Today we celebrate the life of our nation’s chief leader in the struggle for civil rights. In remembering the triumphs and the sacrifices so many made to ensure a better life for all, we also honor Martin Luther King Jr. as a champion for working people.
Dr. King saw the fight for civil rights and the fight for labor rights as inextricably intertwined. For example, he rightly called out the pernicious “right-to-work” laws that still disenfranchise workers here in Texas today: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
In labor, we center our work by reflecting upon the efforts and sacrifices of those who came before us to ensure dignity in all work — and for all workers. In the spirit of this day of reflection, I want to acknowledge that we still have far to go in ensuring all workers have a living wage, are provided safe working conditions, and can use their voice in the workplace.
Today I received a video recording of a teacher remembering her campus leader, whom we lost to COVID-19 last year. In sharing the video with me, the teacher lamented the loss of joy and security in her chosen profession, saying she must move on and leave education. As the teacher told me, she didn’t want to risk leaving her kids without a parent — the way the children of her friend and school leader were left after he died from COVID. Her decision, she said, was brought on by a Friday cafeteria duty with no social distancing and few masks.
We are losing an experienced educator — and many more like her — because she does not feel safe at school. She does not want to leave, but she feels she has no choice.
After reflecting on the sadness and the frustration of my fellow educator, I am left with questions for you, our superintendents, principals, trustees — our public education leaders.
What happened to all the work we did last year? Who declared this pandemic over?
School employees gratefully received our vaccines and were ready to return to in-person instruction, but was that supposed to mean everything was back to “normal”?
What happened to all our mitigation practices? Our use of outdoor space to mitigate the potential for spread in crowded cafeterias?
What happened to being creative in helping our students manage adversity?
Did we stop asking our educators and school staff for ideas on how to make spaces safe and effective for learning? How hard is it to station a staff member outside the lunchroom with boxed lunches and a register so kids aren’t forced to go inside if they’re uncomfortable?
Why does everyone who wants a KN95 mask not have one?
Why isn’t some type of testing available on every campus?
Didn’t we work very hard last year to ensure COVID-19 relief dollars were sent directly to school districts? Aren’t masks and testing the most basic mitigation practices those dollars were meant to provide?
We understand and appreciate your job is not easy in normal times, and we stand beside you as we work through this unprecedented time together. We also understand how much harder your work has become when basic decisions about how you keep everyone on your campuses and in your districts safe has been taken from you by bureaucrats in Austin who think they know your communities better than you.
Nevertheless, you answered the call to lead, and that’s what we’re asking you to do.
Lead first with the values and ethics we expect of our education leaders.
Lead first with the best interests of those in your care.
Lead by putting safety above all else and continuing to inspire those who are looking to you as a lifeline in this time of great despair.
The outcomes of your decisions here won’t be found in a STAAR test. This is a test of values and of true leadership.
This crisis is real and what we do today will decide whether it gets worse or if we will make it through this together. Show your educators and employees that you respect their life and their safety. That’s the test before you.
Zeph Capo, Texas AFT President