July 18 (Reuters) - Arizona third-grade teacher Stacy Brosius has been called a “liberal socialist Nazi” and a “whiner and complainer” for leading car-based protests to delay in-person schooling, but she says she’s doing it to save lives in a pandemic.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, hundreds of Arizona teachers like Brosius are putting on red t-shirts they last wore in a 2018 strike and driving around cities in cars daubed with slogans like: “Remote learning won’t kill us but COVID can!”
With “motor marches” spreading to other coronavirus-hit sunbelt states, including Florida, and counter demonstrators organizing “reopen” rallies, the fight over the new school year is fast becoming America’s new protest flashpoint.
In Arizona, teachers want Republican Governor Doug Ducey to push the start of in-person school to at least early October after a beloved educator died of COVID-19 teaching summer school and statewide hospitalizations and deaths spiral.
At stake, Arizona teachers say, is the safety of the state’s 1.1 million public school students and 20,000 teachers.
“We don’t want any children to get this from us, because as a teacher, I don’t want to go to any of their funerals,” said Brosius, 47, who is not prepared to send her three children back to school.
School re-openings have become a white-hot election issue after President Donald Trump demanded a return to in-person learning throughout the United States, while Democrats urge remote schooling until COVID-19 case rates flatten.
Arizona has been hit hard by the virus this summer as its 7-day average of new cases has gone from 500 at the end of May to more than 3,000 in July, while hospitals’ intensive care capacity, according to most recent data from Arizona Department of Public Health, stood at a nearly 90 percent this week.
Ducey on Thursday said he would not be swayed by politics, adding he would be comfortable sending his children back to school, as did the state’s health chief, Cara Christ.
With slogans like “freedom over fear,” Arizona parents are demanding their children have the option of in-person learning. A “REOPEN our SCHOOLS” protest is set for July 30 in Phoenix in support of Ducey’s mandate that in-person classes resume Aug. 17, after the Deer Valley Unified School District delayed their start until Oct. 14.
“All we want is our choices back,” said protest organizer Christina DeRouchey, the mother of four school-age children.
Teachers wearing “Red for Ed” t-shirts - the same garb they wore during a successful week-long pay strike two years ago — are planning a much larger motor march July 22 to circle the state capitol and governor’s office.
The red shirts are a symbol of nationwide strikes by educators over the past few years that some believe may be rekindled this fall.
Arizona teachers are not alone in their protests. Teacher unions across the nation, especially those recently entangled in labor battles, are organizing to become active participants in when and how to re-open schools.
The United Teachers Los Angeles have won an indefinite delay to in-person learning. Others in more conservative states such as Florida are trying to push back classroom start dates and boost funding for personal protective equipment.
“This is a core piece of what our educators come together for, which is to demand that schools are properly funded,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association (AEA) “Until we can see that, we are not ready to come back to schools.”
Much like they did in 2018, Arizona educators are using social media hashtags and online petitions to demand schools not have funding reduced if students switch to remote learning.
“I’m going to compare it to our walkout in 2018,” said Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher who helped organize the walkout campaign in 2018. “It’s not fair to put any child or any teacher or any family’s life at stake because they have to open a school building.”
Ducey, who has the authority to open or close schools, moved the start of school back until Aug. 17, a delay of one or two weeks for most districts in response to the rise in coronavirus cases. Some have decided to begin the school year with remote learning while others will implement online and in-person instruction.
Ducey said on Thursday he will finalize his decision on the re-opening of schools next week after he speaks with educators around the state.
“Our kids are going to be learning in the fall. We are going to do our best to conduct the most positive educational year that we can,” Ducey said.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Diane Craft