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“Essential” Should Not Mean “Exploitable”: Rethinking the Current Education Crisis in the U.S

By Melissa Hodges


The fraught public debate over reopening public schools for in-person instruction has brought long simmering work, family, and labor issues along gender, race, and class lines into sharp relief.  Because the U.S. model of the in-person school day has long functioned as a primary source of childcare for many American workers, the initial response of pushing this form of nurturant care work back into the unpaid private sphere has both exacerbated gender inequality within households and placed disproportionate care burdens on lower income and single parent families. Childcare shortages have also often been cited as a primary barrier to the full reopening of the economy.

In response to increased mobilization of teachers unions over the summer, the White House issued a directive on August 23rd designating teachers as part of the “essential” work force to give state officials and school administrators legal cover to recall teachers back for in-person instruction. By re-classifying teachers as “essential,” the U.S. federal government has signaled its concern for economic growth rather than the health of educators.  In sociological terms, this approach is also exacerbating longstanding gender, race, and class inequalities by using one form of feminized (and predominantly white) labor to create the conditions necessary for coercing other workers back on the job under the guise of addressing the needs of disadvantaged families. And although teachers, along with other essential workers in other industries, have been organizing to establish the indispensability of their labor outside the current state endorsed paradigm of “essential equals exploitable,” educational institutions continue to scramble to meet goals for which they do not have the logistical reach nor the funding to achieve.

We need to rethink how to address the current U.S. education crisis. If large for-profit corporate firms can receive federal monies during this time of economic crisis, surely educators deserve better than a punitive response that pits parents, teachers, and administrators against one another to keep workers in line. Instead, a new path forward should focus on forging coalitions among parents and educators based on their shared experiences as essential labor across lines of paid and unpaid work performed in households and institutions. This approach also requires acknowledging the interrelated inequalities of gender, race, and class in the social organization of care that cut across households and industries to reframe how we approach addressing the longstanding needs of public schools and the US workforce more broadly.

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