Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
(November 2011). 
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008). 
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
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The Internationalist
  February 2021

For Teacher-Student-Parent-Worker Control of the Schools!

Chaotic Reopening of NYC Schools:
This Is What Mayoral Control Looks Like

Use Union Power to Reopen Schools Safely!

First day of school, 1 October 2020, at JHS 157 in Queens, New York. Beginning February 25, middle schools in New York City will be open for in-person classes.  (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

By Class Struggle Education Workers/UFT

Editor’s Note: On February 26 New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza resigned.

FEBRUARY 23 – The deadly coronavirus pandemic led to the first-ever nationwide U.S. school shutdown. By March 25, every kindergarten-to-grade 12 (K-12) school in the country was closed. The measures, taken on a city-by-city and state-by-state basis, were essential as part of broader stay-at-home orders, which by mid-April covered 95% of the U.S. population.1 Due to a criminally deficient public health system, the disease (COVID-19) by mid-February 2021 has infected over 28 million people and caused 500,000 deaths in the United States (out of more than 110 million cases and 2.4 million deaths worldwide). The economic toll has been staggering, setting off a “coronavirus depression,” whose effects will be felt for years. Meanwhile, school shutdowns – which for much of the country have extended into the fall and winter, and could last to the end of the school year in June, or later – have had and will have lasting consequences.

When schools closed suddenly in the spring, teachers and students had to go online with no preparation or adequate materials. Educators and administrators scrambled to acquire or invent curriculum, most students from low-income households didn’t have computers or reliable internet at home (63% in the case of the poorest families),2 many had no quiet place to participate in remote classes, the platforms used had problems (“Zoombombing”), etc. For most students, “remote learning” was a contradiction in terms. A study based on assessments in the early fall showed that overall, students’ scores were down 13% in reading compared to previous years, and by 37% in math. Black and Hispanic students’ scores fell even more, reflecting that they were significantly (20%) more likely than white students to be learning remotely and half as likely to have had live contact with teachers.3

While coronavirus cases were escalating in much of the country, rates of infection and of positive tests for COVID-19 in the summer and early fall were far lower in New York City, making it possible to reopen schools. While some in the United Federation of Teachers called to keep the schools closed entirely until there was a vaccine, and to have all instruction remote, Class Struggle Education Workers/UFT and the Internationalist Group demonstrated with signs declaring, “‘Remote Learning’ Widens Racist Gap in Education” and “Remote Learning: An Oxymoron.” The CSEW declared: “Where Pandemic Is Raging, Keep Schools Closed” but “Where Infection Rate Is Low, Schools Should Reopen Safely with Billions for Sanitation & Ventilation, Triple Classrooms Now, No Hiring Freeze, Hire Thousands.” And we called for “educator-led control of the schools by councils of teachers, students, parents and workers.”4

Chaotic Reopening Due to Capitalist Constraints

Pushing to reopen schools, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a photo op on August 19 bringing supplies to a classroom. The United Federation of Teachers threatened to strike if safety demands were not met, forcing some concessions. But the UFT tops and liberal/reformist dissidents did not fight to win lasting gains.  (Photo: Jeenah Moon / Reuters)

The actual reopening of NYC schools in the fall was a story of unending chaos (see “Google + D.O.E. + de Blasio & Cuomo = Capitalist CHAOS”). For weeks, Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio insisted that, come what may, schoolhouse doors would open on September 10. But in the face of mounting pressure from teachers, administrators and parents over safety and sanitation needs, and a strike threat by the UFT (which hasn’t struck in decades), the mayor backed off and pushed back opening to September 21. Then, however, as the union insisted that no teachers would have to teach both in-person and remote classes, de Blasio and his schools chancellor Richard Carranza finally faced the fact that the Department of Education (D.O.E.) had a massive staffing crunch. So reopening was put off another week for elementary schools, and to October 1 for middle and high schools. But that was only the beginning of the confusion.

The UFT and the principals’ association said that 10,000 more teachers would need to be hired to carry out effective teaching of students in the “blended” (or “hybrid”) cohorts, who would come to school every other day, or every third day, the other days being remote. De Blasio finally agreed to hire 2,000 additional educators on a week’s notice. By November, the D.O.E. said it had hired 5,600 new teachers and substitutes, plus sending 2,000 department staff with teaching licenses into the classrooms. But clearly this was not enough; soon many “in-person” classes were being delivered remotely, to students (from different classes) with laptops in school gyms! To actually get class sizes down to 10-15 students (necessary for social distancing, and for effective education) from the previous contractual limit of 30-34, so that all students could attend school in person, as the CSEW has demanded, would require tens of thousands more educators.

At August 3 demonstration, CSEW called for concrete measures to make schools safe, including smaller class sizes, sanitation and ventilation. We also denounced the capitalist drive to privatize public education, and mayoral control of the schools. (Internationalist photo)

The UFT capitulated on its demand that everyone entering the schools upon reopening be tested, but its insistence on stricter safety protocols did have an effect. Along with mask-wearing requirements, every classroom was reportedly checked for ventilation, ostensibly with union participation. This led to some repairs, installing 13,700 MERV-13 filters and placing 15,000 air purifiers with HEPA filters in classrooms. But in many older buildings (and New York City has a lot) without central HVAC systems, ventilation consisted of freeing windows that had been nailed shut or could only be opened a couple inches. A few schools with structural ventilation defects were not opened. Initial testing showed very few infected students and staff (0.17% positivity out of 16,000 tested). But by October 7, with community outbreaks in “hot zones” such as South Brooklyn, some 169 schools were temporarily closed.

Eventually, as infection rates crept up, and then in November sharply increased in many parts of the city, a citywide positivity rate of 3% was reached on November 18 and de Blasio shut down the whole system, citing a vow he had made in the summer. On December 7, elementary schools reopened, but only for students whose parents had opted for “blended” by an arbitrary cutoff in mid-November. Still, testing of tens of thousands of students, teachers and staff had shown that schools were not a center of spreading the disease – the positivity rate in the schools was only 0.19%. But after the closing of the schools, New York’s citywide positivity rate rose past 6% and the spread of COVID-19 among teachers and students increased. At the end of the week-long winter break, all but two buildings (out of more than 1,400) are operational, but there have been hundreds of temporary closures due to two or more unrelated cases in the building.5

Throughout this time, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (M.O.R.E.) caucus of the UFT, a coalition of liberal and reformist currents, has demanded “no full reopening of in-person schools until 14 days of no new cases” (M.O.R.E. statement, 1 September). In protests in September, while the CSEW called in a special supplement, “NYC Teachers: Use Your Union Power to Make Schools Safe to Reopen,” M.O.R.E. supporters chanted, “1, 2, 3, 4, we demand close the doors.” We noted that M.O.R.E.’s call for “equitable remote learning” is an “unrealizable pipedream,” adding:

“M.O.R.E.’s demand to keep schools closed until there are 0 cases in fact means indefinitely shutting down public education for the 114,000 homeless students, the 155,000 English-language learners, the 220,000 students with disabilities and many if not most of the 800,000 students living in poverty who constitute 70% of the entire student enrollment of the NYC public school system.”6

Subsequently, M.O.R.E. has called to “Shift all classes to remote format until the end of school calendar year” in June 2021 (Health Justice Working Group statement, 15 November). The same demand to end in-person classes is raised by the UFT Solidarity Caucus (The Chief, 11 January). While M.O.R.E. poses as a “social justice” caucus, this is a discriminatory and reactionary program.

These supposed “progressives” hide behind the fact that a majority of the families of African American and Hispanic students (52% and 54% respectively) opted for remote instruction, as we discuss below. Yet those are the students who stand to lose the most – up to an entire year of education, according to one study – by not having in-person classes. 7 When the NYC Department of Education reports that only 43% of school bathrooms are operational, M.O.R.E. uses this to argue to keep schools shut, instead of demanding that the union force the D.O.E. to provide adequate sanitary facilities. M.O.R.E. is currently campaigning to “tax the rich,” a call it shares with de Blasio and many other Democrats. The issue is not raising more taxes but demanding the rulers pay the billions needed for safe, quality public education. Last August, NY State announced it was withholding 20% of (already cut-back) education allotments, draining $2.4 billion from NYC schools.

The bottom line is that liberal and social-democratic education activists along with the labor bureaucracy chained to the Democratic Party all accept the limits of the capitalist system. They buy into the lie that “there is no money” – in the center of international finance capital, no less! They confine themselves to pressuring the bourgeois politicians to get a little more. In doing so, the union bureaucrats and wannabe bureaucrats adopt the terms of the ruling-class education “reformers” who have been on the warpath for decades demanding that teachers do more with less. What’s needed instead is to mount a class offensive uniting union power with the support of parents, students, all working people and the oppressed to defeat the bipartisan capitalist assault on public education which continues amid the deadly pandemic.

The Battle Over Reopening Schools

M.O.R.E. protest, August 3, called to keep schools closed until 0 infections of COVID-19. This plays into the hands of reactionary forces who want to replace public schools (and teachers) with remote instruction.  (Photo: Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

The toll of school closures has been significant. NYC public school enrollment has fallen from 1.1 million students in 2019-20 to 960,000 in 2020-21, a huge drop of 140,000. In addition, with the large majority of students receiving only remote instruction, a significant number of those enrolled have not been doing schoolwork. This is reflected in 71,000 students who received “course in progress” (NX) grades, or incompletes, for the first semester of this school year. (Of these, the hardest hit are 13,800 English language learners and 20,100 special needs students.) The D.O.E. says it has distributed roughly 400,000 iPad tablets to students since the start of the pandemic, but as of December 100,000 were still not in students’ hands. Even then, many (particularly homeless students) have problems with connectivity, while untold numbers are connecting to school with cellphones.8

With the start of 2021, elementary schools are open and now middle schools are slated to reopen, so that by the end of February up to 250,000 New York City public school students may be attending in-person classes, about half of them five days a week. (High schools, which were opened for a month and a half in the fall, will remain closed for now.) The positivity rate from random in-school coronavirus testing of students, teachers and staff from October 2020 until now is 0.55%, far below the citywide average (now around 8.5%), and there have been no significant outbreaks since schools reopened in the fall. The UFT leadership has supported the middle school reopening so long as the safety standards are maintained. And vaccination for 15,500 teachers has been arranged through the union, while some thousands more have been vaccinated through city and state programs.

Last fall, there was widespread resistance to resuming in-person instruction in part due to the demands from Republican president Donald Trump, who sought to force teachers back to school regardless of safety conditions and community transmission. But now Democratic president Joe Biden is pushing to “reopen schools in 100 days.” He is supported by national teachers union leaders – Dr. Jill Biden, who teaches in a community college, is a member of the National Education Association (NEA) – and his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Program” includes $130 billion earmarked for K-12 education. So now a rash of articles in the liberal media blame teacher unions for closed schools (e.g., “Teachers’ Union Prevents Return to Schools,” New York Times, 26 January). And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued an “operational strategy” to “get all students back to school safely, and as soon as possible.”9

These issues came to a head in the long standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot that ended with an agreement, approved by the union membership on February 9, to gradually bring pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students back to school by providing vaccination, setting criteria for temporary school closures according to health metrics, providing frequent testing of school personnel, dropping disciplinary measures against teachers who refused orders to return to school due to unsafe conditions, providing more accommodations to work remotely for employees with household members with medical risks, and predominantly union “building- and district-level safety committees empowered to enforce health and safety protocols.” The deal was brokered by American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten in personal consultation with Joe and Jill Biden.

(Internationalist photo)

Class Struggle Education Workers/UFT has called from the outset, beginning in early August, to use union power to make schools safe to reopen. Those who demanded that schools be kept closed even where virus contagion was low (and now even with vaccine becoming available) instead of fighting to make them safe have made a colossal error. We warned that this “plays into the hands of enemies of public education, both conservative and liberal,” aiding Trump and the privatizers and union-bashers who seek to set parents against teachers. It also runs counter to the overwhelming evidence that “remote education” can’t work for the great majority of students and exacerbates racial/class inequalities. And it blows the critical opportunity to win important safety measures which are also key to quality education, notably by sharply reducing class size. CSEW wrote: “Teachers unions right now have power like never before – we have to use it.

The Wall Street Journal (29 June 2020) noticed this as well, whining, “Teachers unions are … in a position to hold the economy hostage.” “Teachers unions know how to play hardball,” said the voice of finance capital, noting that the AFT and NEA “have signaled that they would consider strikes if schools reopen without sufficient safety protections.” Damn right. We called to “Get Ready to Strike to Make NYC Schools Safe to Reopen.” While UFT tops did threaten to strike over safety, and got concessions, they did not use their power to win lasting gains. An AFT document, “Reopening Schools During a Time of Triple Crisis: Financial Implications” (June 2020) put the cost of reopening schools at $116.5 billion. Hiring the huge numbers of new teachers needed to ensure small class sizes would probably push the cost to over $500 billion. This was the time to fight for that.

Yet neither the August 2020 NYC Memorandum of Agreement nor the February 2021 Chicago “Framework” required sharply lowering class sizes, and keeping them low. On the contrary, the D.O.E.-UFT agreement maintains class sizes at the same level as in the existing contract (30 to 34 for elementary, middle and high schools). That would fill an average NYC classroom, and would make social distancing impossible. Moreover, the MOA allowed up to 64-68 students in remote classes of “blended” cohorts, which along with a huge amount of grading would make any real interaction between teachers and students impossible. And there are reports of classes for special needs students (required by state law to be no more than 12-15) with 30-38 students, which would make individual attention impossible. Unionists fighting to defend public education, teachers’ rights and students’ well-being should have demanded small class sizes.

The negative consequences of remote-only classes for students’ education, social development and mental health are undeniable and well-documented, particularly for the youngest and the most oppressed and disadvantaged. Educators have made heroic efforts in designing remote classes with multi-media content, seeking innovative ways to get student participation, but genuine education is collaborative, and you can’t get that staring at a screen – especially with most students not showing their faces (and surroundings) for good reason. If the likes of M.O.R.E. deny or can’t see this, it reflects among other things a kind of petty-bourgeois “millennial” blind spot, to put it generously, in which facility with technology is presumed to be the case for all teachers and for all children.

The medical concerns of teachers and parents are very real, witness outbreaks of influenza in schools. However, studies have repeatedly shown that, in contrast to the flu, COVID-19 transmission among children is sharply lower than among adults, particularly among elementary school-age children. Moreover, evidence from the fall semester in studies in Mississippi, North Carolina and Wisconsin where schools were open indicate that “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” and that “within-school transmissions were very rare.”10 Requiring universal face mask use, maintaining social distancing by reducing class sizes, preventing crowding in common areas, increasing room air ventilation and expanding screening testing can keep schools safer from COVID infection than in the community, for students, educators and staff. But that requires union action to ensure safe schools.

In addition, unions must insist on expanding accommodations allowing for at home work for older teachers, those with underlying medical conditions and with household members in high-risk categories. These provisions are vital “particularly for paraprofessionals, … school aides and food service workers,” who are disproportionately older, African American and Latino, “and thus at greater risk,” as we wrote last September.11 In addition, education unions should demand vaccine for all teachers and staff. The CDC, in rolling out its February 12 “Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools,” said that vaccinations would be nice, but not necessary. Labor should respond: if you want the kids in school, provide vaccine to the school workers. Punto. Winning this would strengthen unions for enforcing the safety demands as well.

For Union-Led Teacher-Student-Parent-Worker Control of the Schools

Both Democrats and Republicans have pushed for charterization, corporatization and privatization in bipartisan war on public education. CSEW says: capitalists hands off the schools!  (Internationalist photo)

On top of these demands, a key element should be the formation of union-led teacher-parent-student-worker committees at every school to inspect and sign off on reopening plans, and to see that they are rigorously followed afterwards. This would go a long way toward overcoming much of the reluctance of many African American and Latino parents to send their children to school for in-person classes, even as their kids suffer most from the educational divide intensified by remote instruction. Reporting on this, an article in the New York Times (2 February), “Missing in School Reopening Plans: Black Families’ Trust,” quoted Farah Despeignes, a black mother and elected parent advocate with two sons in the city schools, saying: “Because I can’t see for myself what’s going on in that building, I’m not going to trust somebody else to keep my children safe.”

She is right to say that “everything that has happened in this country just in the last year” proves that black people “have no reason to trust the government.” The chaotic experience of reopening schools this fall reinforced justified mistrust in the school administration. And school buildings in lower-income, predominantly non-white neighborhood are generally in worse shape than those in the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, Riverdale or Kew Gardens. But if parents were part of union-led committees that could determine if bathrooms are broken or filthy, if air flow is inadequate, if there are too many desks in the classrooms, if rapid testing is not available – then they would not only “have a say,” they would have power to insist: no in-person school until these are fixed. If not, then shut the system down with mass strike action. Any attempt to mobilize community opposition to such a strike would be doomed to fail.

In New York, the United Federation of Teachers under Randi Weingarten and now Michael Mulgrew supported mayoral control of the schools when it was introduced by billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, and the UFT continues to do so today. The M.O.R.E. caucus says it opposes mayoral control, but to be replaced by what? A 23 April 2012 statement called for “an elected people’s board of education which represents the interests of teachers, students, parents, and community.” In Chicago, the CTU calls for an elected school board, a demand Mayor Lightfoot campaigned on, but then rejected after she was elected. But an elected board, while preferable to mayoral dictatorship, is no guarantee of any real change. Education is such a big issue for the ruling class today that billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Bloomberg spend millions to buy school board elections.12 That’s elections under capitalism: money talks.

(Internationalist photo)

As we wrote last fall: “The challenge and problems posed in reopening schools are a key moment to fight against mayoral dictatorship, and for educator-led control of the schools by councils of teachers, students, parents and workers. This was a vital component of the educational policies of the early Soviet republic following the 1917 October Revolution.”13 Teacher-student-parent-worker control of the schools is “only” a democratic demand, as is the call for free, secular, coeducational, integrated quality public education for all. But it’s no accident that right-wingers routinely label public education a “communist plot” – Marx and Engels were among the very first to call for this, in their 1848 Communist Manifesto. Ultimately, it will take a socialist revolution to win these demands, over opposition by the capitalists, their parties and politicians.But a union-led fight to safely reopen schools can be a huge first step.

That means, first and foremost, taking on the Democratic Party. From the beginning, the fight over school reopening has been a political fight. Trump and his education czarina Betsy DeVos are sworn enemies of public education, trying every possible avenue to privatize it – and then suddenly they cynically posed as defenders of public schools. Teachers unions and activists went all-out to elect Biden and a Democratic Congress. But now it’s Democrat Biden pushing to reopen, while Bloomberg (now once again a Democrat) calls on the president to “stand up to the unions” and tells teachers to “suck it up” and get back to the classroom.14 So, yes, the labor-haters and union-bashers are on the warpath. The way to defeat them is not to seek to keep schools closed where community transmission rates make it possible to reopen gradually, but rather to use union power to set the terms for safe reopening with lasting gains.

Various leftists have put forward a simplistic argument that opening the schools is just a plot by the bosses, who need workers back on the job to exploit them. Thus the internet outlet Left Voice (9 February) writes: “Concern for students is just a cover to gain support for these attacks against educators. School reopenings are a linchpin in getting the entire economy back up and running for the sake of capitalist profits.” But working people are genuinely concerned about students – their kids – and they also need to work. LV says, “We need to pay non-essential workers to stay home.” The idea that “we” are going pay most of the working class to stay home for months under capitalism is idiot utopian reformism. It means that the petty-bourgeois can safely work from home while low-wage essential workers are on the job keeping the population fed, the hospitals functioning and public transport running.

There’s not one word in the LV article recognizing the toll that keeping children out of school has on their education and social development. What about the documented rise of anxiety, depression and suicides of kids isolated in their homes, with no connection to school and friends? And it is striking that from these self-proclaimed socialist feminists, the only mention of mothers who have left jobs to stay home with their children is dismissively quoting Biden’s reference to their predicament. It’s true that the capitalists need to have the schools open in order to put the economy into high gear: that’s what gives education unions extraordinary power right now. It’s why if unions do play “hardball,” as the Wall Street Journal fears, we can win. But labor is saddled with sellout leaders who barely even play softball because they are beholden to the bosses and their Democratic Party. A class-struggle leadership is needed for the unions to break with the Democrats and build a workers party.

(Internationalist photo)

The battle over school reopening is part of a decades-long fight against a bipartisan capitalist war on public education, as Wall Street billionaires (Bloomberg), Silicon Valley tycoons (Bill Gates), hedge fund operators (Democrats for Education Reform) and Democratic Party hacks (Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel) unite with Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump in the drive to to charterize, corporatize and privatize public schools. To defeat this onslaught, it is necessary to fight it down the line. That means, in the middle of the pandemic, to fight to integrate New York’s notoriously segregated schools, using union power to demand an end to and block screening for selective schools. It means stopping high-stakes testing during this crisis, which exacerbates the education abyss between the haves and have-nots. It means locking in small class sizes.15 And it means getting cops out of the schools, as the CSEW has long demanded.

The disastrous state of public education, like the horrific death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and mass unemployment, are vivid expressions of a rotting capitalist system sinking deeper into barbarism. The struggle for health, safety, quality education and every other measure of social well-being requires nothing less than socialist revolution, in the U.S. and globally. ■

See also: Google + D.O.E. + de Blasio & Cuomo = Capitalist CHAOS (February 2021)

  1. 1.Which States and Cities Have Told Residents to Stay Home,” New York Times, 20 April 2020.
  2. 2.Not all kids have computers – and they’re being left behind with schools closed by the coronavirus,” Research brief on The Conversation, 8 May 2020.
  3. 3.The Learning Gap Is Getting Worse as Schools Rely on Remote Classes, Especially for Students of Color,” Time, 8 December 2020. The study was by the business consultants McKinsey & Co., COVID-19 and learning loss – disparities grow and students need help (December 2020) based on data from a Curriculum Associates Research Brief, Understanding Student Needs: Early Results from Fall Assessments (October 2020).
  4. 4.A Class-Struggle Program to Reopen New York City Schools Safely” (6 September 2020), The Internationalist No. 61, September-October 2020.
  5. 5. As of 20 February 2021. See
  6. 6. See “The Fight Over Reopening Schools Is a Class Battle,” from the upcoming Marxism & Education No. 6
  7. 7. See the McKinsey study cited above, Appendix 6.
  8. 8. To top it off, the College Board announced that students could not take advanced placement exams with their iPads, even though it accepted that last year.
  9. 9. Transcript of CDC-USDOE press conference, 12 February.
  10. 10. “Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection,” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 26 January.
  11. 11. See “A Class-Struggle Program to Reopen New York City Schools Safely,” and related articles on the CSEW web site,
  12. 12. As we noted in our article, “Mobilize Bay Area Workers to Win Oakland Teachers Strike” (, February 2019), “Bloomberg has dropped more than $5 million on California elections to elect charter school supporters, including $300,000 in 2017 to finance the Great Oakland (GO) coalition that wants to turn half of local schools into charters.”
  13. 13. See “The Fight Over Reopening Schools Is a Class Battle” (, 26 September 2020).
  14. 14. The “former self-appointed Emperor of New York City” demagogically declared on CNBC that “Poor people don't have iPads, they don't have Wi-Fi.” A blogger at the pro-Democratic Party Daily Kos (5 February) calculated that Bloomberg could buy an iPad Air at full price for every student in the NYC public schools and still be worth $54.2 billion.
  15. 15. The ruling class would never send their offspring to classes of 30+ students (in NYC, up to 45 in Los Angeles!). A survey of the top private schools in New York City shows ratios of no more than 5 to 7 students per teacher. See “A Guide to Reopening NYC’s $50,000-a-Year Elite Private Schools,” Bloomberg, 16 August 2020. CSEW calls to abolish all private schools, turn charters into public schools, all under union-led teacher-student-parent-worker control.