Mass reopenings worldwide have accelerated the coronavirus pandemic
Bryan Dyne, WSWS, Jun 5 2020

MSF COVID workers at a squatters camp in Sao Bernardo do Campo, greater
Sao Paulo area, Brazil, Wednesday Jun 3 2020. (Photo: Andre Penner/AP)

The mass economic re-openings in the Americas, Europe and Asia that began in May have paved the way for a massive spread of the coronavirus pandemic internationally. According to data aggregated by Worldometer, the average number of new cases has been more than 115k since May 27, a number which has been steadily rising since May 12. The accelerating spread is also reflected in the number of new deaths each day. Starting in April, the number of new deaths had begun to decrease, a result of the physical distancing taken up by hundreds of millions of workers, toilers and youth around the world. The rate of new deaths, however, has now stabilized at an average of 3,770, as those people have been steadily forced back to work, and it is poised to climb in the wake of the hundreds of thousands of new infections. As of this writing, there have been nearly 6.7m officially confirmed cases and more than 390k deaths caused by COVID-19 worldwide. A plurality of cases are in Pindostan and Brazil, which have totals of 1.9m and 610k cases respectively, along with 110k and 33k deaths.

The governments of both countries have also whipped workers back into factories and plants under threat of economic destitution if they don’t return. In Brazil, meatpacking plants were opened on May 20, while auto production started resuming the previous week. Hundreds of workers in these facilities have already become infected, spreading it to their homes and their communities. Despite this, Pres Bolsonaro is storming ahead with the full reopening of the country, overseen by local mayors and regional governors. Factories in Pindostan began opening even earlier. Some states, including Oklahoma, North Dakota and Nebraska, never had stay-at-home orders, while states such as Georgia began reopening the last week of April. Certain industries, such as auto, waited until the second or third week in May to fully resume manufacturing their products, but these were only ever shut down in the first place as a result of wildcat strikes that erupted in early April, after reports emerged of infections spreading in the auto plants. The spread is in every state. While states such as New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Connecticut report a 14-day decrease in the number of new daily cases, nearly half of states have an increase in new cases, particularly in areas where the pandemic did not initially widely infect. Florida, for example, yesterday saw its highest new case count yet, bringing its total cases above 60k. The state’s death toll stands at more than 2.6k.

Mexico has also emerged as a new hotspot for outbreaks of the pandemic. It is now on par with Pindostan and Brazil for the number of new deaths each day, and is the fourteenth country to exceed 100k cases and the seventh to breach 10k deaths. Hundreds of these were caused by the premature reopening of the country’s maquiladora sweatshops, which are used by Pindo auto and other manufacturing companies to produce cheap parts. Similarly in India, large sections of industry were ordered to resume production in mid-May, particularly parts and car companies. Even then, the number of cases in the country were still increasing, largely a result of the haphazard lockdown implemented by the Modi government in April that trapped millions of migrant workers in the already crowded and unsanitary slums of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other cities. The Modi government’s actions have caused India’s official case and death counts to soar. They currently stand at 226k and 6,309 respectively, and are increasing exponentially. The outbreaks in these countries and many others underscore the warnings that have been repeatedly issued by the World Health Organization against reopening without having a system of mass testing, contact tracing and isolation in place to fight the coronavirus. Hans Kluge, the European director for the WHO, recently noted:

The second wave is not inevitable. But an increasing number of nations are lifting restrictions, and there is a definite threat of a repeat outbreak of the COVID-19 infection. If those outbreaks are not isolated, a second wave may come and it may be very destructive.

Even this statement is behind the times. The first wave of the pandemic, in global terms, never actually abated, and is now cutting a bloody swathe through some of the poorest regions of the world. South Asia, as well as Africa, have not only been devastated by the coronavirus, but also from powerful typhoons and massive locust swarms. Kluge also noted:

We still have neither a vaccine nor a cure for COVID-19.

Similar statements were issued on Wednesday by Anthony Fauci, the director the NIAID in Pindostan. He warned that, while it is possible that there will be a vaccine available sometime next year, there is no evidence that any immunity will last. Fauci said during an interview with Journal of the Pindo Medical Association Editor Howard Bauchner:

When you look at the history of coronaviruses, the common coronaviruses that cause the common cold, the reports in the literature are that the durability of immunity that’s protective ranges from three to six months to almost always less than a year. That’s not a lot of durability and protection.

The re-openings are also occurring alongside the mass protests in Pindostan and internationally against the police murder of George Floyd and the dictatorial actions taken by Pres Trump. While many protesters are wearing masks in an attempt to protect themselves from the disease, the large crowds, chanting and holding hands are ideal for the contagion to rapidly spread. George Floyd himself was infected when he was killed, his autopsy showed. The protests are also becoming an excuse for areas to close testing sites in California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Testing for the disease is a crucial step in containing outbreaks and is the only way to objectively know how far the pandemic has spread. Less testing also artificially deflates the case counts, which can in turn be utilized to justify further re-openings. In a story virtually ignored by the national media, the worker who developed Florida’s coronavirus database was fired last month for refusing to manipulate the data in order make it seem as though the state had reached the threshold to safely reopen. As testing becomes less common, it becomes easier for false data to be presented as legitimate.

Swedish health officials admit “herd immunity” policy led to “too many” deaths
Jordan Shilton, WSWS, Jun 5 2020

Anders Tegnell, who as state epidemiologist is responsible for Sweden’s coronavirus policy, has been forced to acknowledge that the effective pursuit of a “herd immunity” strategy by opposing lockdown measures has produced a catastrophic level of death. His remarks are not merely an expression of the mounting crisis for the Swedish political establishment, but a damning indictment of all the bourgeois media outlets and politicians internationally who held up the “Swedish model” to enforce a reckless back-to-work campaign that threatens the lives of millions around the world. Tegnell commented:

There is quite obviously a potential for improvement in what we have done.

Asked whether the strategy of the Swedish authorities of allowing most schools, restaurants, bars and businesses to remain open, and refusing to impose strict contact restrictions had produced too many deaths, he answered:

Yes. Absolutely.

As of yesterday, Sweden recorded over 40k infections and 4,562 deaths in a country of just 10m people. On a seven-day rolling average, Sweden recorded the highest death rate in the world for the seven-day period ending on Jun 2. This was the second time over the past month that Sweden led the global death rate over a seven-day period. The deaths have overwhelmingly affected the elderly living in under-resourced and poorly-staffed care homes, who were effectively denied intensive care treatment in hospitals in many areas. Immigrant and other low-income communities where residents could not social distance have also suffered badly. Compared to its Nordic neighbors, all of whom implemented tougher lockdowns, Sweden has lost 10 times more citizens per head of population than Norway, 7 times more than Finland, and 4½ times more than Denmark. Sweden’s policy has been lauded internationally by mouthpieces for the financial elite and big business, who were determined to force working people back to their jobs as soon as multi-billion-dollar bailouts for the financial oligarchy were completed. Under the headline “Is Sweden doing it right?”, Thomas Friedman demanded in a column in the NYT in late April:

Sweden has essentially opted for a strategy of “herd immunity” through exposure. This strategy posits that most people under age 65 who get the coronavirus will either experience it as a typical or tough flu, or completely asymptomatically, and the number who will get so sick that they require hospitalization or emergency care will reliably be less than the number of beds needed to care for them. So, if you do your best to shelter and sequester all of those over 65, and let much of the rest of the population circulate and get exposed and become naturally immune, once about 60% of your population has gone through this you’ll have herd immunity and the viral transmission will be blocked. After all, herd immunity is our goal.

In early May, Der Spiegel news magazine granted a lengthy interview to Johann Carlson, general director of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, to claim that “closing schools is excessive.” The following weeks saw an editorial in Britain’s Financial Times, “Sweden chooses a third way on coronavirus,” and an article in the CFR policy journal, “Sweden’s coronavirus strategy will soon be the world’s.” The latter piece was produced by researchers who had no expertise in infectious diseases or medicine, funded by the Swedish Confederation of Employers. As the scale of the death produced by such criminal policies begins to become clear, all of these authors and publications should be held to account. Their propaganda helped facilitate the adoption of the premature lifting of lockdown measures throughout Europe and North America, the reopening of schools, and the sending of workers back to unsafe workplaces. In effect, they helped implement policies that follow in the footsteps of Sweden’s disastrous COVID-19 strategy. Neighboring governments have been forced to acknowledge the reality that Sweden remains a high-risk area for infections. While Norway, Denmark and Finland agreed to open their borders for travel between each country, they excluded Sweden from the arrangement. Cyprus has barred Swedish tourists even as it recklessly opens its borders to travelers from across Europe.

The mounting public criticism has forced the government to adopt some face-saving measures. Yesterday, Health Minister Lena Hallengren announced that the government would pay for everyone with symptoms to be tested for coronavirus at a cost of 5b kronor (around €560m). Sweden has consistently maintained one of the lowest rates of testing in Europe due to an extremely restrictive testing policy. The government’s goal of processing 100k tests a week by the end of May never came close to being reached. The lack of testing played an important role in the crisis in elderly care facilities. Staff found it almost impossible to get tested, allowing the virus to spread undetected. However, the main problem for care workers is precarious employment. Many workers are paid by the hour by private job agencies. Pay is so low and jobs so insecure that care workers simply could not afford to stay home even when they had symptoms. A random check of 57 care workers at a Gothenburg care home on one day found that 40% had symptoms, including coughing, fevers and sore throats. Four tested positive for COVID-19. This state of affairs is the product of years of savage austerity. An investigation by the trade union-aligned Arena Ide think tank found that 96% of Sweden’s municipalities plan to cut spending on care for the elderly during 2020. Hallengren, who still insists she “would not have wanted a lockdown” knowing what she knows now, sought to blame the entire population for these conditions in a recent interview, telling The Local:

Nobody can say anything other than that it is a society-wide failure that the infection entered the homes of the elderly and that we had in fact not equipped elderly care to cope with this situation.

This is a lie. The privatization of elderly care and the health-care sector more generally is the product of decades of right-wing neolib policies implemented by the political establishment, including governments led by Social Democrats and conservatives alike. Sweden became a center for state-funded free schools and hospitals operated by private conglomerates. John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldrridge, former editors of the Economist magazine, wrote in a 2014 book:

The streets of Stockholm are awash with the blood of sacred cows. The local think tanks are overflowing with fresh ideas about welfare entrepreneurs and lean management. Sweden has done most of the things that politicians know they ought to do but seldom have the courage to attempt.

These hard-right prescriptions proved deadly wen the pandemic hit. Sweden’s “lean” hospital system, which has among the lowest rates of beds per head of population in Europe, was not able to deal with the surge of COVID-19 patients. Health-care was severely rationed, with many elderly care home residents not even brought to the hospital. A study by Germany’s public broadcaster NDR found that less than 1% of people aged 80 and over infected by COVID-19 received intensive care treatment in Sweden, compared to 12% in Germany. The rapidly mounting death toll and the continued spread of the pandemic threatens to destabilize Sweden’s political establishment. The Social Democrat/Green government has been forced to concede to the demands of the conservative Moderate Party and far-right Sweden Democrats for a commission of inquiry prior to the summer break. PM Stefan Löfven initially wanted to delay the inquiry until after the pandemic. More fundamentally, public trust in the government is collapsing. While a poll conducted in April found that 63% of Swedes either had fairly high or very high faith in the government’s approach to the pandemic, the latest edition of the Novus poll released yesterday saw the figure collapse to 45%. It is no mere coincidence that thousands of people in major Swedish cities including Stockholm and Malmö participated this week in mass protests against the brutal police killing of George Floyd and police violence in general. Participants who spoke to the media stressed that domestic issues with police racism and the targeting of impoverished immigrant communities were also motivating factors. Around 2.9k demonstrated in Malmö yesterday. Thousands more took to the streets in Stockholm on Wednesday, where police confronted a group of protesters with pepper spray.

Pindo colleges prepare full opening of campuses in the name of football
Andy Thompson, WSWS, Jun 5 2020

Pindo colleges and universities have begun announcing plans for how they will reopen campuses for the fall 2020 semester amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with many schools indicating that they will operate on a modified schedule or implement more online learning options for the fall. However, many prominent schools including the University of Louisville, Syracuse University, the University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State University, among others, have unveiled plans to reopen with in-person classes and other school activities for the fall semester. The schools that are particularly committed to having full or partial reopening of campus activity all have one thing in common: large multimillion-dollar football or basketball programs, with playing seasons that start in the fall. Over the past several decades, college sports has become a multibillion-dollar industry and has made athletics the center of revenue and funding plans in most major US universities. In early May, the National College Athletics Association (NCAA) released a statement outlining their plan for resuming college sports titled “Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Sport.” The principles include a number of conditions that must be met in order for sports to begin: COVID-19 testing for the athletes, adherence to federal guidelines, and a three-phase plan where social distancing measures are gradually lifted over time. These “principles” differ little from the phony PR statements of other industries which have already begun sending workers back to factories and workplaces. In these instances, the workers are being forced to return to work with little to no protections that they had been promised. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 cases have surged in many of these major industrial sectors.

Students returning to campuses, living in crowded residence halls and attending large classrooms, will be confronted with similar circumstances. They will have no guarantee that they will not catch the virus and spread it to others once they return to school. Eager to restart the multibillion-dollar college sports industry, NCAA has also announced that it will permit student athletes to return to campus for summer workouts and training starting on Jun 8. Most schools with large sports programs will have their teams on campus in June to prepare for the upcoming season. Some schools like the University of Oklahoma will wait, but only until Jul 1, before sending their students back to training. Delaying training could set back the athletic performance of those teams. For college sports, winning games is critical for revenue streams. Canceling the fall 2020 football season alone would result in estimated losses upwards of $4b for the top NCAA schools. Athletics programs at 36 colleges reported over $150m in revenue in FY 2018. The University of Texas at Austin and Ohio State University both garnered over $200m. In total, the revenue generated by college sports programs has surpassed $14b/yr. The revenue produced from college sports is mostly from advertising deals and sponsorships from major corporations like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Google. These companies pay handsomely for exclusive access to market their products to the millions of Pindos who enjoy college sports. During the televised broadcast of the March Madness basketball tournament, a 30-second commercial costs over $1m.

Despite the giant sums generated by college athletics departments, only 12 schools actually see a profit return from their sports teams. Most schools go into debt hiring coaching staff and building exclusive, luxurious facilities to entice talented high schoolers to sign on to their teams. In 41 out of 50 states, the highest-paid public employees are college coaches, who are often considered to be the most critical part of a successful sports program. The 25 highest-paid college coaches all have salaries of over $4m/yr. The highest is Dabo Swinney of Clemson university’s football team, who is paid $9.3m/yr. Only the few schools who make it to the top of their divisions by winning games and tournaments can land the million-dollar corporate sponsorships. The competition for these slots is immense. Oftentimes, the schools that do make profits off their teams put that money back into the program to keep a step ahead of other schools. In other words, the money very rarely, if ever, goes to improving the quality of education for students. The athletic departments that are not in the exclusive group that makes giant profits are looking to get there and consider it necessary to keep pumping money into the sports programs to develop winning teams and see a return on their investments. There is no doubt that the fierce competition for the few money-making spots is a major motivating factor driving schools to bring their athletes on campus and get them in shape for the season as quickly as possible. At the University of Georgia, where athletes are returning immediately on Jun 8, head coach Kirby Smart told ESPN reporters that student athletes will likely be safer than if they stayed home outside of coaching staff supervision. Smart said:

I know that our facility is one of the safest, and we certainly have the ability to care for that facility better than a lot of places they can go back home.

Schools like the University of Georgia have invested sums into the tens of millions to build professional facilities staffed with trainers whose job it is to keep athletes in good health so they can continue to perform and win games. When the players return for workouts, they will be closely monitored and have their health tested regularly to ensure that a COVID-19 outbreak does not occur within the student teams. Such a development would devastate the performance of a team and potentially take them out of the season entirely, which would cause a financial disaster for teams whose ticket prices and lucrative sponsorship deals depend on winning. The athletes will be receiving testing and special treatment, but the general student population is another question. The average student will not receive regular testing, access to special facilities, and other precautions that would help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, they will be expected to pay the full cost of tuition, for food in the dining halls, and of course buying tickets to football games. The NCAA official football schedule is still largely to be determined, and representatives have said they will continue to evaluate the situation as it progresses over the summer before making a final decision for the fall. But statements from coaches and athletic directors make it seem increasingly likely that the games will go on. Last week, University of Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN that the school is planning normal operations at their football stadium, where games see upwards of 65k fans in attendance. Oregon State athletics director Scott Barnes said:

Anywhere from 75% up to almost 85% of all revenues to our departments are derived directly or indirectly from football.

The head of Texas Christian University athletics, Jeremiah Donati, told reporters:

If there’s no football season, or if the football season is interrupted or shortened, there will be a massive fallout. There would have to be massive cutbacks.

Many schools, particularly those who are in the less elite Division II or Division III, have already cut many of their smaller sports programs that do not generate revenue. But even schools with a Division I sports program are cutting their less profitable departments. This includes sports like track and field, lacrosse, soccer, and even baseball. The pandemic has triggered a crisis in college sports. Years of inflated spending on football programs have driven many schools to rely on the anticipated income of future seasons to cover debts incurred from building stadiums, workout facilities, and high salaries for coaching staff. The potential shutdown of the football season will provoke cuts in funding that will likely target other academic departments to make up for the loss of football revenue. This could include cutting student scholarships and tuition waivers for graduate workers, an increase in costs and fees for undergraduates, and layoffs or wage freezes for teaching staff. Schools are eager to avoid the looming financial disaster and are making plans to ensure football will open, even if delayed until the spring. The cost of this decision will instead be the health and lives of the student body and the larger university communities.

Alberta’s hard-right premier dismisses coronavirus as “influenza”
Janet Browning, WSWS, Jun 5 2020

Jason Kenney, Alberta’s hard-right United Conservative Party (UCP) premier, has taken a leaf from the playbook of Trump and Bolsonaro, and dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as an “influenza.” Kenney’s callous remark, delivered during a parliamentary debate last week, is part of his government’s reckless back-to-work policy and underscores the broad support within Canada’s ruling elite for a criminal “herd immunity” strategy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking in the Alberta legislature on May 27, Kenney declared:

We cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic, as well as the mental health and physiological health of the broader population, for potentially a year for an influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the elderly and the immunocompromised. The average age of death from the influenza in the province is 83, and the average life expectancy in the province is 82.

This implies that those who succumb to COVID-19 were on the verge of death anyway. Kenney’s remarks show the criminal indifference to human life that pervades his UCP government. Alberta has witnessed repeated workplace COVID-19 outbreaks, including one of the largest in all North America at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River. A third death resulting from that outbreak, which has sickened well over 1.5k people, was recently reported. Benito Quesada, 51, a union shop steward who had worked at the Cargill plant since 2007, contracted COVID-19 in mid-April and spent weeks on a ventilator in a medically induced coma. The first two deaths linked to the outbreak were Hiep Bui, a 67-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who worked at the plant since 1996, and Armando Sallegue, the 71-year-old father of another worker at the plant. Sallegue’s son, who fell sick after contracting the virus at the Cargill plant, tragically passed him the virus, while he was on a visit from the Philippines. In total, Alberta has recorded over 7k COVID-19 infections and 145 deaths.

Kenney’s contempt for the lives of these workers is far from unique within ruling circles. Governments across the country, from Francois Legault’s right-wing populist Coalition Avenir Quebec regime in Quebec to Doug Ford’s hard-right Progressive Conservative government in Ontario, have enforced the return to work of hundreds of thousands of workers to workplaces where little to nothing has been to protect them from the contagion, and as COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to rise sharply. This back-to-work policy has been greenlighted and overseen by the federal Liberal government. PM Justin Trudeau and his union and NDP-supported Liberal government have focused their response to the pandemic on guaranteeing the wealth and investments of the rich and super-rich. They have funnelled more than $650b into the financial markets and big business, while placing the millions of workers who have lost their jobs and incomes on what amounts to temporary rations under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. It pays just $2k/month, or less than the rent for an average two-bedroom apartment in Toronto and other cities. Provincial governments have exploited the resulting economic distress among workers to force them back to their jobs even though the infection risk remains high. Kenney’s comments are of a piece with Legault’s, who declared during the initial stages of Quebec’s “reopening” campaign that his government wants people to get sick. The Quebec premier declared:

It may sound frightening, but once Quebecers understand the concept of herd immunity they will see it is the best way out of the current pandemic. What we are saying is people who are less at risk, people who are under 60, can get a natural immunization.

Neither Kenney nor Legault care to admit that wherever “herd immunity” policies have been pursued, they have proven catastrophic. Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist who designed Sweden’s murderous policy of refusing to implement lockdown measures so businesses could keep on generating profits, was forced to admit last weekend that the authorities should have done things “differently.” Sweden has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, with over 4.5k deaths in a country with a population of just 10m. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the virus as a “little flu” and his constant attacks on officials who refused to rescind lockdown measures have played a major role in that country having the second-highest total of infections worldwide. Over 32k Brazilians have lost their lives, with more than 1k now dying daily.

Kenney’s effort to dress up his back-to-work policy with alleged concern for the “mental health and physiological wellbeing” of Alberta’s population is no less hypocritical. It comes from the head of a government whose first full budget, tabled last fall, included sweeping cuts of up to 10% in real terms to health-care, social services and education. The spending plan will result in over 6k layoffs, including hundreds of health-care workers, teachers and social services staff. In its contract negotiations with the province’s 180k public sector employees, the UCP government is demanding wage cuts of up to 5%. While Kenney claims to be concerned about Albertan’s health and well-being his government is targeting the most vulnerable, no doubt causing acute distress. To give but one example, the UCP government has eliminated annual cost-of-living increase for recipients of the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped. AISH recipients who receive the maximum $1,685 each month will in real terms receive approximately $30 less per month this year. By 2023, the reduction will be $120 a month per month, providing annual “savings” of more than $200m for the provincial government. Kenney’s fall 2019 budget was based on a report prepared by a task force headed by former Saskatchewan New Democratic Party Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon, which advocated savage austerity and authoritarian methods to suppress popular opposition. These included the use of the anti-democratic “notwithstanding clause,” the outlawing of strikes, and the imposition of concessionary contracts by government decree. Significantly, just days after Kenney’s UCP government tabled its class war budget and Trudeau won re-election by posturing as an opponent of Conservative cuts, the Liberal prime minister publicly embraced Alberta’s premier as the legitimate representative of “Western interests.”

Now in response to the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and a further steep decline in oil prices, Kenny has appointed a second blue-ribbon committee, this one an advisory council on Alberta’s “economic recovery.” It is to lay the political groundwork for further sweeping attacks on working people, from the gutting of labour standards and environmental regulations to the privatization of health-care. The 12-member council includes former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, WestJet co-founder and former chairman of the board Dick Beddoes, Canadian Western Bank CEO Chris Fowler, ATCO CEO Nancy Southern, six other corporate bosses, and as a token representative of “labour,” Bob Blakely, the ex-head of Canada’s Building Trades Union. The council is being chaired by Jack Mintz, a University of Calgary economist and Financial Post columnist who has long claimed that Canada’s shrunken public services are financially “unsustainable” and its tax rates for business and the rich are a “disincentive” to investment. He recently published a rant against public sector workers in which he claimed that in the name of “equity” they must be compelled to make “sacrifices.” As for Harper, who Kenney long served as a cabinet minister, he recently published a column in the WSJ in which he decried a supposed “new age” of “big government,” and insisted that governments must quickly transition to making massive spending cuts. Harper declared:

If they fail to practice mild austerity proactively, a brutal kind will be thrust upon them.

Opposition builds to re-opening of UK schools
Tania Kent, WSWS, Jun 5 2020

The Johnson Conservative governments’ push to partially reopen schools from Jun 1 for children in nursery, Foundation Stage, Year 1 and Year 6 has been dealt a blow after hundreds of thousands of parents kept their children at home. A survey by the National Education Union (NEU) found that more than two in five schools (44 percent) decided against admitting more pupils Monday. According to figures obtained by the Guardian, up to 90% of primary schools in some areas are remaining closed to more pupils, amid rising fears about the spread of coronavirus. In large parts of the north-east of England, not a single primary school opened to more pupils on the government’s target date for reopening. Data from 11 of the 12 largest local authorities in the region, which has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the UK, showed just 12% of the 856 primary schools admitted additional pupils Monday. The Guardian reported:

In County Durham, Gateshead and Hartlepool, not a single primary school out of 309 reopened to more pupils. In Newcastle, officials said only two of its 73 primary schools might be able to admit more pupils before next week.

In the north-west of England, the proportion of schools opening to more pupils was even lower, at just 8%, according to the NEU. The reopening of schools has nothing to do with genuine concern by the government for the education and well-being of children. Educators and children are being sent into unsafe environments as part of PM Boris Johnson’s “back to work” drive to boost profits for the rich. The conditions for the children who have been forced to return are distressing, according to accounts from many staff. The measures have transformed schools into holding pens, a precondition for returning the parents of the children to work. There is growing anxiety and high levels of stress as educators desperately attempt to maintain social distancing. There is also increasing anger, revealed in social media and comments sent to the WSWS, directed at the teaching unions for not acting to protect their members. In response to a Zoom webinar held by the NEU on Wednesday, two days after the re-opening of schools, many on Facebook expressed hostility to the inaction of the union. Questions repeatedly posted included, “What are you doing about it?” and “What have you done about it?” One member, Haider, commented:

What a useless union. Can we get a refund on our union fees we’ve paid in over the years? All that money to pay a lion with no teeth for protection of pupils before next week.

Leanne raised:

Okay, so I want to know when will they ballot to strike? Stop the talking, it’s getting us nowhere. Let’s get the action going, for god’s sake!

Janice said:

It’s definitely not safe. I thought the union was going to try and stop schools opening on Monday, but no!

Others noted the attack on their working conditions and the levels of stress being imposed. Kathy said:

Well, that’s not exactly helpful for those of us already back in classrooms. I have really tried to be supportive & encouraging of Union engagement in this, but kinda a bit late for us heading into early years or Year 6 groups THIS WEEK. And school leaders are taking the brunt of the burden on who should be back & when for both pupils & more crucially staff — ridiculously stressful.

Rebecca commented:

My school have been back two days already, all doing longer hours as school opening earlier and finishing later, now have no planning, preparation and assessment time and have 10 mins break in the morning and 15 mins for lunch! (If they are lucky!) Would like to know what the union is going to do about the working conditions of its members?

Mary, a teaching assistant in a primary school in the south-east, sent comments to the WSWS on the conditions facing children and staff on reopening. Her school has only extended attendance to Year 6 pupils and only 30 of those have attended. Mary wrote:

Children are split into ‘bubble’ groups and contained in the same classroom. The desks are spread out with equipment packs per child, no sharing is allowed. Hand gel is provided at every entrance and on each desk to be used after each activity. Children are not to leave their desks for any reason other than to go to the toilet. Each class has a designated play area that they have to stick to. Teachers cannot leave their bubble and must stay with the children during break times. During wet weather, the children have to remain at their desks for play-times. Windows and doors have to be kept open at all times. This is very problematic when it is raining, like yesterday with heavy showers. Desks must also be cleaned during break times. Door handles must be disinfected throughout the day. During play-times, however, social distancing goes out the window, as children naturally want to be together and play with each other.

Alan, a secondary teacher who has worked through the lockdown to support key workers and vulnerable children, told the WSWS:
The past 10 weeks have been extremely stressful for all staff from the headteacher to each teaching assistant. The constant changes to advice and expectations have left heads having to draft and redraft plans to ensure the safety of their staff and the pupils with stretched budgets. Tape has been put on the floor in front of the canteen to ensure the pupils keep two metres away. This is just to show that there is something being done to follow the government’s advice. In the staff room, tape has been put around chairs to ensure that staff keep two metres apart. Seeing pupils sit in the canteen with taped crosses showing where they can sit has been heart-breaking.

The SEP warned that the role of the education unions and Labour politicians is to systematically demobilise opposition to the government and prevent a coordinated national movement and break resistance down to the level of local authorities, individual schools and even individual parents and teachers. In our statement, “No to the reopening of schools! Build action committees to safeguard children and teachers!” we explained: All the education unions are reporting a growth in membership, with the National Education Union boasting of 20k new members and an additional 2k reps due to teachers looking for a way to fight back. But the NEU, NASUWT, NAHT and the ASCL all support the staged resumption of classes so that the collective resistance of teachers can be broken down.” Opposition to reopening of schools can and must be the spearhead of an independent movement of the working class against the Johnson government and its murderous back-to-work campaign. We urge educators to study our statement below and contact the SEP for advice and assistance in setting up action committees in your school.

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