Trigger warning: child death
I had dinner with a teacher friend, Hannah, not long after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 20 6- and 7-year-olds dead. I remarked how a teacher about our age, Victoria Leigh Soto, reportedly threw herself in front of her first-grade students to protect them from the gunman. I didn’t yet have children and admitted, “I don’t know if I could have done that.” Hannah responded she would have done the same as Victoria “without question.”
That mass shooting ushered in an era of active-shooter drills in which teachers and students practice staying safe if a gunman were to show up. It struck me how teachers, who sign up to educate children, now were signing up to act as first responders when someone entered their building intending to kill as many people as possible. I didn’t think that was fair. Neither did my teacher friends, but they believed the risk was low, especially as schools established more safety measures to prevent gunmen from entering their buildings in the first place.
They don’t believe the risk to their health and safety is low anymore.
Our collective consciousness has shifted away from school shooters and toward the novel coronavirus, and many teachers are petrified about returning to their classrooms as infection rates soar in districts across the country. As a result, teachers who don’t feel that their administrations are doing enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19 are considering striking. The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the US, will support its 1.7 million members if they strike in areas where schools don’t take adequate health and safety precautions, according to The New York Times.
Of course, the unknown is extraordinarily frustrating to working parents, myself included, who are desperate for their school-age children to fall back into a routine, supervised by other adults, and receive more of an education than we’ve been able to provide between meetings. But would we be willing to take the same risks teachers are being asked to?
Some of us already do. Police officers, firefighters, military personnel, doctors, nurses and more willingly assumed very real risks when they took their jobs, and we are indebted to them for doing so. They deserve our support and tax dollars to keep them safe. And there are countless others assuming very real risks who did not sign up to do so when they took on their jobs—supermarket staff, factory and warehouse workers, pharmacists and too many more, frankly. So why should teachers get to strike over the risks they’re being asked to take?
They’re dealing with children.
If your kids are anything like mine, they don’t always follow the rules. Teachers already do so much besides educating their young students, from reminding them not to touch their classmates to reminding them not to get up from their desks. Even though children under age 10 do not spread the virus as easily as people over that age do, the risk isn’t nil, and now we’re asking teachers to enforce a litany of CDC guidelines that are hard for adults to follow. Kids are even more likely to break these rules.
Certain safety measures make teachers’ jobs harder.
True, wearing a mask while sitting behind plexiglass probably isn’t fun for pharmacists. And no doubt they’ve had to ask adults in line to stay six feet away from each other. But these challenges are not as drastic as what teachers will encounter. Kids thrive on changes of scenery, but they will not be able to move to other spaces with their class as they had done in the before times. Even with smaller class sizes, keeping 12 5-year-olds in a single room for several hours a day will reduce their ability to focus—and teachers’ ability to educate their unfocused students.
Public schools are notoriously underfunded.
PPE shortages in hospitals at the beginning of this pandemic were outrageous and unacceptable. How can we expect medical personnel to restore patients’ health if they can’t stay healthy themselves? That’s similar to what we’re expecting of teachers now. Pre-pandemic, there were countless fundraising pages for teachers to fill their classrooms with the supplies they need because the school districts didn’t offer them. To protect teachers and students, schools will need even more resources. I don’t blame teachers for doubting that they’ll receive all that they need to stay safe. Besides, as my colleague, Cara, pointed out: Professional sports leagues, such as the NBA and MLB have nearly unlimited resources for testing and prevention of COVID-19, and there still have been outbreaks. Imagine how much more widespread these outbreaks can be with far more limited resources.
Teachers can do their jobs remotely.
Whether they should is still questionable. Low-income students are less likely to have reliable internet and top-notch devices with which to access it. And the youngest students learn best through hands-on experiences and play. Also, remote learning is nearly impossible for children of essential workers, given that they can’t learn from home if there’s no adult there to supervise. But the distance learning imposed on us in March wasn’t successful for most of the families that remain because it was instituted too quickly, and not every instructor was well-trained to educate this way. With research and establishing best practices, remote teaching could be a better alternative than in-person class for certain students. It’d be great to see the teachers who don’t want to return to the classroom studying how to optimize virtual education and deliver experiences better than what we had this spring. Some students, especially older ones, have thrived with virtual learning, and there’s no reason why teachers should risk their health when the technology is ready and waiting for them. For those families mentioned above and those students with special needs for whom virtual learning doesn’t work as well, Congress needs to provide access to safe childcare and paid leave.
Educating some children can be successful without forcing all teachers back into classrooms in areas with high transmission rates. Instead of faulting them for worrying about themselves, their families, and yes, your children, let’s focus on productive ways to keep everyone safe.