My wife holds a dual position at our children’s school. Part of her time is as a teaching assistant in a 5th grade classroom, and the other part is spent teaching gardening classes. I think all parents have been waiting anxiously to find out what their children’s school will do this fall. Will they open for regular in-person classes, or go remote?
But Mel and I have been a little more on edge than the average parents, anxiously waiting to find out if Mel will be on the front lines of the pandemic. And I have to say, this week, when the Trump Administration labeled teachers as “essential workers” we both immediately dove online to figure out what that actually means. Unsurprisingly, the more we read about it, the more it seemed clear that this was just one more tool our president is willing to use to push schools to open, regardless of the risk it poses to teachers, children, and public health.
According to The Washington Post, “The declaration of teachers as ‘critical infrastructure workers’ which came in an Aug. 18 guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security, means that teachers exposed to coronavirus but who show no symptoms can return to classrooms and not quarantine for 14 days as public health agencies recommend.”
To put this into perspective, let’s discuss what has traditionally been considered an essential worker before the pandemic. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), essential workers included energy, child care, water and wastewater, agriculture and food production, critical retail (usually grocery stores hardware stores, and mechanics), critical trades (think construction workers, electricians, and plumbers), transportation, and some social service organizations.
And I’m with you, I paused at child care, and assumed that teachers would fall into that category. However, according to The Washington Post, “While at least 28 states labeled child-care providers as essential workers, teachers were not.” And to be real, teachers’ preliminary duty is not to provide child care. They are working to educate and build your children into successful, well-rounded adults.
Now don’t get me wrong. Teachers are essential to not only our children, but also to our society. They serve a critical function, and frankly, they should be paid quadruple their current salary. But at the same time, do they need to be on the front lines of a pandemic, risking infection, and risking infecting our children, all of it only making this deadly pandemic even worse?
Back in March, we closed schools down to prevent the spread of COVID, but now, come fall, it feels like we are going in the opposite direction by asking potentially infected teachers to dive back into the classroom without a quarantining period, potentially spreading the virus to children and other teachers.
I’m sorry, but this is a bad idea all around, and as the spouse of a teacher, it’s definitely keeping me up at night. And my wife is beside herself. Now keep in mind that the DHS has said the label is only advisory and not meant to be a federal directive. However, school districts that want teachers to return to classrooms, even when teachers don’t think it is safe, could use the federal designation to push instructors back to work when they might be contagious.
And not surprisingly, some states have already begun to use the essential worker label for teachers. According to the Tennessean, Gov. Bill Lee said during a news briefing that he supports school districts that adopt such policies. “The decision is the district’s and if they make that decision, then we have given them guidance that we believe they must follow, if they choose to make that decision.”
And it’s not just Tennessee. According to NBC News, South Carolina and Georgia have put forth similar mandates labeling teachers essential infrastructure workers. More or less, what this label is doing is giving governors the road map to allow districts the backing they need to push potentially infected, contagious teachers into the classroom. And it’s not like forcing teachers back into the classroom when they may be contagious is going to do these states any favors. The coronavirus is spreading faster per-capita in Georgia than any other state, while Tennessee has the seventh-fastest spread.
All of this cannot be helpful for teachers’ mental health in addition to the risks of contracting the virus. We are placing teachers in a very difficult position here. For the sake of my wife, and all other teachers and students out there, I’m going to say this very clearly. Labeling teachers as essential workers and using that label as a tool to push schools into reopening is a bad idea. Full stop. We are getting close to 200K dead Americans because of this virus, and until we have a functioning vaccine, or enforced nationwide federal mask and social distancing requirements, this virus is only going to get worse. I’m sorry, this is not worth the risk.
And don’t get me wrong, I do view the work of educators as critically important and valuable beyond words. I’d love to have my kids back in school, and my wife would love to be back in the classroom, but not at the risk of further spreading this virus and the loss of more lives. And, if we truly view teachers as ‘essential,’ we should prove it through comprehensive funding and fair compensation.