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COVID, Capitalism & Collapse: A Roundtable Discussion With NYC Nurses & Teachers

Published Tuesday, January 4, 2022
by Chris Brooks/
COVID, Capitalism & Collapse: A Roundtable Discussion With NYC Nurses & Teachers

The United States has averaged a thousand people a day dying from COVID since August and the total number of lives lost is approaching a million and the number of children hospitalized with COVID has hit an all-time high nationally - during all of that, the rich have only gotten richer.  On the same day we set a new national record for COVID cases, Wall Street hit a record high

Labor Journalist and NewsGuild Organizer Chris Brooks sat down with a group of New York City Nurses and Teachers to talk about how the institutions they work for are collapsing and what Labor Activists can do about it: Jia Lee, a Special Education Teacher at a public school in Manhattan, a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Chapter Leader who also serves on the Steering Committee of the Movement for Rank-and-File Educators (MORE); Kelley Cabrera-Adler, a Nurse in the adult emergency department at Jacobi Medical Center, a public hospital in the Bronx, and President of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) Bargaining Unit at their hospital; Kevin Prosen, a Middle School Teacher in Queens, UFT Delegate and a Member of MORE; and Sean Petty, a Pediatric Emergency Room Nurse and Vice President of the NYSNA Bargaining Unit at Jacobi Medical Center.

Chris: Even before the pandemic hit we were facing a crisis in both education and health care stemming from critical under-staffing and grossly deficient funding.  These systemic problems were front and center in Union fights around Nurse-to-Patient ratios and class size.  Now these systems are collapsing as Workers exit these industries in droves.  How have you experienced this systemic collapse?

Kevin: Public schools don’t just educate children, they fill in all of the gaps of the American Welfare State.  When schools collapse, it’s a crisis in how we care for children and their families. Since schools play this fundamental role in our social safety net, when they close down it creates cascading problems everywhere, especially the economy.  That’s why there has been an unrelenting push to keep schools open no matter what.  The U.S. is now seeing the highest COVID cases of any point in the pandemic and all the advice we’ve been given about masks, distancing and quarantining over the past two years has suddenly gone out the window.  The message is: the government is done doing anything substantive to stop the spread of COVID.  So of course, every Teacher is asking themselves: Do I really want to keep doing this?  So now schools can barely stay open because so many Teachers have quit, are out sick, or are too afraid to come back.  It feels like the city government has effectively driven the car into a wall and their solution is to just step on the gas. 

Jia: Going into the 2020-2021 school year, we saw a bottom-up call from NYC Teachers to keep the schools closed and maintain a remote option.  I'm an Elementary School Teacher and what ended up happening was elementary schools were forced to open and the middle and high schools were told they could remain remote.  That caused a lot of division.  The general feeling in elementary schools was ‘Well, if we're not going to look out for each other, then you know what, this is not for me.’  So there were mass resignations.  Fast forward to now, COVID is spreading everywhere, and we are being told, ‘If you are vaccinated and the children are vaccinated, you don’t need to quarantine.’  This total indifference to the health and safety of Teachers and students isn’t going unnoticed.  There was already a Teacher shortage and now we are seeing real declines in enrollment at Teacher colleges as things have continued to only get worse.  Unless we unite across our Union and step up our fight for our profession and for public education, everything is just going to continue getting worse. 

Kelley: I’ve spent the last two years thinking things can’t get worse and then they somehow do. Yesterday was worse than any day I had in March and April of 2020.  I would never want to return to those days in 2020, but at least then there was a shutdown.  There were no car accidents, stabbings or gunshots.  Asthma went way down.  We were largely just dealing with COVID.  Now we have COVID layered on top of everything else.  And I’m a direct witness to what happens when kids test positive and keep coming to school.  Our ER is filling up with both Teachers and students.  It’s obvious that what happens in education affects what happens in health care and both are at the mercy of these deeper systemic failures. 

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