The ‘Reopen Schools’ Debate Is Back, And Teachers Are Being Left Out Of The Conversation AGAIN

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 

A lot of pieces to this COVID-quarantine-vaccine-mask debacle we’ve all been forced to live through over the past year remain a mystery to me. Like why it’s apparently torture to wear a damn face mask to Target so you don’t get or spread COVID, when frontline medical workers desperately trying to save patients from that same virus wear them all day long. Or, why it’s too much to ask that people watch football in their own homes, rather than in someone else’s living room with 25 other unmasked people, because, sorry Joe, but we are still in a pandemic. Eat your fucking dip at home.

And, now that vaccines have started to come out, a new puzzle to me is why in the hell teachers aren’t automatically next in line, before the rest of us who aren’t responsible for the education and welfare of 30+ snotty-nosed, potentially COVID-carrying kids.

But here we are, on a new push to open schools across America, and many teachers still don’t know when they’ll get their first vaccine dose. Here we are, again, asking our teachers to give more as we offer them less. We hear endless stories of teachers working extra jobs, funding their classroom’s school supplies with their own money, bringing in food and clothing for their students in need, and willingly barricading doors and throwing themselves in front of bullets to protect the children in their classrooms.

They go above and beyond, every day, every year, and aren’t nearly appreciated enough.

On top of everything we ask of them, this past year, we asked the unthinkable.

Do two jobs! Teach kids in person AND kids at home, simultaneously, with no extra prep time, plan time, or compensation.

Revamp your entire curriculum to be teachable via a tiny screen. Lots of your students won’t have the necessary technology though, so good luck.

Even though your own children are doing virtual learning from home, you need to come into the building to teach in an empty room—in person. So you’ll need to find childcare. In a pandemic.

Oh, and this too: You have no say in these decisions.

I was a teacher years ago, so I have no idea what it’s like to teach through a pandemic. But I do know what it feels like when teachers are ignored and not consulted regarding major district decisions, even though they are literally the most crucial part of the inner workings of a school.

I do know what it feels like to get a new directive, a new grading system, a new form of curriculum, a new line of books or materials, and a new schedule, and have them simply be handed to you as you’re told to “make it work.”

So I cannot imagine the stress and the negative effects on teacher morale this pandemic has had as our nation’s educators have been told that even though they aren’t vaccinated yet, and even though the pandemic rages on, and even though they had no say in the decision, that their school is returning to in-person instruction and they are expected to report on Monday.

Yet, that is the reality for teachers across America—teachers I know personally, and who’ve offered to speak with anonymity about their experience this past year.

Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle /Getty

MediaNews Group via Getty Images

One friend—a teacher in a large Midwestern suburban school district—tells a harrowing tale. “I have one student who pulls his mask down 30 times a day. We’ve called home, met with the principal. His mom ended up sending in a note from his doctor, and now he doesn’t have to wear a mask and there’s nothing anyone can do.” Also, she notes, this student was recently quarantined after testing positive, but is now back in school.

Also, she shares that at her school, a student was sent to the nurse with symptoms that included headache and a fever. Not surprisingly, he tested positive for COVID. The teacher was never notified of the positive test result.

Another friend who teaches in an urban public school district was told she had to teach in the classroom, in person, full time. But the students in her district only attend in-person instruction half of the time, and stay home as virtual students the other half. This sounds like a sensible solution to keep class sizes small and allow for social distancing. However, this teacher (like most teachers) has her own children who are students themselves in this same district. This means that she’s in the building Monday through Friday, but her kids are home, online, 2-3 days a week. She was left with no other choice but asking grandparents to babysit (which is against COVID safety recommendations) or hire a babysitter to be in her home, during a pandemic, to oversee their care and schooling.

Also, on one occasion her babysitter became ill so she had no childcare. This teacher asked her principal if she could teach virtually that day (which seems reasonable, as her students are high schoolers and are used to online instruction), and the district’s response will baffle you. “Sure, you can teach from home today, but you’ll have to take a sick day,” they told her.

And because she’s a dedicated teacher doing whatever she has to do to meet her students’ needs, she worked a full day, from home, while monitoring her own children’s virtual learning, and still had to use some of her sick leave.

Or, how about this one? One teacher friend said that throughout her 10-year tenure, committees have frequently been formed and surveys have been sent out, soliciting teachers’ feedback, which is something she appreciates. So, as COVID raged on, and the district was discussing reopening plans, she expected a committee to be formed or a survey to be sent to teachers—especially since her district had sent several surveys to parents assessing their needs, preferences, and feedback on returning to in-person instruction.

But the survey to teachers never came, she says. No committee was created. At some point, the decision was simply made to reopen the buildings, and teachers were told to ready themselves. And that was it.

So parents got to weigh in, but not teachers? How backwards is that? Yet, as a former teacher myself, I’m sadly not surprised, because time and time again, this is how it goes for our educators—who hold one of our nation’s most important, crucial, vital occupations—yet their value continues to go unnoticed. Their voices silenced, or ignored.

Here we are, in February of 2021, damn-near a year into this mess, and we are still willing to send our teachers to the slaughter. Even though, as The New York Times reports, more than 500 teachers have died from this virus.

Teachers like Paul and Rose Mary Blackwell, a married couple, both of whom were teachers in Grand Prairie, TX. Paul and Rose Mary passed away within hours of each other this past December.

Or like Mary Ward, an art teacher from Fayetteville, N.C., who died just a few days after her diagnosis. Mary was so beloved that a memorial grew outside of the school and included personal messages from her students whose lives she’d impacted.


AFP via Getty Images

Or Bobby Hulse, who had been the principal at Norfork High School in north Arkansas for 41 years.

Or Erick Ortiz, a special education instructor in Houston whose last words before he passed were about whether his students were going to be okay.

Or Philamena Belone, a beloved teacher, mother, and grandmother who was so committed to teaching that she continued to do so, from home, fighting pneumonia and COVID, and wearing an oxygen mask, until she died at 44 years old.

Well, some teachers aren’t giving up without a fight, knowing their schools aren’t safe yet, so they are mobilizing and joining together to make their voices heard.

“Teachers in Harris County, TX participated in a nationwide sickout to demand a safer learning environment,” The New York Times reports. “In Cobb County, GA, teachers protested ahead of a school board meeting after at least three teachers died.” And, “Public schools in Montgomery, AL moved classes online after pressure following the deaths of at least four teachers.”

The truth is, many schools buildings do not have extra space that allow students to social distance. They don’t have extra cleaning supplies and/or funding to hire additional custodians. And they don’t have the money to hire extra staff required to meet new, unexpected needs that have arisen during this pandemic. Public schools, especially in lower income areas, already had budgets stretched too thin prior to COVID. So there definitely isn’t extra funding now to ensure the buildings are safe to open.

Also, as much as it was hard to get off the ground and forced a rethinking of how teaching was done, virtual learning is working for classes nationwide. It’s not ideal, and kids and teachers anxiously look forward to a safe return to in-person instruction, but at least they can learn virtually and keep everyone safe until vaccines are readily available so that more teachers don’t die.

Furthermore, reports like this recent surprising one from the CDC—saying that we don’t have to wait for teachers to get vaccinated before opening schools—honestly sound like a slap in the face to teachers. Listen, I’m as big a CDC fan as the next gal, and I definitely value the opinions and suggestions of experts, especially in the science and medical field, and especially during a pandemic. But this one has me puzzled, as thousands of Americans are still dying every day. Why isn’t the headline “Let’s get those teachers vaccinated ASAP so we can safely open schools!” instead? Or, at the very least, let them participate in the decision-making process on whether they want to put themselves at risk by re-entering the classroom.

The bottom line is that teachers deserve an opportunity to weigh in on such a major decision like the reopening of their school buildings mid-pandemic. We cannot continue to hand down directives to our valuable teachers without their input, especially if such directives force them to risk their lives.

This article was originally published on