“Right to Work” and Life or Death for Georgia Teachers

Austin McNeill Brown

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As of July 15th, government officials in Georgia are pushing for public schools to open as soon as August 3rd, while COVID-19 cases soar nationwide, exceeding 65,000 confirmed cases in a single day. Many of the cases in this latest surge are reported in the South, including Florida, the new epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. and one of Georgia’s border states.1,2

The Georgia Educators Association has made the recommendation that local health data should steer efforts to reopen schools. However, there are few legal options for teachers to advocate for a concise, data-driven plan to reopen schools, or to challenge the reckless state mandate to reopen without adequate prepartion.3 Like most southern states, Georgia is a “right to work” state, in which teachers can be fired and even have their state license revoked if they plan to strike or utilize collective bargaining.4 Some school districts are trying to cope by delaying openings and creating digital options for students as an interim measure. This issue brief discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on the harmful consequences of “right to work” laws for Georgia’s teachers.

The Political Challenge
Georgia governor Brian Kemp has abdicated all public health responsibilities regarding COVID-19. Following consistent messaging with President Trump, Kemp insists that schools fully open as though the country is not in the midst of a public health crisis. Governor Kemp has not mandated that masks be worn by students and educators nor mandated social-distancing measures within the schools themselves.5 Kemp has even worked against local leaders who are trying to protect their cities.6 Kemp recently nullified local ordinances requiring facemasks and filed a lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom to block the city from enforcing its mask mandate. Ironically, Atlanta is home to the Centers for Disease Control, an apolitical institution which has come under fire from the Trump administration for making public health recommendations that run counter to the president’s preferred narrative. For teachers, resisting or protesting the reopening of schools in a “right to work” state like Georgia could mean losing employment and licensure, and even debarment from state employment.4 At the peak spread of the coronavirus and as hospital space dwindles in the state’s beleaguered healthcare system, teachers find themselves with the impossible choice between resisting and risking their jobs versus complying and risking their lives.7

The Scale of the Problem
Georgia’s population is starkly divided between metropolitan areas like Atlanta and rural areas throughout the rest of the state. Rejection of Medicaid expansion in the state has led to the closure of rural hospitals in many counties.8 In March, hospitals like Grady Memorial in Atlanta, were already overburdened before the current surge in COVID-19 cases (see Table 1).9

According to state data from July 15, hospitalizations due to the virus are more likely for older individuals. However, Georgia has had over 8,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in children under the age of 18, including 164 hospitalizations and one death.10 Georgians under 30 are the most common age group to be students at public schools and universities, and the 18-29-year-old cohort constitutes the largest group of confirmed cases at 25,000 individuals (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in Georgia by Age Group (as of July 15, 2020)
Data Source: Georgia Department of Public Health, https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report 

For perspective on the impact this may have as schools open next month, the Atlanta public school system alone has over 50,000 students.11 This does not include the adjacent counties (see Table 1) or the University of Georgia System, which has over 100,000 students in the metro area. Kennesaw State University, Georgia State University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology have a combined student population of over 98,000 and are less than 20 miles apart in the 9th largest metropolitan area in the country, home to 6 million people. According to real-time data sources, there is a 13% positive test return rate, poor contacting tracing at 9%, and ICU capacity in the Atlanta metro counties is at nearly 100% (see Table 1).7 The situation is alarming before the upcoming school term has even started. With virtually no state or national leadership coordinating an organized response to the virus or a plan for returning to schools, the Atlanta metro area presents significant potential for an explosive outbreak of the virus.

Data Sources: Case, death, and hospitalization data (as of 07/17/20) are from the Georgia Department of Public Health. (https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report). ICU usage is from COVID Act Now, https://covidactnow.org/us/ga/county 7/10/20.

Teachers are in an Impossible Situation
The State of Georgia is a so-called “right to work” state. It lacks a substantial union to advocate for workplace health and safety for teachers and school staff. Teachers risk their employment, licensure, and even their retirement if they refuse to abide by state policies.4 Classes begin as early as August 3rd and educators have been instructed to return to work as if there is not an ongoing pandemic. School districts have been given no additional resources to reorganize classrooms or incorporate shielding. There have been no requirements for social distancing or masks, nor statewide initiatives to coordinate hybrid or online classes, particularly for K-12 students. Currently, only the state’s university system has reversed its position on mandating masks.12 And while some districts have scrambled to create solutions, they lack the resources, guidance, and support to develop and sustain alternatives to classic in-person instruction, thereby increasing the stress of educators in their efforts to adapt. Georgia’s teachers want to return to the classroom, but not at the expense of the health and safety of students, staff, colleagues, and the families of all involved. 

What happens in Georgia’s public schools will have widespread implications for educators throughout the South and in other “right to work” states. Should the teachers choose to strike or protest, they could face significant consequences from the state government. They will also likely receive pushback from parents, many of whom side with the governor and deny the severity of the pandemic. Teachers who resist schools reopening could risk unemployment, loss of health insurance, and political shunning and criticism.

Recommendations for Policy/Practice
Educators in the state of Georgia face an enormous burden. To comply with the mandate to return to school puts their lives and the lives of others at risk. Years of union-busting and the subsequent loss of collective bargaining power in Georgia and more broadly across the U.S. represent a significant challenge for workers as the country seeks to “re-open” without first controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Teachers in Georgia are merely the latest victims in a series of labor abuses. The pandemic has exposed deep structural problems in our country, particularly in how essential workers, front line healthcare providers, and teachers are treated.

However, recent organized actions taken by teachers in 2018 and 2019 have been mostly successful, even in conservative states like Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.13 Timing is vital and public support has been critical. If the non-unionized teachers in Georgia plan to strike, solidarity from educators across the country will be necessary. Political pressure must be applied to prevent the state government from retaliation. Solidarity from teachers’ unions across the country will need to be loud and ongoing. Teachers in other states will have to act in solidarity.

This August represents an historic moment. Whatever the teachers in Georgia and other “right-to-work” states choose to do, we must recognize the burden they are being asked to shoulder due to political mismanagement. The U.S. Department of Education should have been working with state and local health and education officials throughout the summer months to coordinate a safe return to public schools. Passing these responsibilities on to school administrators and teachers is woefully irresponsible and places educators and students at risk. Barring a significant influx of financial resources, a vaccine is currently the only condition under which in-person learning may resume safely. Whatever occurs in Georgia, educators across the country should take steps now to build solidarity within their ranks and establish the means to organize with or without union representation.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Cases in the U.S. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html  
  2. Porter, T. (2020, July 10). The US recorded its highest ever number of daily COVID-19 infections, with more than 65,000 in a day. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-records-65000-coronavirus-infections-highest-daily-2020-7
  3. Georgia Association of Educators. (2020). Local educators must be involved in decisions to reopen local public schools in Georgia. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.gae.org/issues/20/GAE%20COVID%20Reopening%20Flier_Member.pdf
  4. Georgia code title 45. public officers and employees. (2020). Find Law. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://codes.findlaw.com/ga/title-45-public-officers-and-employees/#!tid=N67EFC380BE9211DAAC5F876AC7189607
  5. Sbarge, C. (2020, June 26). Gov. Brian Kemp says he will not make wearing masks mandatory in Georgia. WSB-TV Atlanta. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.wsbtv.com/news/local/atlanta/gov-brian-kemp-says-he-will-not-make-masks-mandatory-georgia/U6DOEQTIMJEINK33WWPJI3CTKU/
  6. Alderidge, D. (2020, July 9). Atlanta mayor claims governor ‘not doing enough’ for Georgia, calls actions during pandemic ‘irresponsible’. 11 Alive. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.11alive.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/bottoms-calls-kemps-leadership-irresponsible-covid-19/85-00e7d4e3-327d-4f84-8bc2-822ae8bc5ddd; Bacon, J.Flores, J. & Reyes, L. (2020, July 16). Coronavirus updates: George Governor Sues Atlanta over face mask mandate. USA Today. Retrieved July 17, 2020 from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/07/16/covid-19-georgia-restrictions-las-vegas-policy-arizona-nurse-staff/5444474002/.
  7. Covid Act Now. (2020). Georgia. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://covidactnow.org/state/GA?s=647107
  8. Associated Press. (2019, October 14). Alarmed by recent hospital closings, Georgia lawmakers requiring rural hospital executives to get trained in strategic planning. 90.1 FM WABE. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.wabe.org/alarmed-by-recent-hospital-closings-georgia-lawmakers-requiring-rural-hospital-executives-to-get-trained-in-strategic-planning/
  9. Abubey, F. (2020, March 23). Grady hospital ‘at or near capacity’ amid coronavirus pandemic as mayor says ‘breaking point’ is imminent. 11 Alive. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.11alive.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/grady-hospital-near-capacity-coronavirus/85-cd98bf6c-3786-4a60-b12a-0c2577b79801
  10. Georgia Department of Public Health. (2020). Georgia department of public health daily status report. Retrieved July 17, 2020, from https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-19-daily-status-report
  11. National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). District directory information: 2019-2020 school year. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/districtsearch/district_detail.asp?Search=2&ID2=1300120&DistrictID=1300120&details=
  12. Amy, J. (2020, July 7). In reversal, Georgia universities to now mandate masks. ABC News. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/reversal-georgia-universities-now-mandate-masks-71647861
  13. Ebert, A. & Douglas, G. (2020, January 21). Teachers leverage #redfored walkouts to win bigger pay boosts. Bloomberg Law. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/teachers-leverage-redfored-walkouts-to-win-bigger-pay-boosts

Acknowledgments
The author would like to thank Megan Ray for edits on earlier drafts as well as numerous teachers from the state of Georgia willing to offer their input and concerns via social media.

About the Author
Austin M. Brown is a Social Sciences Ph.D. Students in the Maxwell School of Public Policy at Syracuse University, and a Research Affiliate for the Lerner Center for Public Policy Promotion. He can be reached at abrown48@syr.edu

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