As an educator myself, I stand in solidarity with the educators who are refusing to go back into the classroom prior to vaccinations, union contract negotiations, a solid return plan for instruction, a full schoolwide deep cleaning, and a fully detailed protocol with PPE included. Luckily, because I run my own virtual academies, I don’t have to see any of my students in person. We meet via Zoom and most of their instruction is asynchronous. However, there are teachers that are in an environment where in-person, classroom instruction has been the norm, and I fully support their decision to opt-out of going back prematurely into a physically and mentally toxic environment. It’s really disheartening to listen to the media and many parents call teachers horrible names and accuse them of not living up to their jobs as teachers. The reality is that the majority of teachers got into the field of K-12 education not for the money or perks(truth be told, the profession lacks an abundance of both), but for the joy of teaching, being of service to students and their families, and to have the ability to create unique learning experiences that encourage lifelong learning. Don’t get me wrong, just like any other profession, there are exceptions out there. I’ve worked with colleagues that are only in the profession because they have one of those lifetime teaching credentials and need a job. I’ve also worked with others who couldn’t cut it in the private sector so decided to whittle away their days to retirement by playing an overpaid babysitter(aka teacher) instead of teaching the students in their class. This article is only referring to the majority of well-meaning, educators that are sincerely acting out of extreme caution for their student’s well-being as well as their own(and their families as well). I figured I’d put a different lens on the situation so many people outside of education can understand why there is a hesitation for the return and that their child’s teacher’s concerns are very valid.
Concern #1 The very real possibility of getting an illness that will kill you or that you can pass on to your own family who may or may not be high risk. When we sign up to be teachers, it’s usually understood that you’ll probably pick up a bug or virus or two(sometimes more) from your students, especially in the elementary grades. It is a well-known fact that kids tend to spread germs and “cooties” such as headlice, the common cold, or flu pretty regularly at school or daycare(especially during the chilly winter months). We know that COVID19, despite the supposed research that they claim has been done won’t be any different as far as transmission. Even if temperatures are taken once the students get to school and proper procedures are followed, due to the sheer numbers of probability, someone is bound to get sick at some point. It may not be transmitted to another student, but it may be passed on to the aging secretary in the office or a teacher that has a compromised immune system due to a chronic illness. Is it really fair to ask someone to put their or their family’s life in danger because you’re sick of being locked down with your children? I think not.
Concern #2: Parents drop visibly sick students during non pandemic times to get a “break” or so they can go to work and not be inconvenienced with having to take time off to deal with the illness. This means that a whole class, including the teacher and office staff, gets exposed to a bug when Jimmy vomits in the classroom because his guardian didn’t want to accept the responsibility of caring for their sick child at home. Now, as a teacher, I have to stop instruction possible evacuate my class, send the student to the bathroom then the office with a buddy, and then call a custodian to clean up the mess. Once the mess is cleaned up and the kids have stopped freaking out hope that no one catches what the student had and that the classroom doesn’t still smell like Jimmy’s regurgitated breakfast. (Note: In my 11 years in both elementary and middle school, I’ve had the vomit situation happen at least once a year.) As a parent myself, I’ve had to leave school in the middle of the day to pick up my own daughter when she was sick at school. Believe me, sometimes I would have rather not have been forced to burn one of my 10 sick days I get for the year, but as a parent, it’s my responsibility. It’s also my responsibility to keep her home until she feels better. It’s my duty to think beyond my own situation and have consideration for others at the school and those student’s families. Even if I’ve run out of sick time and my daily rate is being deducted from my already small monthly paycheck. Concern #3 Lack of integrity when implementing COVID19 protocols. Many schools, especially in urban areas aren’t equipped to handle the protocols that are put into place to protect both the student and the staff. Before the pandemic, many of the schools I worked at did not have hand soap or paper towels in any of the student bathrooms, due to student vandalism or just plain budgeting concerns. How would frequent handwashing even be implemented when there aren’t even soap or paper towel dispensers in the restrooms? At one elementary school site a few years back, I even witnessed the custodian take the same mop he was mopping the lunchroom floor with and use it to wipe the lunchroom tables and benches to save time. I highly doubt these types of practices will subside especially with more stringent, time-consuming protocols being placed on custodians and other campus maintenance staff.
When I transitioned into teaching from corporate America, I was appalled to find out that I had to purchase my own classroom cleaning supplies, printer paper, Kleenex, pencils, notebooks, etc. for my students. (Fun fact, in my last district teaching position, I was told if I wanted a new whiteboard, stapler, teacher’s chair, and a printer in my classroom I’d have to purchase them myself. I actually purchased everything but the whiteboard. I couldn’t afford to spend the extra $80). With that fact established, what would give me the idea that when I need the required personal protective equipment (PPE) won’t be asked to purchase it for myself and my students? Many teachers have lost hope in the integrity of the public school system to actually follow through with maintaining the pandemic protocols. I’ve personally witnessed the gross misuse of funds that were diverted from their intended use and spent on things less important(like the shiny new Kuerig in the principal’s office or a large bridal gift for the teacher of the year). If there were some way to ensure that integrity and consistency would be enforced and people breaking protocol would be held accountable, there would be less of a hesitation to return.
#3. No definite protocol or plan for return. there has been a hodgepodge of ideas from educators and non-educators alike trying to piece together a plan for return, yet there hasn’t been anything that has been mutually agreed upon by everyone including the teacher unions and government officials. Like I’ve told my students in the past: a failure to plan is a plan to fail. There are tons of ideas, both good and horrendous floating around out there, but until they are organized, agreed upon by all parties and stakeholders, shown to actually be feasible and in the student’s best interest, I don’t blame teachers for wanting to stay away.
#4. Protocols like social distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing cannot be done by certain populations of students, which puts school staff at high risk for transmission if the student were ill. It has been in the news that many parents of moderate/severe special needs children are furious about distance learning because their students need more support. I truly sympathize with many of these parents, however every one has to mindful that school staff members have to also protect themselves. For example, many students who are unable to toilet or feed themselves will need assistance from several school staff members, which exposes those staff members to bodily fluids and increases their odds of catching the virus greatly. Another example is the fact that students with special needs sometimes have sensory issues that will not allow them to wear masks or have shields on their faces. This poses a problem for staff and teachers that work with them in person because they have a significantly higher exposure to the virus, which isn’t fair to them.
In-person instruction, while it may seem like a distant memory, has its place in education and will return, in some form, once the pandemic is under control. However, the priority should be focused less on the return and more on making sure students and staff are safe first. Safety should always reign supreme in these types of situations. After safety, the next focus should be making sure that all students are receiving equitable education regardless of if there is a pandemic or not. Hopefully, a lesson is learned from this situation and schools have picked up a few more tools and some new strategies to help students.