What If Teachers Were Like Professional Athletes?

Female teacher wearing cloth face mask with burst bubble deflated around her head

As a public school teacher, I am more than a little bit envious of the approach professional sports have taken in the face of the pandemic. While it must have been a very costly choice, after discussion between the NBA Commissioner and team owners, and a single athlete with a positive test result, the league shut down last March — every team in every state — closed for business. It was impressive and bold and certainly protected athletes, fans, arena workers, and team employees. It probably even reduced the strain on health care workers and facilities in those areas. Soon major golf tournaments and MLB spring training were called off; the NHL postponed its season, and the NFL remotely hosted its spring draft. America’s school teachers didn’t fare quite as well. At the end of February, the CDC urged schools to prepare for coronavirus; but all teachers continued to work in person until March 12 when a couple of states began closing schools. By the end of March, even though far more than one professional educator had tested positive and many had died due to coronavirus, educators in some states continued to teach from their classrooms. By what would have been the end of the school year, hundreds of administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, and school bus drivers had died from COVID-19 or related complications.

As for the rest of us who fell somewhere in between points on the timeline, we pivoted to crisis teaching using a variety of online platforms and technology. Of course, there were some LeBrons among us — preternaturally adept. For example, my colleague Mr. G., a mathematics guru and pumpkin farmer, seemed to seamlessly take to teaching remotely. All 30 of his AP Calculus students passed their AP exam; even more impressive, 70% of them earned a perfect score. That’s MVP-level teaching all day long, no matter who calculates the stats. Others of us shone more like Chris Paul — as masters of the assist. For instance, another of my colleagues, Mrs. B, a school spirit dynamo who is dedicated to kids having a positive educational experience, drove to students’ homes every week to pick up completed schoolwork and drop off new assignments. Still others led by example — in the style of Giannis Antetokoumpo. Ms. M., a science and sarcasm savant I’m fortunate enough to work with, tirelessly stepped up when her students needed extra help being successful; she created simple contactless solutions to distribute, collect, and return textbooks and supplies learners needed to do well in her classes. Finally, many, many of us served as Lou Williams — as outstanding Sixth Men. We demonstrated the overall excellence of our instructional teams; we exemplified the depth of talent in our school districts and the breadth of commitment to our students. I’m confident the same can be said of every school country wide.

As the nation began to groan under the duress of extended stay-at-home orders and an economic downturn, decision-makers lost their appetite for safety and all professions were called upon to contribute to the country’s financial turnaround, caution be damned. We all know the result. Currently, many news outlets are covering positive cases affecting professional sports teams and how those organizations are responding. I’m sure there are plenty of frustrations for professional athletes. I’m certain many of them are rightly worried for their health and the health of their loved ones; but I would rather be in their shoes than my own right now. Here’s why.

If I were an NBA or NHL athlete, I would be doing my job in an isolation zone created specially to protect me and my co-workers. Most educators are being told they will return to teach face-to-face in their school buildings, which will, of course, in no way be isolated from students and are not magically larger or better equipped. Teachers are fully aware that we’ll be unable to make the necessary physical rearrangements to create enough distance between ourselves and our students in classrooms. We know that the hallways are the same width as when we left last spring. We understand that to try to reduce risks to ourselves and our students, we will be reducing instructional time each class period, too. The NBA invested about $170 million to create their bubble. Teachers are returning to a public school system facing large budget shortfalls; many districts are going to be forced into deficit spending. There is no money to rent or buy mobile hand washing stations or install safer water fountains. Many districts do not have money to provide personal protective equipment to school employees, let alone students. There is no money to hire additional custodians to manage the increased disinfecting and sanitizing recommended by the CDC and other guiding agencies.

While they’re clearly not fool-proof and likely create a degree of irritation and inconvenience for all involved, I would feel much safer if I were working under the health protocols in effect in the NBA or NHL bubble. For instance, players, coaches, referees, and team staff are regularly tested for COVID-19. While teachers in NYC are going to have to produce a negative COVID-19 test prior to schools re-opening, I’ve not heard of any school district returning to face-to-face learning that is offering routine testing to their administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Another NBA and MLB benefit is that athletes who have pre-existing health risks are not required to play and will not lose any income. Somewhat similarly, NFL players also have voluntary opt-out options with some salary protection; NHL players can also choose not to participate without facing any penalty. Most teachers with underlying health conditions have no such shelter. The majority of us are expected to return to work; if we feel it is too great a health risk, we’re welcome to take an unpaid leave of absence, retire, or resign — you know, from the job we trained for and dedicated our careers to and desperately want to return to when it is safe for everybody. Of course, there are a couple of contractual hoops some of us could try to jump through; but they require being medically qualified as disabled and hoping the school district won’t find a request to work remotely to be an undue burden. It is more than a little uncomfortable to consider pursuing a disability qualification to gain permission to teach safely.

Another benefit of the NBA and NHL health protocols is that everyone remains in his or her own room and socializing is strictly limited. While primary and elementary schools may be able to sort of approximate this guideline with cohorting, middle schools and high schools — regardless of the vigilance and best efforts of administrators and teachers — absolutely cannot, especially during passing times and unstructured periods of the school day. An additional important professional sporting event safety measure is that MLB, NBA, and NHL fans are not allowed to attend games in person. While the NBA is planning for a small number of fans to watch the games virtually on jumbo screens, NHL players will compete in empty rinks; and MLB stadiums will be filled with virtual fans and tech-generated crowd noise. NFL training camp and pre-season protocols include conducting meetings virtually when more than 20 people must attend. MLB players will take part in pre-game meetings and post-game interviews via video chat. These things all sound like online learning to me. Right now, most educators are being required to return to work in classrooms full of kids, often many more than 20. Most of us do not have the option to safely do our jobs without breathing the same air as our students. It’s just not a choice available to teachers. If it were, I’m willing to bet none of us would even require holographic students or artificially generated classroom noise.

The NBA Commissioner reserved the right to suspend play again if there was an outbreak in the bubble. Teachers do not enjoy this kind of assertive clarity from a single leadership source. The criteria that will necessitate students and teachers self-quarantining or that trigger a return to remote learning are multi-tiered, convoluted, and arbitrary. Further, many local, state, and federal agencies, sometimes with competing priorities and agendas, contribute to the decision-making. Everything varies state to state and district to district, but teachers have no influential voice in the decisions. In some districts when a teacher or student tests positive, everyone in that classroom will be quarantined. In other districts, there are formulas of time and distance that dictate who must quarantine. Some states are reducing the length of quarantine periods; some aren’t. Some states require a double-digit rate of infection to move to learning online; some districts indicate that several people must be sick enough to be hospitalized before online learning would be considered. Regardless, teachers’ sense of safety does not factor into the decision at all. The risks to our health and our concern for the health of others are also not motivating factors.

Finally, the MLB and NHL Commissioners have the authority to suspend their respective seasons if the “integrity of competition” is jeopardized by coronavirus. No one is acknowledging the compromises teachers will have to make to the integrity of instruction to implement and enforce daily symptom screenings, hand hygiene, classroom disinfecting, social distancing, and mask-wearing. Not only will we lose a chunk of instructional time each class period, but the way we instruct will also be altered. Dynamic activities that engage kids with one another and in learning are out: no close paired or small group work, no teamed project-based learning, no shared learning material or equipment, no socializing before or after class, no quiet asides to redirect behavior or answer questions about a learning task. The instruction we are able to deliver will not be as compelling or cohesive.

Unfortunately, teachers are not professional athletes. We’re not all paragons of peak fitness and physical ability. Our work usually isn’t televised. We definitely are compensated differently; to be fair, though, the rewards of our work are arguably priceless. Our students and their parents aren’t always cheering about what we do. Our finest moments are almost never witnessed by more than a handful of children, certainly not stadiums full of people. We typically aren’t interviewed after a successful day at work or when we achieve an extraordinary outcome. We don’t usually have a heavily trafficked public platform to leverage, and I can’t think of one time anyone has stopped me in the school parking lot after work for an autograph. Reporters don’t often chase us around asking for our opinions, either. But like professional athletes, we love working as members of a team and contributing to its success. We have trained extensively to do our jobs. We maintain and advance our professional qualifications, take pride in being content area experts, and work continually to improve our skill set. We are influential, and our students do look up to us. Often, they rely on us … maybe just in a moment of emotional distress or family crisis … sometimes, though, its throughout their entire school career to garner support as they work to overcome bigger life challenges. We serve as examples in our communities. Most important, we help our students to dream big, think deeply, contribute locally and globally, and act justly. We shape interests and, once in a while, spark a student’s lifelong passion. Despite all the things we are not, and because of all the things that we are, it seems to me that teachers should be afforded the same kind of consideration and protections for our health and safety as professional athletes are currently enjoying.

Our work environments should reflect the same degree of safety extended to professional athletes, which means strictly limiting exposure to large groups of people and providing us an isolated environment in which to work. The health protocols teachers are expected to implement and enforce should be just as amply financially supported as those recommended for professional athletes, which means no underfunded or unsubsidized mandates. Testing should be liberally required and offered to administrators, teachers, support staff, and students at least as often as it is to professional athletes to reduce asymptomatic spread and decrease the chance of outbreaks in public schools. Just like professional athletes with health risks that may complicate their course of illness in the event they contract coronavirus, teachers with underlying medical conditions should be able to self-identify and opt for working remotely without fear of reprisals. Decision makers should be clear and resist relying on language that will lean public sentiment in a direction that makes schools re-opening seem safer for kids and teachers than it actually is and online learning as an undesirable option that compromises students’ well-being. Decision-making processes should be streamlined and based upon protecting the physical health of students and teachers and the safest delivery of robust instruction, centering on consideration of online platforms.

Teachers are not failing their students by providing online learning opportunities; neither are we shirking our professional commitment and duties by prioritizing our own health and the health of our own children. Just like it is possible to enjoy professional sporting events without going to stadiums in person, it is possible for kids to successfully learn without going to school in person. What is not probable, though, is students learning without their teachers. If our workplace safety and physical health are not protected, more and more teachers will leave the profession … by choice or due to illness and death related to COVID-19.



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