to share data about COVID-19 spread in schools, share specific concerns about a rushed reopening and over testing, and elicit parent input on how they are feeling. In our meeting, we established an understanding that we are all in this together as a community with major concerns about reopening schools. We invited parents to an upcoming car caravan to show support to LAUSD teachers, and a few showed up to honk about an unsafe reopening.

With mounting pressure to restore in-person instruction and the decline in COVID cases in LA County, UTLA appeared defensive in bargaining for the Sideletter Agreement. This led to concessions like an extended workday, potential class restructuring, and a hybrid schedule for return. Our hybrid learning model allows some students to attend class in-person, while others join class virtually from home. Teachers will provide varying levels of supervision and instruction depending on the age group.

Despite being in a less-than-ideal bargaining position because of public pressure and pandemic organizing challenges, the UTLA bargaining team walked away from the table with all three of the membership’s health and safety demands met. LAUSD has already started vaccinating school staff to meet the vaccination demand, and campuses are already equipped with the most advanced air filters available.

In addition, teachers have paid time to prepare their classrooms for the transition to in-person learning, specific and enforceable safety protocols, full personal protective equipment (PPE), guaranteed UTLA representation on every school-site COVID task force, no requirement to simultaneously teach in-person and remotely, and access to full vaccination.

Despite the obstacles of opening school buildings in a pandemic, UTLA members are preparing to return to school sites in a far safer way than in any other major urban school district in America. This is a result of our social-justice-focused union leadership and school site organizing. This Sideletter Agreement will have a ripple effect on the way that other California districts, charter schools, and even some private schools plan for their campus reopenings.

The next step for UTLA members like me is to prepare our schools and classrooms to be the safest environment possible. Less than half of students plan to return to campus this semester, which means we have a lot of trust to build in the months ahead. We aren’t just advocating for ourselves, we’re also advocating for our students and community.

To ensure that safety, we have to continue building strength and militancy among our membership that can demand the enforcement of the Sideletter Agreement — and keep fighting for the schools our communities deserve.