Teachers Are Sleeping In Tents And Working Through Labor—This Is Not Okay

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and damircudic/Getty

Stories of teachers going above and beyond their job descriptions to meet the needs of their students aren’t new. We’ve seen time and time again that no matter how much we expect of them, and how much we take away by cutting their budgets, cramming them into classrooms with 30+ kids, and expecting them to prepare for active shooter drills, teachers continuously rise up and meet any challenges thrown their way. And while we should appreciate all these extra efforts, we should not expect this of them. Unfortunately, however, it has become the norm—the expectation—that teachers sacrifice themselves, their safety, their health, their paychecks to maximize the classroom experience.

Because they love their students and go into this profession with a passion for helping kids grow and thrive.

But how much is too much? Is 2020 the breaking point? The year that we finally have asked too much of our teachers while not supporting them with the resources and appreciation they deserve? How many teachers will leave the profession after the debacle that has been 2020 so far? After our president demanded schools reopen but offered no support for teachers, no gratitude for putting their lives on the line as they do the vital task of educating America’s youth, no “You got this” or “We’ve got your back” or promise for additional funding or paid sick leave?

Instead, teachers are told to go back to work, in a pandemic, and face a classroom full of potentially infected kids who may or may not have the ability to keep their masks on or wash their hands properly or stay six feet apart from one another.

Or, as an alternative, they could lose their jobs. (Which is ironic, frankly, because is there a long line of people right now waiting to be teachers who just can’t get in the door? Doubtful. So what happens if we do fire all the teachers or they all quit? What then, America?)

That’s why we hear about devoted teachers like Janet Udomratsak (called Mrs. O by her third graders) teaching her kids, via Zoom, from a hospital bed where she sits on pregnancy bedrest.

“In the beginning of the school year, that’s when you build your relationship with your students, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Udomratsak says. “My love of teaching, for the kids and building that relationship is so much stronger than me just wanting to sit and do nothing. Obviously, that would be the life: to just take it all in and relax and not have to work. I would love doing that, but my desire is to be with the students.”

So next time you hear of educators teaching via Zoom or Google classroom, and someone says they are “not working” or “taking time off” or “lazy” and “don’t want to work,” tell them about Janet Udomratsak.

Or, you can tell them about Emily Kilborn, a teacher and a mom, who, upon returning to her teaching job, will now sleep in a tent in the backyard.

A tent.

Despite being a veteran teacher and a doctoral candidate, that’s Emily Kilborn’s new home because of her husband’s medical conditions that put him at grave risk if he were to contract COVID-19.

It’s a large tent, Kilborn explains. To which she’s run electricity, and added a camping shower and a toilet. “It could be worse,” she says.

“I am sleeping in a tent in our backyard because my return to school compromises my family’s health and safety,” Kilborn tells the Hartford Courant. “The combination of the pandemic and the political will to return to in-person instruction forces choices on teachers that none of us should have to make. What will be worse for my five-year-old: Missing out on countless mom-kisses, or potentially having to bury his father? Enduring remote learning or having his first experience of school be under pandemic conditions?

What in the actual fuck are we doing here? How is this acceptable? We should not normalize this shit. Stories of teachers sleeping in tents should not be okay. And stories of teachers meeting the needs of eight- and nine-year-olds from a hospital bed should prove just how dedicated our teachers are, and that we should hold them in a far higher regard than we currently do.

Seriously, America. You want to call yourself great? Prioritize education. Take care of your teachers.

Nations around the world are passing us by in education. Teachers around the world have guaranteed healthcare, and both men and women can take proper maternity and paternity leaves without fear of losing their jobs. Teachers around the world are given a fair budget with which they can purchase what they need to teach their students and set them up for a successful, fun educational experience, without having to buy pencils and crayons and classroom snacks with their own meager paychecks.

You want us to be great? Well, not having your teachers sleep in tents is a start. And to do that, you have to actually address the fact that yes, we are living with a rapidly spreading pandemic, and yes, it’s going to flood our schools because the Trump administration accomplished nothing all summer long in quelling the spread of a deadly, contagious virus.

Because the thing is, COVID-19 is moving far faster than we are. We don’t have time to “not accept responsibility” or debate the exact efficacy of cloth masks or talk about whether five feet is “safe enough,” or do we really have to do six? We need to do all the things all the time, including listening to new evidence as it emerges.

Many schools are in the initial stages of reopening, but as the Hartford Courant reports, they’re operating as if we were back in May. It’s August now. We know more about COVID-19, and the measures by which we protect ourselves and each other must evolve.

For example, in the spring we didn’t know that children bear a greater viral load than adults or that children ages 10-19 have the same capacity as adults to transmit and be sickened by the virus. We don’t know just how far airborne particles could travel and in what quantity.

We know so much more now, thanks to medical researchers and scientists working tirelessly over the past few months to share their findings with us. For example, we now know that school restrooms, where the toilets are all lid-less, could potentially allow contaminated aerosols to fling throughout the air.

Merely asking everyone to wear masks and frequently cleaning surfaces is, as the young folk say, “so May of 2020.” That was months ago, which in pandemic-speak, is an eternity. We cannot, during such a dangerous pandemic when we are dealing with a novel virus, continue to operate with the same protocols as we did months before. That’s deadly, and frankly, stupid.

Our country continues to ignore the severity of COVID-19 and now it’s going to impact our children and their educators. We continue to act as though we don’t need to take massive, large-scale, sweeping measures to stop the spread. CNN reports that Vietnam, for example, evacuated 80,000 people from a city because three people tested positive for COVID-19. Three.

Meanwhile, Florida reported 9000 new COVID-19 cases in kids, in only a 15 day span, and reopened schools without flinching.

Texas alone reported more than 1,000 COVID-related deaths in less than a week and school districts all over the U.S. moved forward anyway with in-person instruction. “It seems like federal and local leaders are hinging the country’s economic recovery on whether teachers and students survive when we throw them all into buildings together,” Kathi Valeii, writer for CNN says. “But teachers and students aren’t expendable economic experiments.”

Teachers like Emily Kilborn know this. They know that letting large numbers of kids inside buildings—even if masked, even if teachers try to keep them distanced, even with excessive hand sanitizing—is a huge risk.

One that the Kilborn family cannot afford to take.

All Americans forced to work in hazardous conditions deserve empathy, support, fair compensation, and access to the resources they need as they subject themselves to the frontlines of COVID-19. But teachers are special and there’s no convincing me otherwise. Who else is handed such a delicate task? Who else is handed the privilege, and yet the burden, of ensuring that America’s youth—America’s future—not only know their ABCs and multiplication tables and how to write sentences and dissect literary texts, but also learn how to handle bullying, hide from an active shooter, say no to drugs, share with others, wear masks for hours on end, not breathe or cough on each other, wash their hands, and be kind?

Literally no one else.

That doesn’t mean other jobs are not important. Essential even. They are. We need grocery store workers and delivery service employees and plumbers and electricians and someone to fix our internet and someone to fix our furnace and every other essential worker job out there.

But what we should not normalize is forcing teachers (and our kids) to risk their lives because our country is drowning in “whataboutism.”

Teachers deserve to be put on a pedestal, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. For all that they are. For how they show up, despite the way our nation fails to support them adequately, and dig from their own pockets to care for their students. For their love of art or music or math or science or writing and their willingness to sit amongst a bunch of kids and inspire them to believe in themselves and pursue learning.

And they don’t deserve to sleep in a tent just so they can do their job.

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