GREENWICH VILLAGE – As public schools begin reopening today, several public school teachers and activists gathered Friday evening to protest the reopening while holding a PPE drive and a brief workshop in Washington Square Park. The focus of this event was mainly on the District 75 schools and students, which these educators say have been largely ignored in the preparations process of reopening schools.
Although the turnout was small, less than 50 at most during the events’ four hours, there was a spirited vibe amongst those gathered, especially when the activists spoke to all in attendance.
“People forget we exist,” said Jo Macellaro, a D75 teacher from the Bronx who co-organized this event as a member of the action group, Revolting Lesbians. “D75 is ignored by the Mayor, the DOE, and our own union. The plan is, there is no plan! I just want to ask De Blasio and the Chancellor why they think our students of color with disabilities are expendable?”
District 75 is not a specific geographic area, but a city-wide intensive program for the students with special needs. That includes autism spectrum disorder, emotional disturbances, serious cognitive delays, and other disabilities that require specific attention. 86% of its students are students of color, and another 86% come from low-income backgrounds. According to Macellaro, who has taught for D75 for nine years, the challenges these students create more challenges to help them during the COVID19 pandemic.
“Some of them physically cannot wear a mask,” she told Bklyner. “Some come on an ambulance every day, that’s how medically fragile they are. Some have been exposed to a lot of trauma. We’ll be spit on, hit by them. They are going to be traumatized, and we can’t hug them.”
But as Macellaro explains, D75 has received no guidance from the Department of Education (DOE) or even enough PPE equipment, hence the drive. At the same time, when the D75 teachers and staff returned to their buildings earlier this month, they found their classrooms, bathrooms, and hallways to be just as dirty as many other DOE schools. Macellaro reported finding in her school roaches, dead mice, dust on vents, and blood on the door of a bathroom stall.
But with D75 schools being among the first to open on Monday, some at this rally felt those students were being used as guinea pigs, which upset them. One speech therapist pointed out that the students are highly vulnerable due to their special needs, and some could be immuno-compromised.
Selu, a Brooklyn-based activist and poet, helped organize this event because their own mother taught special education in New Jersey schools. But they also felt it was important to spread the word of how D75 is neglected, even from a racial perspective.
“I am holding this rally because I want to do what I can to protect these children, their teachers, and families,” Selu told Bklyner via email prior to Friday’s event. “I do not believe it is fair. They should not be subjected to these horrors just so that the city can force people to return to work. Children have been left out of a lot of these conversations, and they are often the ones affected the most by racism and inequity. There is a long history of abuse and neglect against Black and POC children in the education system, and this unsafe and inequitable reopening is a prime example of it.”
Jeff Wright, an East New York resident who teaches at a high school in Sunset Park, agrees. “COVID19 has shed light on issues that have been happening for years. These problems were around 10 years ago when I was in school. A portion of the police budget went into the DOE. If we did that a long time ago, we wouldn’t have this. It’s now or never.”
His co-worker, named Katie, adds. “This is disrespectful to the staff, teachers, and parents. They set us up to fail.”
The drive was held throughout the whole event, near the archway of Washington Square Park. During then, some literature on how to be safe during reopening, and parents’ rights, was given out to anyone curious about the gathering. Dozens who walked by stopped to look and ask questions. Two activists claiming they helped with Revolting Lesbians, held up a sign that read “We Won’t Die for DOE” while the names of all the DOE teachers and staff who died from COVID19 surrounded that rallying cry. One of those names, Eugene Adams, was a co-worker of Macellaro’s.
Most of who stopped to ask questions or chat with the activists showed support, though a couple of others, including an older man who claimed to be a retired teacher, didn’t see why opening windows for air circulation would not be enough to reopen schools during a pandemic. His comments upset a few who heard him, and they walked away after trying to have a discussion with him.
By 6 PM, a small circle was formed around the sign that was placed on the ground. About 25 activists, educators, and passers-by listened to some speakers explain the need for more attention be brought to schools during reopening, particularly D75.
One teacher from a Title 1 school in Coney Island, named Mattie, said she will be required to escort students to an isolation room and sit with the students until their parents will pick them up.
“Schools don’t have to tell us if the kids have COVID19,” Mattie told those gathered. “I haven’t seen any PPE. There’s no airflow in the vents. There’s damage from Hurricane Sandy that has never been fixed.”
Brigette Bantley, a teacher from the South Bronx whose son is a D75 student, also spoke in the circle. She brought with her a sign that read “I will stand between a bullet and a student, but I can’t stop COVID19”
“We as educators are putting our lives on the line,” she told everyone. “If I’m dead, my kids can’t learn. I’d rather have my child in front of a computer than hooked up to a ventilator.”
Bantley also mentioned how D75 gets so little money, despite so much funding going to the DOE per student enrolled in the program. If D75 were to get any of those funds, there wouldn’t be any need for a PPE drive, she said.
After the circle, there was a waiting period to prepare for a march. However, there was a delay after a protest against ICE came through Washington Square Park, causing about a dozen police officers to arrive near the archway, right near this rally. Police activity increased when a few vans parked right outside the archway, and some riot police were seen in the park. Some of the organizers, including Selu and Macellaro, scouted the situation around the park and reported back some scuffling between the protesters and the cops. That made them decide to not march in order to keep everyone safe, and instead, they spoke to another crowd at about 7 PM, by use of a microphone. During this, a small Black Lives Matter protest marched past this group.
But the speakers kept on speaking, including Macellaro, White, and Mattie. They repeated what they said earlier about how they believe the Mayor, the Chancellor, and the UFT did not care much for them, nor care for D75 students. They spoke of their fears of COVID19 and what damage it could do to them. They also did a chant where they demanded funds and safety and warned of a strike.
“5-6-7-8! We won’t go until it’s safe,” was one of the chants.
In the end, Selu announced that $1,300 had been donated for the PPE drive, along with 200 shields, and 300 masks. Even though the gathering was smaller than the organizers anticipated, all seemed to leave inspired and ready to fight for the health and safety of themselves, their co-workers, and their students.