Perspectives on the Return to School Sarah Luhtanen July 28, 2020

As an educator, I am acutely aware of the waning respect and support, both in policy and, as a result, in public opinion for my profession. Despite public education being a cornerstone for a strong democracy, positive public opinion of this institution and the financial resources needed to fund it have been diverted instead to charter and private schools, thus depleting the support needed to strengthen the institution that is invaluable to the health of the nation. Now that the literal health of the citizens of this nation is in jeopardy, teachers yet again see themselves on the frontlines of something they are not trained for, and more importantly, are not compensated for.

In my 13 years of teaching in two fairly large districts, my professional responsibilities have drastically increased in maintaining the health and safety of my students due to the proliferation of school shootings. We have to maintain a calm, reassuring face during the required active shooter drills, learn to tie tourniquets for potential shooting victims and instill social and emotional learning standards in our lessons. Many elected officials have slowly chipped away at the respect for and value of public education as a whole, and thereby teachers as professionals, while simultaneously insinuating that teachers should be willing to take a literal bullet for their students.

Most cuts to education are small ones and the majority of people don’t notice. Those making the decisions, from state lawmakers to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have made it abundantly clear that they don’t value public education, as shown in their words and policy. Raises are inconsistent and infrequent, but that’s considered to be a nonissue because educators clearly aren’t in it for the money.

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But aren’t we? It’s work. It’s a lot of work, actually. People who provide labor should be compensated accordingly. Educators love kids and know that teaching them is an important public service, but there is not a single teacher who would do this for free. Depending on the district, the pay is modest, but sustainable for a family with two earners. Unfortunately in impoverished districts, many single teachers with children must apply for government aid to make ends meet. Compared to similarly educated peers in other professions, American teachers make far less, up to 60 percent, in annual income. Yet the underlying reasons for teachers’ strikes are about more than wage increases; teachers want to express their discontent of how major school funding decisions are made without their input. Unfortunately, American culture clearly prioritizes the voices of high earners, as they are heard, valued, and ultimately inform policy. But because educators don’t hold this economic power, their individual voices are usually silenced.

Leaving the career for something more financially lucrative isn’t necessarily an option either. Most employers in the private sector do not consider the skills that teachers possess as qualifications for employment. Going back to school is expensive and something most teachers cannot afford to do, especially if they have families, mortgages, or student loan debt.

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So we forge on. Teachers keep teaching like they always have, despite the lack of pay, despite the lack of public respect and support, despite full classrooms, despite the fear of the growing number of school shootings, despite having to dismantle white supremacy and sexism in the classroom, despite the increased responsibilities of teaching social and emotional skills to students.

Enter COVID-19. In March, teachers had to frantically scramble to prepare lessons for distance learning. In some districts, this was the first time students had access to computers at home. Wi-fi was not always available due to household financial constraints or infrastructure in many areas, especially rural ones. In larger, more affluent districts like mine, Chromebooks were available for all students, and most teachers, at least at the secondary level, had had years of experience using technology in their instruction. The challenge was that while many of these teachers worked harder than ever to restructure curriculum and maintain the level of rigor and engagement their students had been accustomed to prior to distance learning, they were having to maintain the expectations placed on them by the state, district and building. Sometimes these expectations conflicted with each other or with what students (or their parents) thought should be happening.

This process was messy and hastily thrown together, yet teachers became the heroes or the villains in the public narrative. Regardless of the families’ experiences with remote learning, the successes or failures of it largely fell on the teachers. While no one, especially teachers facilitating the learning of their own school-age children, preferred this method of learning, our society understood that it was absolutely necessary for protecting the health of the community. It wasn’t ideal, but considering how quickly teachers worked to salvage a broken school year (worsened by broken leadership) during a global pandemic, it was the best possible outcome.

As the end of the school year approached, many states shifted their focus from prioritizing public health to the health of the economy. The frenzied focus on reopening businesses to save the economy, despite 100,000 deaths nationwide at the end of May, fueled the public’s disregard for common sense regarding masks, travel and distance measures. In Arkansas, we saw the rapid shift from Phase 1 to Phase 2 without any health mandates, but rather a call for personal responsibility. Meanwhile, Arkansans and their neighbors in border states saw this as permission for out-of-state recreational travel, Memorial Day barbecues and pool parties and a conspiracy-driven distaste for mask wearing.

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Because summer break loomed near, people stopped talking about school. The assumption was that the virus would certainly be under control by the time school would restart in the fall. This assumption, however, failed to recognize that the virus is spread by people, and human behavior is much harder to predict.

Even though many teachers and administrators were off contract during the time officials began discussing the reopening of schools, they continued to research the spread of COVID-19 in their community; monitor the data; ask necessary questions; brainstorm ideas regarding safety; and contact government officials, superintendents, and school board members.

Vulnerable teachers continue to evaluate the risks associated with returning to school, getting sick, and potentially dying; however, they cannot quit their jobs, foregoing their income and health benefits. Most teachers, even those who have underlying health conditions, would certainly prefer to be in a physical classroom with their students, but with the uncertainty regarding the prioritization of their health, they cannot know what the best decision is for them right now.

Teachers’ concerns for their health and the health of their families appear to be largely ignored or sidelined. While most districts offered choices to students about returning to school via a virtual format vs. an in-person one, teachers were not always given this option, and if they were (as was the case in my district), this was no guarantee they would be selected. Additionally, the virtual teachers in my district are still required to report to a building, rather than teach from their own homes, so their school-aged children essentially lose the option to go virtual.

I’ve read many opinion pieces, regardless of the politics of the writer, that advocate for the return to schools. They speak of advice from pediatricians who emphasize the social needs of children and looked back at their previous experience with facilitating distance learning with their children in disdain. Maintaining the balance of performing the duties of one’s job with children in the home who also need you to assist in their education is hard. Teachers know this. Many of them are parents, too. Does this burden largely fall on women? Yes, absolutely. Is public education necessary to sustain the economy? This appears to be the case.

We are in a bind, considering our country has failed to reckon with increased needs of equitable health care, income inequality, and flexible parental leave policies. Without the continuation of government stimulus checks during the pandemic or employers attempting to create a flexible schedule for their employees, America needs schools to be open. America needs teachers. America needs to do better if we are to live in a society that depends so heavily on children attending school.

My modest proposal is this: Pay teachers like the professionals they are. In addition to this, pay them hazard pay if they have to teach in a physical building this year. Listen to their questions and creative solutions to reopening schools. Prioritize their health. Require remote learning for all students until community spread has shown a marked decline. Make necessary (and possibly costly) changes to reduce the chance that schools will be the next epicenter of the virus (physical changes such as air ventilation systems or hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes). Vote in school board elections. Value public education.

If these needs are not met, we will find ourselves with a new crisis: a teacher shortage like we’ve never seen before. If that’s the case, the decision to reopen school will be made for us.

Sarah Luhtanen is a teacher in the Bentonville School District.

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