Don't Forget That Teachers Are Parents Too

by Rhoda Jaffe
Originally Published: 
Goodbye, From Your Teacher
Scary Mommy and coscaron/Getty

Over the past few weeks, as I’m doing this and that around the house—answering emails, making dinner, picking my kids’ socks off the floor—a heaviness falls on my chest. Tears choke my throat. I feel something like a mix between panic, anger, and grief.

I picture my husband standing in front of a class of kids. He’s wearing a mask, taking care to stand six feet away from the nearest student. The kids are wearing masks too. They’ve cracked a window open for ventilation. Sometimes I picture him teaching behind plexiglass. Or dressed from top to bottom in some kind of space-age hazmat suit.

I picture him doing everything right. I picture his students doing everything right—well, as right as middle schoolers can do things—abiding by the guidelines for the safest school opening procedures. I tell myself, “He’ll be like an essential worker.” He’ll come home everyday after work, put his clothes in a garbage bag, and shower. We’ll do everything right.

And I know that even then, it’s possible he will get COVID. After all, we know that kids — especially kids aged 10 and up (like the ones my husband teaches) spread the virus just as easily as adults. If my husband gets it, he will bring it home to us. We may not even know he has it. He could be asymptomatic, and infect me. He could infect our teen. He could infect our third grader.

In the spring of 2019, our younger son was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night with an asthma attack. Both of my kids get asthma with respiratory infections. But this was a bad one—one our nebulizer couldn’t properly control.

If you’ve never held a child in your arms as they struggle to breathe, I’m not sure that I can fully articulate to you just how absolutely terrifying an experience it is. Their little nostrils flare in an effort to get in as much breath as possible. Their shoulders move up and down in rapid beats. That little half circle above their collarbone gets sucked in with every breath. And their chest tightens and retracts, tightens and retracts…

But it’s the look of fear you see in their eyes that really gets under your skin. Fear is a human instinct when you are struggling to catch your breath. To watch a young child experiencing that kind of fear—the child who you would move the earth and sky for to protect—it gets you in the gut. It’s traumatizing.

My son was okay that night. We got him to the ER in time. We don’t know what the virus was that caused this attack. It was some form of the common cold. But the medication they gave him worked. It was able to do its thing. It got him breathing. It got his oxygen levels back to normal.

What happens if my kids get exposed to a novel virus that attacks the lungs? What if the medicine doesn’t work? What if the virus causes long-term damage to my kids’ lungs? What if it attacks my lungs, my husband’s lungs—what if we get blood clots, experience kidney damage? What if we die? We have no underlying health conditions, but this virus doesn’t always care about that.

How could our family go on if one or both of us die? If one or both of our kids die? If we experience long-term or permanent damage?

These are my fears as I consider whether my husband should return to work this fall—whether he should return to a job he loves and children he adores. A job he does out of his love of learning and teaching and literature—certainly not because of the paycheck or job perks.

My husband went into teaching to share his enthusiasm for learning with children. He didn’t go into teaching to risk his life or be a hero. That’s not the kind of thing our family signed up for.

I see so many parents debating about whether they should send their kids back to school. I feel for parents who have no choice but to go back to work outside the home, who don’t have the option of working from home. Single parent families, families who live in poverty, families whose kids’ only meal comes from school. I feel for kids who have special needs, who need services that only can be provided in-person.

But for the families who have parents who can work from home, the families who say they “need” their kids to be back in school, the families who really could survive and be fine having their kid continue school on Zoom or some other way—I can’t feel anything other than anger here.

When you say you “need” the schools to be open, are you thinking for one second about the teachers? Are you thinking about the bus drivers? Are you thinking about the custodians? Are you thinking of all the older and immunocompromised teachers—or the teachers with medically vulnerable kids at home like mine?

Does it occur to you what you are asking teachers to do? What you are asking their families to sacrifice? Did it occur to you that as you consider whether to send your children back, teachers are considering whether they should return to work and risk their lives or quit their jobs and risk their careers and their livelihoods?

Did it occur to you that teachers (and their families) are losing sleep over this too? That they are crunching numbers in their already stretched-thin budgets to see how they could make it work if they have no other choice but to quit the job they love to save themselves and their families?

There are no good answers when it comes to this crisis. Kids need school, and no one disputes the fact that in-person schooling is better than virtual. But we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and we need to severely limit the number of people who are exposed to this virus.

As districts and states consider school reopening plans—as parents mull over the decision about whether or not to send their children—I am hoping that the well being of teachers and staff members is prioritized here. Many teachers are parents. Many have children of their own. Many teachers face health vulnerabilities themselves. And none of them should have to choose between their lives and their careers.

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