Yesterday, the Little Rock Education Association announced that its members are ready to begin school virtually but will not be returning to in-person classes until the rate of community spread of COVID-19 falls below a safe level. Almost immediately, I began getting calls and text messages from friends – all of them working parents like myself – who have no idea what they will do with their children if schools are unable to open but parents are still expected to go to work. Almost all of them agreed that teachers have valid and very serious concerns – not just for their own health and safety, but for that of their students as well. And yet, because so many parents have no other option but to send their children to school while they go to work, they are distraught at the news that teachers are taking a stand against reopening our classrooms before it is safe.
This is a truly awful situation, and to every one of my friends who have reached out, I have said some version of the following response:
Your fear, anger, anxiety, and distress are all warranted. You are in a terrible predicament, and every option you are facing is unacceptable. Working families are being forced to choose between losing their income or putting their children in situations that they believe are unsafe. That’s infuriating, and I don’t blame you for being mad. But – and this part is really important – we have to remember teachers didn’t create the crisis you are now facing, nor could they fix it simply by agreeing to go back to the classroom. Even if teachers were willing to risk their lives to reopen schools, we would still have a dangerously high rate of community spread of the virus, and your children would still be at risk. Instead of being angry at teachers, let’s recognize that they are also in an awful situation, forced to choose between their calling- the profession for which many of them have obtained master’s degrees and dedicated decades of their lives – and their physical safety. They are worried for themselves, their families, and their students. Starting the school year virtually would, no doubt, be a significant hardship on many working parents. I am one of them; I understand. It would also likely harm some children who need the safety and support of our schools. Most teachers I know have lost significant amounts of sleep grappling with these issues, and they hate the idea of starting online. But in the end, they have concluded that the reality of reopening during a deadly pandemic is simply too dangerous. So, I don’t think we should vilify teachers who are risking their own careers to raise a red flag to protect our children.
Recent reports indicate that approximately half of all LRSD families have opted for virtual learning this fall. That alone should indicate that teachers’ safety concerns are widely shared in the community. Moreover, the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Arkansas Education Association, and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel have all recommended a delay in face-to-face instruction. Other states with similar or lower rates of community spread have already chosen to start online rather than risk the lives of students and staff. A new online assessment tool published by the New York Times, which utilizes the Harvard Global Health Institutes guidelines for reopening and evaluates both the rate of community spread in a given county and the areas’ testing capabilities, shows no counties in Arkansas that are currently ready to reopen. All of this is to say that the teachers who have decided not to return for in-person classes (whether they have resigned, retired, taken medical leave, or joined LREA’s refusal to return to class until it is safe) are not exaggerating their assessment of the risk.
And yet, Governor Hutchinson has mandated that all Arkansas public schools be open five days per week (well, except the for-profit online charter schools that our taxpayer dollars continue to fund; apparently they are exempt). The governor’s decision to force schools to reopen even if unsafe has left working parents in a bind. With schools open, employers expect parents to come to work. Even if parents legitimately feel that their child would be unsafe in a classroom right now, many of them are not ready to lose their jobs and face foreclosure and eviction.
If I were trying to devise a way to weaken and destroy a popular labor union, this would be it. By insisting that schools reopen and failing to provide any real support for working parents who have no other options for their kids, Governor Hutchinson is effectively pitting desperate parents against terrified teachers, each group forced to advocate for their own urgent needs to the detriment of the other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By approaching this issue thoughtfully and with empathy for each other, we can advocate for better policies that will protect educators and students while also supporting working families.
First, let’s start with some basic principles. Can we all agree that teachers should not be expected to risk their lives in order to do their jobs and that they have a moral obligation to blow the whistle on unsafe schools before anyone dies? Can we also agree that working parents are facing a crisis right now? They want to do what is best for their kids, but they will not be able to work if they don’t have childcare. (Before my teacher friends get mad at me for mentioning “childcare,” please know that I am not reducing your remarkable skills, expertise, and abilities to that of a babysitter. You have my full admiration and respect. I am, however, thinking of something that teachers taught me: “Maslow before Bloom” means that we must meet our students’ basic needs before expecting them to focus on learning. In this context, I am recognizing that our schools provide a safe place for many LRSD children to spend the day while their parents go to work, and that is a basic need we cannot ignore.)
So, how do we approach this seemingly impossible problem without tearing each other down? We must each remember that parents and teachers are on the same team. We all want our kids to be healthy, happy, safe, and educated. We want our schools to succeed. Whether your child ends up going to class or learning virtually, he or she will need you to have a healthy parent-teacher relationship. But the point here is that your child also needs healthy teachers; keeping our excellent, experienced educators safe is in your family’s best interest, too.
Instead of throwing stones at each other, let’s aim our dissatisfaction at the real culprit: the complete and inexcusable lack of leadership at both the state and federal level. No, neither Governor Hutchinson nor President Trump caused this pandemic, but their response to it has been botched and ineffective and has led directly to our current predicament. Spare your child’s teacher the harsh messages I have been seeing on social media, and instead channel your anger toward the president who failed to obtain and distribute adequate PPE and testing supplies months ago, the senate that just went on vacation instead of acting on a bill that would have provided much-needed relief to working families, and the governor who never issued a shelter-in-place order but now insists that unsafe schools must reopen so that all the season-ticket holders at Reynolds Razorback Stadium get their money’s worth.
In addition to calling the governor (his number is 501-682-2345) and contacting the Arkansas congressional delegation (see their contact information here), it’s also time to start talking about how Arkansas employers can help. Last spring, we saw companies across the state institute new, flexible work-from-home policies that made virtual learning more feasible. Now, businesses have reopened and employees have largely returned to the workplace. It’s not unreasonable, though, to ask businesses in this state to do what is necessary to allow working parents to keep their children safe.
However you choose to advocate, it is important to push for policies that address the needs of both parents and teachers. If we continue to discuss school reopening as a stand-alone issue, we are missing an opportunity to advocate for policies that will make everyone safer. Our conversations must go beyond simply delaying the start of in-person classes; these policies should include real and meaningful support for working families.
It is telling that the LREA made its announcement on the same day that Governor Hutchinson extended the state’s public-health emergency order for another 60 days. “The pandemic has not abated, not gone away,” he said. “We have over 500 deaths, and 6,000 active cases. We remain in a state of emergency.” It was also the same day that almost 5,000 Arkansans published a letter in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette urging the state not to reopen schools until it is safe. Clearly, teachers aren’t the only ones who think we face a very big problem. They are just the only ones willing to take a personal risk in order to do something about it. Let’s not let Governor Hutchinson and his administration turn them into convenient scapegoats for his own failure to adequately control the virus so that we would be ready to safely reopen schools.