By Yvette Jordan

In the era of COVID (or post-COVID, as some have cautiously begun to call this time we’re in), we have all become more than familiar with the phrase “nobody wants to work anymore.” As fast-food restaurants and other thankless workplaces have felt the pressures of a less-desperate labor force, this has become the bosses’ mantra to explain away contractions in services and capacity.

More astute observers have amended it to “nobody wants to work for low pay, long hours and no benefits anymore,” with some even likening the labor squeeze to a general strike, albeit a discoordinated and unintentional one. And like any good strike, this one has already led to visible gains for workers across the country.

This is what came to mind recently when a coworker of mine — a teacher at a Newark public high school — expressed frustration with his stagnantly low attendance rates. “It’s like these kids don’t even want to learn,” he said, “what am I supposed to do?” I could empathize. My own classes had been plagued all year by poor attendance and tardiness. As I walked through the halls, I saw cliques of students flagrantly skipping class, congregating in the nooks and crannies left unmonitored by an understaffed and overworked security team.

But, like in the adult world, “nobody wants to work anymore” only captures the final symptom of a long series of cascading issues. When I finally swallowed my pride and really asked these students why they seemed unwilling to engage with school, they responded with a set of grievances I could hardly refute.

Some have had close to half their teachers resign midyear without a permanent replacement. My school is desperately understaffed, having lost more teachers this year than we’ve gained. The district-wide vacancy numbers remain similarly stuck at over a hundred, despite all manner of harebrained schemes at the local and state level to entice new hires.

Other students have faced serious financial, medical or legal hardship in their families and have gone unheard when they contact the school for help. During calls home, parents vent their frustrations at the schools’ apparent unwillingness to hear their concerns. Whether due to language barriers, insufficient Wi-Fi access, or simply not having enough time in between their own work shifts, many of the students’ guardians are struggling to be heard by a school district that has lost touch.

Many high schoolers are working nearly constantly outside of class, whether legally or under the table. Still others stay home for the sake of their mental health, emotionally and sometimes physically battered by near-daily verbal and physical violence from peers struggling through their own trauma.

Most of all, students complain about their fundamental material conditions. School lunches are so unappetizing that hardly any of the students eat lunch while in school. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID guidelines have shut down water fountains and cut off access to drinking water. Some teachers have resorted to buying bottled water and handing it out to their students.

A shortage of security staff has led to restrictions in bathroom access. As a result, many menstruating students have simply taken to not attending school during their periods as they cannot count on having access to proper hygiene and care.

With this in mind, it becomes apparent what is really happening. Students, in response to unacceptable workplace conditions, have unconsciously initiated a general strike. One student skips class, and they get detention. But if even half of them skip class, every single day, they understand intuitively that they have taken the upper hand. In much the same way that a labor strike is based on the idea that “they can’t afford to fire us all,” these students are slowly realizing that “they can’t afford to fail us all,” and are acting accordingly.

All of this is not to imply that such low attendance is somehow a good thing. Kids belong in the classroom, and every lesson they skip sets them back academically in an environment where so many odds are already stacked against them. Nor is this meant to be another lament on the disastrous effects of the pandemic — any veteran teacher will tell you this has been happening a long time.

It falls on the adults, particularly the adults with institutional power in this city, to start listening and to take decisive action to fix this broken system. We should be working at all levels to make our schools places that can meet students’ physical, emotional, psychological, academic, linguistic, financial and housing needs (just to name a few).

If our leaders won’t step up, then our next-best hope must be that the students themselves will realize their collective power and start to turn this “strike” into an organized movement. These kids aren’t clueless, and every day they spend dehydrated and hungry in the care of overworked substitutes sends a clear message: their school district values the illusion of stability more than it does their education. And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t they cut class?

Yvette Jordan is a history teacher in the Newark Public Schools and the chair of the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), a group of educators committed to fighting for social justice issues within education.

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