Teachers are scared right now. As COVID-19 cases surge—actually spiking again in parts of the country—and the push to reopen schools goes on, teachers, like parents, are left feeling helpless, with no good options after summer break ends. More than 150,000 people in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus, with about 1,000 deaths occurring each day in the past week. Still, many schools are on track to open come September.
Some educators are preparing wills and goodbye letters at the thought of reentering classrooms. Educators in Florida sued Gov. Ron DeSantis over his decision to fully reopen schools in defiance of national health guidelines—in-person classes, five days a week—despite rising COVID-19 cases in the state. Now, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents 1.7 million members, has come out in support of teacher "safety strikes." Educators would protest schools reopening unless the average daily community infection rate is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent, masks and social distancing are enforced, high-risk staff are given special accommodations, buildings have proper ventilation systems, and federal funds are available to assist with safeguards.
Senate Republicans set aside $70 billion from their latest coronavirus relief proposal for K-12 schools. But in contrast to the House Democrat's proposed coronavirus relief bill that would include support for in-person classes and distance learning, the aid will only go to schools that plan to have some in-person instruction come fall. For those eligible, two-thirds of the funding will be available to assist with things like social distancing and other safety criteria. As of now, no fix is in place; the stimulus agreement is at a standstill, with current benefits expiring.
Most experts are still pushing for students to return to schools, undeterred by ever-evolving coronavirus health data and uncertainty around how to keep kids and teachers safe. But the decision of whether or not children should attend school in person is falling on parents—only 19 percent of whom still want schools to fully reopen. Care.com's 2020 Back-to-School Survey found that 66 percent of parents said they were worried about their child getting COVID-19, and 51 percent were concerned about their child being a carrier of COVID-19 and getting someone else sick. All parents are in a tough position, but some, despite being given a choice by their district, have no real choice in the matter over whether or not to send their kids to school if it's open due to money, work, lack of child care, or worries over how they'd make remote learning work.
And while parents contemplate what's best for their kids, teachers are grappling with limited choices, a lack of resources, and the health and well-being of their own families—not to mention their own safety. Even the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told educators in a virtual town hall that, "In many respects, unfortunately, though this may sound a little scary and harsh (I don't mean it to be that way) is that you're going to actually be part of the experiment of the learning curve of what we need to know. Remember, early on when we shut down the country as it were, the schools were shut down, so we don't know the full impact, we don't have the total database of knowing what there is to expect." Reassuring, huh?
For Sera Deo, a fourth-grade teacher in Averill Park, New York, emotions are running high. That's why she took to Facebook to share a now-viral post about prepping her classroom for the return of students after she had to remove all the non-essential items to make room for socially-distanced desks.
Deo, who will start her twenty-second year as a teacher this September, said she wanted to write the post after seeing inconsiderate comments on social media—and it has now been shared more than 41,000 times.
"Right now we're scared," Deo wrote. "We are scared to death. We are not sleeping. We are sick with worry. We want to do what is right for our kids, and yours, because we consider them ours, too. Give us a minute. Please." In her plea for understanding and patience, Deo shared photos of her classroom—previously warm and colorful, now left with bare bones. Chairs, lamps, and bookcases were all removed and only the desks and chairs remained, a peek at the cold reality students will face come fall. "I left my empty classroom and cried all the way home."
Other teachers echo Deo's post. "We are working our tails off for the students after having our worlds turned upside down and are very scared about risking our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of our students by going back too soon," says Nicholas Clark, a dad and high school math teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, who hopes to instruct remotely due to health issues, despite learning challenges and equity issues he understands exist.
"I'm terrified," says Rachel Brody, a fourth-grade teacher in Levittown, New York and mom of two, who will soon have to clear out her classroom just as Deo did. "All of my belongings will be gone, only desks in front of me, with innocent children staring back at me facing an unknown world. They'll look to me for guidance and strength—as my young students always do—but this time, it's so different. On the outside, they will see that strength because that's part of my job. What they won't see is how I'm secretly terrified on the inside and just praying it'll all be OK."
For educators in parts of the country where COVID-19 cases are rising, the stress is high and options are limited. Brittany Green, a high school English teacher in Bradenton, Florida (which is now considered a hotspot), says she has mixed feelings about schools reopening. Funding is low, schools are understaffed, cleaning supplies aren't available, and teachers haven't been presented with clear guidance on how to make any of this work; it's just assumed they will return to classrooms and figure it out—safety be damned. She says teachers in her school are allowed to request to teach solely online, but only with a letter from a doctor explaining they have a condition that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as high-risk for COVID-19.
"Although I have asthma and might qualify, I won't request it because there are people far more worthy to request this option," Green says. "I don't want to take that opportunity from someone who needs it, so I will be back in the classroom."
With teachers' fears comes another sad reality of the situation: Giving parents the option to decide whether their kids go back to school in person or learn remotely for the year, in a sense, puts the health of teachers unfairly on parents—who, of course, want the best for educators, but also have to make personal choices for their families. A new survey confirms that parents are losing 14.6 work hours each week to care for their children during the pandemic, which equates to a hit to the household income. For working parents, single parents, or low-income families, the option not to send kids to school might not exist; distance learning would literally make some parents choose between their child and their job.
Just a few short months ago, teachers were being praised as "heroes" as parents got a taste of teaching through distance learning at the start of the pandemic. Now, teachers are feeling the same anger and frustration that many parents feel about issues that, ultimately, trickle down from decision-makers in government.
"We are working harder now than ever before," says Clark, who's been teaching for 13 years. "We had no infrastructure and little support for virtual learning and had to completely change the way we do things overnight. This is not easy for us either. We want to be at school with our students, but there are a lot of teachers that would literally be risking their lives and the lives of their family members to do so. What will parents do when a teacher is out for months because of COVID-19 complications? When they have to deal with a grieving student because their teacher died? When there are no subs? When teachers have breakdowns because their students and family keep dying? We want to make sure that what we do is in the best interests of all parties involved"
So what is the solution? All you can do is follow your gut as to what's right for your family, but there is additional support you can provide teachers. Listen to their concerns. Contact leaders in your district to ensure teachers have flexibility over returning to classrooms or remaining remote based on their own needs. Call your elected officials to demand better pay for teachers and funding for schools so sanitizer, personal protective equipment (PPE), and day-to-day supplies will be more readily available. And, of course, vote in November. Teachers are in as impossible a position as parents, and they only want what's best for your kids—and their own.
"I think it's important for parents to understand that most teachers are parents, too," says Deo. "We are doing our best to make the most of a stressful situation for their kids and for our own. After a very difficult spring, we'd love nothing more than a safe return to school. But, we're scared. We need time and support. The stronger that support is, the better the education will be, regardless of how it is presented."