A São Paulo teacher tells the story of an insane return to the classroom. They lack staff, classrooms have precarious ventilation and infrastructure problems abound. All this fuels the collapse of the Brazilian healthcare system.

The teachers in the São Paulo municipal education system went on strike on 10 February. I joined the movement on the 15th, the date on which classes were scheduled to resume in person, along with all the teachers in my school who were called back to work in person. This decision that we took collectively was not an easy one. At the same time that we care about our students’ education and want to see them again face-to-face, it is our obligation to take care of their lives and that of their families. Going back to school, in the midst of a worsening pandemic, with a higher number of deaths, is an act of irresponsibility.

The back-to-school protocol launched by the Municipal Education Secretary (SME) is impossible to execute, given the current situation in the schools. In the school unit where I teach, infrastructure problems have long been waiting for a solution. With the pandemic, the following have become very concrete obstacles to resuming classroom activities: the precarious ventilation of the classrooms; the narrow corridors occupied by closets; the lack of open spaces with coverage; the absence of an area dedicated exclusively to meals; the precarious electrical installation to serve the digital classrooms; the lack or fluctuation of the wifi signal; the presence of only two bathrooms available to serve all students; and the fencing of the digital education lab (LED) and reading room (SL) spaces as recommended by the protocols.

The staff, which has been reduced in previous years, is insufficient to meet basic needs of hygiene and safety. There are only three cleaning staff for the whole school during the two shifts and, at certain times, only one of them is available to keep classrooms, corridors, courtyard, bathrooms, kitchen, administrative rooms and courts at a higher and more frequent standard of cleanliness, as requested by the SME protocol. Moreover, the technical education assistants (ATE), who help with supervising students, are not enough to organise the classes, keep the social distancing in common areas and ensure compliance with sanitary measures. In addition, the commute to school is done by public transportation most of the time, increasing the risk of contamination.

The situation is not safe for students, teachers, employees, and family members alike. Opening schools for face-to-face classes now will mean 30 per cent more people circulating around the city. Examples of the worsening spread of the virus keep coming. Outbreaks in schools and increases in cases after reopening appear frequently in the media. In Europe, governments have decided to postpone the in-person return. To return to school every day is to contribute to the worsening of the pandemic. In my school, one teacher who did not go on strike tested positive for Covid-19 five days after returning to work.

Faced with this, with no choice between returning and continuing to telework, the teachers decided to unite to protest. This strike is different from all others. We are not fighting for wages and better working conditions, however fair these demands may be. This time we are defending life. In the face of the pandemic and uncontrolled situation, exacerbated by the inability of public officials to take adequate measures to prevent deaths, we resist. We want our students back in school, but safely and in an adequate environment for learning. We want the SME to offer the necessary support to comply with the protocol. We will fight for decent working conditions, including getting education professionals, support staff and outsourced workers in the priority group for vaccination. And we demand from the government a test-and-trace policy for the cases that will certainly occur. We want transparency in the disclosure of data and appropriate measures to control the contamination in school units.

In-person classes were suspended in March 2020. Since then, teachers have been teleworking to keep teaching students. It was necessary to learn how to use new resources and technologies, to adapt the content to the digital platforms made available by the city government, and to meet, at all times, the students’ needs, offering support so that they could continue studying. It was not an easy journey for us. We had to reinvent ourselves and find new ways to keep in close contact with each student. Distance learning, in progress since the beginning of the pandemic, is the most suitable alternative for the moment. We cannot put anyone’s life at risk for the sake of the political interests of government officials and private institutions.

The beginning of the school year will be different in 2021. I think every day about the affectionate messages I receive from my students, the difficulties to do the exercises, the technological limitations, and the absence of the school and friends in their daily lives. My heart sinks every time I see the adversities they face, the testimonials from mothers who don’t know how to help their children with their homework. I feel revolt when I see the inequality between public and private education. I feel repulsed when I hear unfulfilled promises from the Secretary of Education. Yes, I do want to go back to school, the place I chose to work in. But not now. Not while thousands of people are dying in Brazil and in the world as a result of the coronavirus. Not while our government officials are not taking the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the population. Not while the vaccine is not available to everyone.

This article was originally published by Progressive International and has been edited for style.

Alborada is part of Progressive International’s Wire service.