Support returning school teachers by listening to them — before it’s too late
As the summer in the US draws to a close and school districts across the country struggle to find a responsible way to reopen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have noticed a strange trend developing on social media: posts supposedly supporting educators while forcing a lopsided comparison between teachers and healthcare workers.
Many of these posts are coming from essential workers or their allies. I’m not particulary surprised by posts complaining about protesting teachers, especially in a time when teachers unions are actively attacked and the convoluted narrative of “failing schools” is persuasive in public discourse. However, I’m troubled by the well-meaning, but flawed logic of telling teachers everything is “going to be ok”, because it ultimately dismisses teacher concerns while simultaneously telling them to stop worrying and get back to work.
The main point of these social media posts is that other essential workers, specifically healthcare workers, were able to continue or go back to work during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Even though the labor was extremely difficult and often dangerous, essential workers persevered, adapted and rose to the challenge. Posts on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere argue that teachers should be able to do the same. These messages are masked as encouragement, but present an inappropriate comparison. Hearts may be in the right place, but the comparions the posts set up are unfair, unrealistic, and condescending.
Nurses, doctors, and other medical staff kept working through the height of the first wave of the pandemic and continue to work up until today. Healthcare workers are in the closest proximity to people infected with COVID-19 than any other essential workers. As of the beginning of June 2020 more than 600 healthcare workers have died in the US due to COVID according to Kaiser Health News. This number represents a devastating loss, for families, friends, hospitals, and communities across the country.
The risk to healthcare workers is clear and cannot be discounted, but teachers are facing a very different experience as the school year starts throughout the US. Teachers do not face the same risks as medical professionals, however they do face a long list of unknowns. Since the US still lags behind the rest of the world in COVID-19 testing teachers will not know who’s sick, most teachers will not have access to the same protections and treatment available to hospital workers, and a teacher’s job this Fall will not be to treat disease — because schools are not hospitals.
Staff, visitors, and patients act differently in a hospital than anywhere else. There is an assumed risk and an understood protocols at hospitals and medical sites, such as extra hand washing, face covering, and the limiting of movement for the old, sick, or young. Schools have not traditionally worked in the same way. Many school systems are taking precautions, including giving personal protection equipment (PPE) to teachers, staff and students, but minor outbreaks have already occurred and school still even hasn’t started in most US states. Many teachers are justified in wanting to not start school due to their own health issues. Older teachers with immune deficiencies and chronic ailments and individuals that are especially susceptible to COVID should be exempt from returning. A handful of teachers have already paid the highest price during this pandemic.
I believe social media posts attempting to be positive toward returning teachers are a reaction to recent protests by educators. Teachers across the country are understandably worried about returning to unprepared schools. Some teachers are going as far as to create symbolic grave markers. Alongside the positive social media posts you can see other posts griping about teachers supposedly complaining about the return of in-person learning. The shortsighted (if not down right insensitive) critique of teachers being justifiably worried about safety falls apart when you realize most teachers aren’t thinking about themselves — they’re thinking about their students and their families.
Older teachers and education professionals with chronic illness are certainly at risk as schools reopen. But vulnerable students & their older family members (who will not have the same PPE or precautionary strategies as teachers) are at far greater risk than educational staff. The science is unclear how and how often children contract and/or transmit the coronavirus, but even with precautions, schools are fertile ground for illness. Science shows that common colds, flus, and stomach viruses can pass through schools easily and move into homes. If you need anecdotal evidence for this proven fact all you need to do is ask a school teacher.
Primary & secondary level teachers are tasked to do a lot: teach complex, often difficult topics to young learners, be disciplinarians, be mental health professionals, resolve conflicts between people who don’t fully understand their own emotions (ie, children & teenagers), sometimes buy essential supplies out of their own pocket, give time to activities and events that have very little to do with classroom teaching (debate/chess/art/music/dance clubs). But there is one thing we have never asked teachers to do: die for their job. Doctors, nurses and medical staff are warned and counseled on the medical risks associated with the sites in which work, those risks are anticipated and expected. Historically, teachers have not had to weigh the possibility of death for them or their students.
Right now in the US there are certainly added risks for school teachers, including being the victim of gun violence (a completely different problem). However, teachers are not regularly asked to potentially die from an infectious disease or limit their students’ exposure to a disease not fully understood. Many school districts are making honest attempts at reopening safely. Indianapolis Public Schools had set aside PPE and was preparing a “safer” reopen before extending remote learning until at least October 2nd. Other schools districts in Indiana have not taken the same level of precautions and are already paying the price in the form of student isolation periods and class stoppages.
Teachers are protesting because not only do they feel unsafe, but they know the families they serve will be subjected to unsafe conditions upon the reopening of schools. Returning to schools is going to be very different compared to many other workplaces, especially medical sites. We ask a lot of teachers and they deliver. They are amazing people and they should rightfully be honored for their work. Sharing your support for teachers, administrators, and school staff is important and appreciated. But as COVID-19 continues to grip the country and globe, perhaps the best way to honor teachers right now is to listen to them when they say they feel unsafe — for themselves and their students.