When I was a kid I thought my teachers slept in their classrooms at night. Like so many other children, it never occurred to me until I was much older (embarrassingly so) that teachers also had first names and, quite possibly, families of their own, whom they went home to at the end of the day, just like my parents did. They were simply fixtures in my life and were relevant only for the role they played in my day to day.
Kids grow up, of course. Many of them become parents themselves — and some of them, like me, become teachers. Clearly, however, some of the (non-educator) parents among us have never challenged their misconceptions. So I’m here to tell you: Teachers do, in fact, have lives and families their own.
I bring this up because as school districts switched to remote learning this past spring, and educators found themselves improvising new curricula in a changed world, I was confined to a small living space with my husband and three small children. With no childcare and no family within 1,000 miles (not that they’d have been able to visit, anyway), my husband and I both struggled to work while caring for our family, just like parents and caregivers all over the country. And like most people whose professions typically rely on groups gathering, my day was also filled with emails and phone calls and Zoom meetings with colleagues. Quite frequently, a toddler or two made a guest appearance, too.
I saw the president’s tweet demanding that schools reopen in the fall. He then threatened to cut funding if schools didn’t reopen. And while I don’t put much stock in things Donald Trump writes (especially in ALL CAPS), many districts around the country will be resuming in-person classes within the next month. Faced with a decision between fall feeling like a repeat of spring — thereby angering voters heading into the November election — and the fact the economy can’t fully function with kids at home, Trump’s ingenious solution is to sacrifice the teachers.
To recap: A man who claimed that the virus would “disappear” in a few weeks and that his goal was to reopen churches by Easter is now threatening to cut funding to budget-stretched schools if they do not reopen in a few weeks’ time. The federal government doesn’t have much say-so with your local elementary or high school, and of course, there’s no plan here; and even if there were, the president doesn’t exactly have a record of listening to non-partisan experts.
As if to illustrate this disconnect, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently said, “schools must reopen, they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.” The same schools, it should be noted, she accused of “giving up” on their students during remote learning last spring.
I get parents’ frustration — I’m frustrated, too. But teachers can’t solve this problem with face masks or hand sanitizer. The unfortunate reality is this: At this unprecedented moment, teaching has become a high-risk career.
I’ve seen the articles written by exhausted parents begging schools to open so they can get back to work. I, too, would like to be able to get back to work. In fact, as I write this, my 4-year old is launching a rather vocal protest just at the sight of me in front of my computer. Minutes ago, I pleaded with my twin toddlers to “just let me have my brain to myself for a little bit” so I could write this. (They didn’t respond, but the answer definitely wasn’t, “Sure, Mom, whatever you need.”)
Many parents have rightly claimed that their employers are less than sympathetic about kids in the background of conference calls or video chats. Florida State University even threatened to revoke work from home “privileges” from employees who were simultaneously caring for their children. Yes, that’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and the backlash was swift, but what happens when “No Kids Allowed” isn’t announced as a formal policy but the anti-family attitudes of managers and higher-ups remain? Your company’s intolerance of your caretaking obligations is not a good reason to jeopardize my family’s safety. Maybe for once, instead of expecting teachers and other “frontline” workers to shoulder all this responsibility, your employer can figure this out. What if our underfunded schools weren’t the safety net for every crisis?
As much as I’d like to be back to work, as much as I share the desire to return to a semi-functioning society and to have a few hours a day carved out to think and interact with fellow grownups, I just can’t bring myself to be exposed to such a potentially large viral load. I have a non-classroom position and I’ll still have to work closely with dozens of people each day —imagine how my colleagues with over a hundred students on their rosters feel.
So picture this: If I became sick, there’s a good chance my husband would be sick, too. We would have three small kids who (rightly) won’t be accepted at their daycare and would need their ill parents to care for them all day. With grandparents too far away and too high-risk to help, what would we do? It turns out that our concerns are the same as yours.
And that’s not just my problem: If other teachers at my school have to stay home due to illness, who covers for them? Which substitute is going to pick up for a day of work at a coronavirus hotspot? Children may see a reduced risk of contracting Covid-19, but the building is run by adults and we have no such protections.
How do so many people manage to forget that their children’s teachers are people —and often parents — too? How do they fail to realize that teaching children is a job and that if working from home has been a struggle during this time, there’s a good chance the educators around them are feeling the same way? We’d all love a normally functioning work environment, teachers included.
For you, though, unless you are a teacher as well, going back to work probably doesn’t mean being around hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people every day. Physical distancing, to touch on just one of many points, is impossible in an overcrowded school — trust me on this one. Our public schools were not built with personal space in mind. Class sizes upward of 30 are not uncommon in most schools across the country. Combine this with teacher shortages in many states (can’t imagine why) and it’s not exactly a recipe for staying safe in a resurgent pandemic.
The CDC guidelines sound reasonable. Limited class sizes, social distancing, no shared materials. But to make these ideas even remotely realistic, schools everywhere would need hefty increases in funding. My 12-year career in education tells me that money isn’t about to pour in to hire more staff or construct auxiliary classrooms.
I’m not writing this with any grand solutions. Even the epidemiologists don’t have any of those. It’s a mess no matter what. I’m simply asking that, in your frustration and your fear and your calls for us all to return to normalcy, realize that your children’s teachers have first names and homes and even families. Just like you. Because the people who make it possible for you to be a working parent are often working parents themselves.
Header image by Nataliia Lyshyk/ Getty Images