As A Teacher, I Am Just Wondering: How Many Dead Kids And Teachers Is An Acceptable Risk?

by Caroline Kuhlman O’Neill
Originally Published: 
Cute boy with raised hand in classroom
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

Being a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools since 2007 has been an honor. It has also been exhausting, fulfilling, and heartbreaking. I have taught students through their tragedies and my own. I have laughed with my kids, TikToked with my kids, been to baby showers for them; I have camped with them, learned with them, and worried about them. I have advocated for them, loved them and held them at funerals for loved ones… for funerals for each other. I have cried as they walked across graduation stages and cried as I put them in the ground.

I am a lifelong teacher, but this is the first time I have actually worried about how long that life might be. In 2012, Sandy Hook shook the country. This was also the first time I truly realized that my country does not care about me or American schools. If 20 dead first graders were not going to result in a safety and gun overhaul in our country, literally nothing would. In the wake of this horror, I had to decide, for the first time ever (but apparently not the last time), if I was also willing to die for my students. I decided I would. I would leave my room and lock my door that only locked from the outside to keep them safe. I would do that. Eight years later, we live with lockdown drills and debated teachers also carrying firearms.

Eight years later, it is 2020 and we are in the throes of a global pandemic. One that has been mismanaged beyond any and all comprehension. Cases in our country have surpassed 4 million and almost 150K people have died. Rates of infection have only increased nationwide. Coronavirus transmission is worse than when we initially closed for the year back in March. Yet we discuss returning. Why? Because the economy needs it, because kids need it, because families need it, because a reckless president demands it.


I hate online learning. I miss my kids and they miss me. Juggling my own children and their educations WHILE trying to engage and troubleshoot for 100 8th graders is a nightmare. I basically taught my children in the morning, taught my students in the afternoon, cared for my children in the evening and taught my school kids again until midnight. I. Am. Tired. But wishing the pandemic away, will not make it be so.

There are too many problems with the solutions. The academic inequity in our country is too great. In the last several years of my teaching career, I have had between 31 and 37 middle school students per classroom. Spacing at six feet will maybe allow me to fit 15. Where are the rest going? Many of my kids receive FARMs support for lunch. Where and how are they going to get them with limited contact? What about transitions? Coming into and leaving the building? Going to the bathroom? Forgotten masks or kids refusing them?

If we do AA/BB schedules, who is watching my children while I am working? Should I do a nanny share with other teachers? If someone in my class gets sick, we all quarantine. Does my family quarantine, too? The kids in the nanny share? Their teacher parents and classroom cohorts? If I am sick and have to take all 14 days, that is my entire year of leave. Will I get paid? What if one of my kids gets sick and my cohort goes digital, do I take leave for that? If my kid gets sick, who will sub for me? Will my cohort be quarantined because I was exposed to my child?


What about those parents who dose their kids with Tylenol before school because they have a meeting and their child has a fever? What about my undocumented students who are uncomfortable seeking testing, as they are living under the radar? What about my uninsured kids who don’t have testing access? Friends, you are buying a few weeks of school for your kids before inevitable quarantine AT MAX. And at what cost?

Teachers have long been asked to fix a system broken by others (government/systemic and structural racism/etc). This pandemic has been mismanaged by the president and many state officials to unbelievable heights. There is a huge cohort of selfish people who refuse to acknowledge science and wear a mask. Because of these factors, teachers are again being asked to bear the unimaginable weight of a Sisyphean task. To move forward in this pyrrhic victory of economy.

What will be the cost? Let’s look at Baltimore City, the city I love, for this. If 3% of our nearly 100,000 students and staff contract the virus, that means 3,000 staff/students will be infected. If the mortality rate stays at 3.4% — as per Johns Hopkin’s University’s estimate of the current U.S. case fatality rate — that’s about 102 dead. This is not including the elderly grandparents raising students or babies home with teacher parents. How many dead kids and teachers is an acceptable risk?

I am a great teacher. With flexibility in my curriculum, I know I can help kids regain lost academic ground and create engaging virtual learning opportunities. What I can’t do, what no one can do, is fix our kids when their friends, family and teachers start dying.

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