In The Reopen Schools Argument, If You're Pro-Teacher, People See You As Anti-Kid

by Lynda Lin Grigsby
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The teacher crowned as a hero at the beginning of the pandemic and the teacher criticized for standing in the way of children’s education is the same person.

The teacher credited with the Herculean task of shifting an entire curriculum online and the teacher vilified today for being too lazy to return to work? Same person.

Hailed as heroes early in the pandemic, teachers are facing a turning point in public opinion a year later. The criticism sounds more like a street fight than a dialogue to solve the problem of reopening schools.

On one side, beleaguered parents, who haven’t already lost their jobs or involuntarily left the workforce because of the lack of childcare, see the return to school as the remedy to their kids’ suffering in remote learning. On the other side, teachers fear COVID-19 health risks if they return to in-person learning without the protection of the vaccine and proper building safety protocols.

It sets up an impossible argument: if you are pro-teacher, then you are anti-kid, and vice versa. And it begs the question: how did we get here?

To open schools safely, we should hearken way back to the end of a pre-pandemic summer when <shudder> the kids had been home for three long months, and parents would give anything to get them out of the house. Remember the feeling? Long, hot days chauffeuring kids to pools and play dates until your eyeballs melt? Then August comes around like a beacon of hope for the start of another school year, and somehow the clouds part and the birds sing.

Parents, we could recapture that feeling again by channeling comedian Dena Blizzard in her 2017 viral video, “Stop Complaining about Back to School Shopping.” The answer to opening schools is simple, even in a pandemic: give the teachers what they want.

“It is the end of August, I will give you anything to take my kids,” says Blizzard in the video as she pushes a cart around a store. “I will give you a yellow binder. I will get you a red binder. I will tie-dye some shit if you take these kids out of my house. I will get you whatever you want.”

Teachers, you want a microwave? I’ll get you a microwave. Because even before the pandemic, we all knew a teacher is like Santa Claus — only appreciated seasonally. Anything in this pandemic that affects parents with children should be a priority, but it is not. We need policy changes to support our fragile workforce, but not on the backs of teachers.

Teachers, you want to be heard? I’m going to buy a bullhorn and shout this from the rooftops: TEACHERS DON’T FEEL SAFE RETURNING TO IN-PERSON WORK WITHOUT PROPER SAFETY PROTOCOLS!

One in five teachers surveyed during the summer did not want in-person instruction, according to the EdWeek Research Center. In January, about 40 percent of Chicago Public Schools teachers did not show up for in-person work when ordered to report to schools for the first time during the pandemic.

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It’s not to say teachers prefer the remote learning experience. In fact, most teachers really want to get back into the classroom with students, said Nailah Adama, a third-grade teacher in Wisconsin’s Beloit School District.

“Most of us are very intuitive teachers and it’s really hard to guide the students when they don’t have their cameras on and they are not responding, so we would love for it to be face-to-face, 100 percent,” said Adama, who has been teaching for 10 years. “But we also don’t want to die. We don’t want to be the cause of somebody’s grandparent dying.”

Beloit schools are expected to return to a hybrid learning model after spring break. Only half of the colleagues in her building have been vaccinated, said Adama, 40. For her, the hunt for the vaccine has been elusive, a fact that leaves her uneasy about returning to in-person work.

“I can see a lot of mental breakdowns coming,” she said.

So, teachers want to be vaccinated? We should roll out a red carpet for every teacher who wants it. After they get their Fauci ouchie, we should give them a cookie.

Without work conditions that help teachers feel safe and comfortable, will an in-person classroom be a healthy learning environment? Imagine a teacher already distressed over the risk of getting infected and drop in a handful of kids — it’s like putting out a fire with gasoline.

Teachers don’t just teach. They care, nurture and foster the growth of our little human beings. During the school day, they are the ones who comfort our children when emotions get big. They soothe frayed nerves and apply band-aids to skinned knees. If parents are the number ones in a kid’s life, teachers are the number twos. To have the presence of mind to show up for the kids, teachers need to feel comfortable and safe.

On his first day of kindergarten before the pandemic, my son sat on the multicolor rug in his new classroom and threw up “Exorcist”-style on a cluster of new friends. He cried forcefully out of shock and embarrassment of losing control of his body. When he came out of the bathroom with clean clothes and tears still flowing, his teacher hugged him close. My son is nine now, but he still talks about that time in kindergarten when his teacher showed him empathy and held him when he felt untouchable.

We live in a system that exploits a teacher’s willingness to work extra hours without extra pay and to reach into his/her own pockets to buy school supplies.

What’s that you say, teachers? You are worried about the high transmission rate in your area? Okay parents, tell your neighbors, your family members and all your co-workers on Slack to wear a damn mask! If you organize and use the same power of persuasion used to organize school fundraisers, we could all move to a safer color-coded tier (and get the kids out of the house).

You can’t call a teacher a hero and deny adequate protection to the human being behind the cape. A quarter of all teachers are at increased risk for serious illness if they become infected with the coronavirus, according to analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

These teachers want to teach our kids, and we can’t figure out how to vaccinate them? Are you kidding me?

As of March 1, California is earmarking 10 percent of its weekly vaccine supplies for teachers and school staff. Hopefully, this will be true and the red carpet will be rolled out. Teachers, I will bring you bottles of champagne.

Because to safely open schools, we need to dig deep and use the same motivation we have after being locked up with our kids for the summer (or the year). Want the kids out of the house? Give teachers whatever they need.

Excuse me while I go buy my kids’ teachers some damn well-deserved cookies.