San Francisco science teacher and US socialist Andy Libson has been campaigning for schools to resume in-person teaching in California. California is still suffering under a hard lockdown imposed by the Democratic Party Governor Gavin Newsom.
Andy organised an informal meeting of students in a local park in his spare time for some science activity and has ended up being reported to his school principal. This marked the beginning of an investigation on his action by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) HR department. Left Lockdown Sceptics interviewed Andy about his initiative and what management may have in store for him.
Q. Can you describe how this came about and why it was important to do?
Since October of 2020, I have been meeting and working with a handful of teachers who felt that schools should not have been closed this year. We came together to put out a statement (shared with our SFUSD colleagues) about why we needed to get back into the classroom immediately and the dangers to our students and our own future the longer we stayed remote. Our statement was not met with much support from fellow teachers. Many howled that proposing schools reopen was insane, that we were being irresponsible, anti-union and anti-science. Some even accused us of looking to get kids and colleagues killed.
Once we realized we were not going to find many allies among our fellow education workers, we looked to build alliances for reopening elsewhere, especially among parents. This generated the idea to host a non-school learning event in the park during Spring Break. Our express aims were 1) actually meeting our students in person for the first time!, 2) reminding students of the value of in-person, social education, and 3) meeting parents who felt urgency around preserving, and having their children experience, in-person education again.
My contribution to the park event was teaching a lesson on electricity in which students built circuits.
Q. What was the response of students and parents to your initiative?
I teach 10th grade physics to both mainstream and English as Second Language (ESL) students. There were only a few mainstream students who were interested, but my ESL students were really enthusiastic. That’s not surprising given that ESL education has been a disaster this year: massive lack of attendance, lack of access to proper WiFi, and limited ability to practice language acquisition through socializing and verbalizing of language as happens during in-person classes.
But I don’t think it’s just a lack of access that motivates these students. In the discussions I have had with both mainstream and ESL students and their families, the latter have been more sceptical of the State narrative around Covid and less controlled by the fear around it.
Out of the 125 students on my rolls this year, 11 expressed interest in going. I required parental consent, so asked students to have a parent contact me, or one of my helpers who speaks Chinese and Spanish. Every student did so and all the parents were grateful that I was doing this event, especially on my own time. Their only questions were about what their child needed to bring, if a sibling could participate (YES!), and if other family members could come along to make a day of it in the park (SURE!).
Q. Can you describe what you actually did in your lesson that day?
Well, I essentially put together packets of wires, batteries, a switch, lights and a multimeter for pairs of students to use to assemble a working circuit. We learned terms like “conductor” and “insulator” and some of the basic elements necessary for a circuit. Then students built circuits that allowed them to turn a light ‘off’ and ‘on’ with a switch. They also used the multimeter to measure the voltage of different batteries as well as the voltage across the light while in the circuit. Finally, we used whiteboards to record our voltages (I am notorious for requiring students to write the units for ALL measurements they make), and draw diagrams of the circuits they constructed.
We were able to accomplish more in 1 ½ hours in the park than we could in 2-3 weeks of remote learning. More importantly, students got to work together and manipulate tangible, 3-dimensional objects with their hands, using all their senses in a real world environment. There is no replacement for this kind of social and experiential learning, which was a big part of our messaging about this event.
One student’s mother participated as a learner along with her daughter as her circuit partner. This is actually how I think education should be conducted in school. I believe classrooms should be cross-generational based only on a person’s desire to learn, not on an age group or some Taylorist educational assembly-line model.
When the lesson was done, most of the students and family members stayed to enjoy pizza and play outside in the park. I loved playing Jenga with one of the families and the opportunity to better get to know them.
Our event in the park was by far the best educational experience of the year, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
Q. How did you find out that this event was being investigated by HR?
I first learned that something was amiss when I received a short email from my principal asking if it was true that I held a ‘class’ over Spring Break. I responded “Yes” and “No”—some of my students participated in a learning event with me over Spring Break but it was NOT a class and was communicated that way to the parents who approved their child’s participation.
A few days later, I was asked to meet with my principal. I was told I could bring a Union representative with me (I did). At the meeting, I was asked a series of questions such as: “What happened on the day?”, “Who participated?”, “What safety protocols were followed?”, “Was I aware of the current restrictions on in-person learning in SFUSD?”, “Why did I do this?”, “Were there other political beliefs motivating my actions?”, “Could I give a list of the students who participated and the form I used to communicate with parents?”.
I answered the questions and said I was motivated by my sense that in-person education is under attack, and that students, parents, teachers and even administrators (if they cared) were going to need to work together to preserve it in the face of the Ed Tech attack on education.
At the end of this questioning, my principal told me she would be passing the information to Human Resources, they would conduct an investigation and get back to me. I have been a union representative long enough to know this meant I could face some sort of disciplinary action. Depending on how punitive the School District wanted to be, this could be a verbal reprimand or written warning entered in my personnel file, a paid or unpaid suspension, or even being fired.
I have been outspoken about the Ed. Tech attack on education and the need to return to schools to fight it among colleagues at Mission High School, in the wider school district and even across the state and country. Fellow educators largely have not liked or agreed with what I am saying, but I believe the School District is responding this way to me because of my vocal criticism of the way we (education workers) are proceeding down this road to our ruin.
Q. What has been the response of Parents? Students?
First off, it’s important to remember being targeted is meant to frighten and intimidate you into silence. Generally, the tendency among teachers is to lie low and hope for the best. While I felt anxious about the actions by my administrator and the District, I knew enough to NOT make the mistake of being quiet about it. I told my teacher allies in reopening schools and some parent allies I had met through a group called Decrease the Distance. They expressed outrage and support and asked if I was open to talking to a reporter and getting this story out. It was through these contacts that the Mission Local story came to be.
I also reached out to parents who had been part of or had given approval to their child’s participation in the Spring Break event. All were pretty disgusted by how this was being handled by the District and expressed willingness to support me in whatever way they could.
Once the Mission Local story broke, there was an outpouring of support. I was contacted by parents of former students as well as parents I didn’t know whose children attend other schools. Some loved what I had done and wondered if I would be willing to host another event for their children to attend. My answer was, and is, “YES!” Others offered to start a GoFundMe to help in case the District came down hard on me. I reached out directly to those parents to thank them and let them know I don’t need that kind of support at this time, but welcomed staying in touch in case things changed.
Meanwhile some of my former students reached out and wanted to start a petition calling for an end to teacher intimidation and the support of teachers trying to preserve in-person education. We’ll see where that goes, but it shows there’s tremendous student and parent support for people who take a stand on this issue.
Q. What has been the response of your fellow teachers?
Mixed. In general, my colleagues are staying quiet about their feelings about what I did. Some have expressed opposition, agreeing with the District that I was out of line to even do this event due to the dangers of Covid. Others believe it was unprofessional to provide an ad-hoc learning experience, suggesting this should be left to other professional agencies (non-profit and corporate).
It has been interesting to see the contrast between the overwhelming support from parents and students and the silence (or criticism) from my colleagues. I think it shows the political divide that has opened between these two camps. The decision to accept going remote this year has been anti-working class. True solidarity would have been returning to our schools to allow our fellow workers to work if they needed to, to continue to provide support for their children in these isolating, alienating times, and finally (and I believe most importantly) to uproot Big Tech’s beachhead in education—not just a little but completely. We needed to take these actions in the name of solidarity with workers everywhere whose lives are being ruined and threatened by the Great Reset and the world planned for workers through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We needed to return to work to begin the fight against Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Democratic and Republican Parties who are united in this project of assuring massive present and future profits for the largest US corporations both here and abroad.
Anyway, teachers don’t see it that way. They think all that is happening is in relation to the coronavirus, and forms the political basis for their support of lockdowns, the imposition of contract tracing, mass vaccination campaigns and ultimately vaccine passports which will lead to the creation of our own national, digital social credit system. It has been sad to see how easily my colleagues have fallen for this and also how fearful and obedient (for all our talk of social justice) we are as a class. If we continue down this path, we will be capable of only teaching our students to comply and obey their State and Corporate masters no matter how radical we think our lessons are. Racism and worker oppression will only grow under these conditions, no matter how many online, anti-racist professional development seminars we attend.
Teachers who promote the remote education experiment being done on our students (and on us) are acting as shock troops for the Capitalist class who are looking to reshape education to an all-remote, data-mined, data-surveilled, isolated labor force. We are being used by the Capitalist class and, far from recognizing it, we invite even more control and access to our work and bodies by the Capitalists under the false notion that our masters intend to keep us safe. It’s tragic and maddening.
Q: What has been the response of your teachers union (UESF)?
Officially, they made no comment—which is lame.. If you read the Mission Local article, you cannot distinguish between the response of the District and that of my union. Given that the District’s aim is to intimidate teachers who seek to take actions into their own hands to preserve in-person education, that says a lot about the role of our unions in this period. Like teachers, teacher unions have fallen right into the trap being laid for us by the Capitalist class. But their position is popular among teachers, so I don’t really blame teacher unions for their opportunism. Union leaders are politicians in training and have the commensurate level of courage and honesty one finds among that sort.
I can say that behind the scenes, it has been communicated to me that my union would provide me with a lawyer if the District chooses to get more aggressive in their response. While I appreciate hearing that, I wish my union was more public in its support. Our union needs to encourage resistance in its members rather than the obedience and compliance desired of us by the school district.
Q. Do you plan to continue building informal learning activities jointly with students and parents?
Yes. I will work with any teacher or parent who believes that in-person education is essential, who is prepared to take actions to communicate that, and is ready to fight the forces who seek to eliminate it. By the way, these are the same forces who will be seeking to automate the job of education and educators. So we all have a stake in this fight.
I also intend to expose the fraud of the in-person education our District is peddling to parents under the guise of reopening schools. At the high school level, “in-person” education means a student showing up with their mask on, computer in hand, seated in a single room with 13 other students (at most) behind a plexiglass shield, logging onto their computer and going to all their classes remotely without leaving that room the whole day. This is a glimpse into the future of education being offered by our brick and mortar schools. It is why I have been saying that schools right now are being reopened so they can be dismantled. But again, teachers don’t buy it. We will not be able to stop this wrecking ball until we wake up to what is actually happening in education and how it is related to the changes being made in labor and in society.
Q. Would you like to send a message to other socialists internationally who are fighting lockdown and bio-fascism?
Comrades, we are a minority of a minority of a minority. That sucks. Socialists around the globe have largely been complicit in this attack on our class. If you have not drunk the Capitalist Kool-aid being sold to you as Marxist wine then “Congratulations!”. But we will need to break out of our isolation. I beleive simple acts of resistance can be the basis for doing so if you can find allies in joining you. We will need to take risks, but we will also need to be smart and assume that we will be targeted, and plan our actions according to that expectation.
Where and with whom you should act, I cannot tell you. I think all our situations are different. But if you can find a cohort of people who can join you in offering one point of resistance in the manifold attack on workers right now then that is where you must start. We are each located within different streams, but the water all flows from the same origin: Competition for profits, exploitation of workers, physical dispersal of the collective working class, imperialist claims on all land, resources, bodies, thoughts and actions—Capitalism. Start the fight where you are and we can meet at the rivers and tributaries that will bring us all to the moment we must reckon with its source. We have no choice but to fight. We do have a choice about when, where and how. Begin making that a part of your thinking about this current moment.
If you have thoughts or comments you’d like to share with me directly you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out my weekly podcast, “What’s Left?”, with Eduardo Abarca and Kenny Zepeda.