Stop Acting Like Teachers Are Frontline Essential Workers --That's Not What They Signed Up For

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Stop Acting Like Teachers Are Frontline Essential Workers --That's Not What They Signed Up For

There’s not one parent (or at least any parent I know) who doesn’t want this mess to be over. Who doesn’t want a sense of normalcy back. Who doesn’t want to be able to spontaneously run to the store, or take a vacation, or surprise their kids with a fun day at the water park. And, of course, for their kids to return to school as they know it—whatever that means.

For my kids, that means getting on the bus at 8:08 a.m. It means recess and math manipulatives and group science projects. It means the school musical, complete with over-the-top costumes and off-key singing that makes all the parents cry with pride. It means buying an arsenal of school supplies (so. many. glue sticks) and back-to-school clothes and hot lunch on pizza day.

My kids want it back to the way it was. So do I. And I know for a fact, so do their teachers.

But their teachers did not sign up to be frontline essential workers. Their teachers did not sign up for a job so hazardous and dangerous that a death waiver might now be a part of their contract. Their teachers did not sign up to be childcare so that working parents can get back to work and re-spark the crashing economy. Their teachers did not sign up to fix the shit show resulting from a complete lack of leadership and responsibility and many of fellow Americans refusing to social distance, quarantine, and wear a fucking mask.


Yes, teachers do far more than teach spelling and geometry and critical thinking skills. They are natural caregivers who nurture and offer hugs and comfort. That makes them good at their job. It makes their students feel safe and secure, and that’s crucial for a successful learning environment. But there’s a reason doctors and nurses are wearing full-on hazmat suits, rubber gloves, and face shields as they treat patients. They actually are on the frontlines of this pandemic, tasked with the most challenging of jobs—saving lives. They chose their career field, they are (typically) compensated fairly, and we are forever in their debt.

Teachers did not. They cannot do their jobs in full PPE, nor should they be asked to. And we need to stop categorizing them in the same way we do healthcare workers on the frontlines of COVID-19. We need to stop asking them to risk their own lives, and the lives of their families, so that we can send our kids back to class.

Yet, if we reopen schools during a raging pandemic, that’s exactly what we are asking our teachers to do.

They already educate our kids on reading, and writing, and mathematics, and history, and how science works. And then there’s music, and art, P.E., and now, in the digital age, computer technology and coding and online responsibility.

Our teachers and administrators are mandated reporters. They are trained to look for signs of abuse and to check in with their students on an emotional level, ensuring they are safe and cared for and are having their needs met at home.

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Our schools provide food for hungry children, so we also expect schools to meet basic survival needs for the students who enter their doors.

We expect teachers to rise to the challenge when budgets are slashed and there are no more pencils and there is no more paper and there aren’t enough desks. We expect them to figure out how bridge those gaps, fill those empty bellies, and to still teach effectively, and they do.

Over the last couple decades, we now force our school staff to learn and implement active shooter precautions as well. How to barricade doors and hide as many children in the closet as they can and keep tiny voices quiet in moments of terror. And in the end, we assume they’ll be human shields, if needed, to save their students’ lives.

And now, we say that even though our nation is nowhere near done with a deadly, highly-contagious virus that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and that even though our administration—our president and secretary of education—offer no resources, no plan, no additional support, teachers must do even more. Teachers must put themselves on the frontlines, in the line of fire, even though they aren’t firefighters or police officers or military personnel or medical doctors or nurses.

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But that’s what we do to teachers. We expect them to be parents to students who don’t have proper parenting at home, human shields and warriors against mass shooters, caregivers and social workers and providers of nutrition, and now, sacrificial frontline defenders against COVID-19. While educating our children, adhering to their IEP/504 plans, teaching coping strategies, and managing any impulsive, risky behaviors.

We expect all of that, and we are often very loud when we feel things are not done perfectly, and yet teachers are grossly underpaid. Even if we expected them only to teach (which, as illustrated above, we expect far more) they would still be underpaid. Add in everything else we expect of them, and it’s a national disgrace that we do not compensate them better for their invaluable contributions to our society.

No one is disputing the value of in-person instruction. Parents who enroll their children in public or private school and are used to dropping them off or waving as they hop on the bus, especially when they themselves work all day while their kids are at school, aren’t reveling in this new COVID-homeschool-e-learning-at-home-online-learning-whatever-you-want-to-call-it system.

It sucks. We hate it.

My kids hate it. I hate it. I know their teachers hate it.

But expecting yet another role from our teachers is unrealistic, unfair, and frankly, impractical. Teachers and staff will become sick rapidly as we know how easily and quickly this virus spreads. Will they recover? Will they be sick for weeks? Months? Will they be hospitalized? Will they survive? Will we have to tell our first graders that their teacher is dead? Or their principal? Or Mr. G, the friendly custodian they all love? Or Mrs. Adams, the school nurse who makes them feel safe while they wait for Mom or Dad to pick them up? Will all the kids in the class then have to be quarantined? Will some of the students become seriously ill? Will the pass the illness to their high-risk family members? Who will teach them if their teacher is too ill?


Schools are not hospitals. They are not equipped to deal with a pandemic. Schools cannot be sanitized and cleaned the way hospitals are, certainly not without the addition of extra staff and materials, and this administration isn’t exactly known for tossing cash and resources at our (already underfunded) schools. Do you really think a district that doesn’t even have enough books will magically have the funding for extra cleaning materials and staff to sanitize every single surface? No. So guess who will be responsible for the additional cleaning? Of course, the teachers will.

Teachers are not essential workers because they can do their jobs remotely. We know, because we all saw it in the spring. Was it perfect? Not even close. What it as good as in-person instruction? Nope. But it saved lives.


No one is disputing the difficulty it places on parents who earn their income while their children are at school. No one is disputing the need for kids to see their teachers face to face for proper instruction and have the benefit of social interactions with their peers.

Parents, educators, pediatricians—we know these needs. But once again, saving this country is not a burden to be placed on teachers’ shoulders. Our gun violence epidemic should not be our teachers’ burden. The crisis of hunger and poverty and lack of healthcare should not be our teachers’ burden. And saving our nation’s economy during a pandemic our president chose to deny and ignore for months should not be our teachers’ burden.

It is our government’s burden and responsibility to help our nation climb out of this disaster so that someday, our kids and teachers can all safely return to school. So that someday our kids can stand tall on those risers again and sing their hearts out and rejoin their friends at recess and sit on the floor together doing a science experiment and giggle together on the bus.

But once again, if we put this on teachers and administrators and school staff, many will get sick. Many will die. And that’s not what teachers signed up for. They deserve better.

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