Here we are in late August, in those dog days of summer when the start of school looms large or, in some areas, has already arrived. l have always loved the fall, always loved the anticipation of another school year (whether as a student, a teacher, or a parent), loved the advent of football season, and loved the excitement of new challenges and new beginnings. My life was defined by the school year for so long that late August has continued to be a bittersweet, nostalgiac time for me ever since I retired from teaching some 12 years ago. This year, however, it is especially poignant, and troublesome.
There are some 56 million elementary, middle and high school students who attend school in America each year (latest data from 2019), 90 percent of them in public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were also almost 20 million students enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2019. That’s a lot of students, and their friends, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers, not to mention their teachers/professors, their custodians, their administrators, their office workers, their cafeteria servers, their security personnel, even their landscape keepers — all of whom could potentially somehow be exponentially affected by asymptomatic young student carriers of the coronavirus.
As someone who taught every level from junior high through graduate school (training high-school English teachers), who is so proud of her years spent in the classroom and who often remarked that she would “teach even if no one paid me,” I am really, truly distraught at the either-or position politicians, state and local officials, and yes, even the teacher unions have put our children, our parents, and our communities into regarding returning to in-class learning during this pandemic. Of course, we all love football, but really …? Of course, we all agree that there is no substitute for the dynamic of classroom discussion and the social interaction of schools, and of course, we all know that not every home and family is equipped to facilitate virtual learning, but again, really …? Just as forcing openings of retail establishments and recreational facilities too soon won’t make those reopenings safe and force the virus into a submission of will, forcing schools to reopen in areas where there are still serious outbreaks won’t force it all to go away and return to normal either. This is lunacy, or magical thinking.
Were I still teaching today, especially in a high school, I would be perfectly willing, at whatever inconvenience it might take, at however many e-mails and phone calls, however many IT help lines, however many late-nights at home, to do my best to deliver instruction virtually, but honestly, if push came to shove, if I lived in a high coronavirus area, I would quit before I would risk this in-person exposure. Granted, I am a baby boomer, but guess what? So many of our teachers, especially college professors, are baby boomers, themselves vulnerable to the virus, and also eligible for retirement. Yes, we would quit because we could afford to quit. Unfortunately, though, there are younger teachers/professors who don’t have the economic luxury of choice in this, and that is too bad. Certifying them as “essential workers,” (which they have ALWAYS been, but not acknowledged as such by the public in the conventional meaning of the term) is only a way around forcing compliance and limiting liability for their safety. This is shameful.
For so long, teachers and schools have been pushed to the forefront of every social upheaval and movement, and have had to shoulder the burden of society’s expectations to “normalize.” From bussing for racial integration to redistricting for economic parity, schools have had to take on healthcare, with clinics in schools; we have taken on social welfare with counselors and psychologists; we have assumed nutrition with free lunch programs; and we tackled child care with before-school drop off and after-school programs. We used to joke in the high school where I taught that we might as well “adopt” our students — except it wasn’t entirely a joke.
Every social problem and solution is always tested out in the schools, and the covid virus is proving to be no exception. Except this time, the problem is almost entirely overshadowed with political “optics” of normalcy, of forced will, not of real concerns about health and safety and reason for students and communities. I am just appalled at all this.
Here’s what’s going to happen post-Covid: there will will be a tremendous shortage of teachers, at all levels, because so many of them are members of the baby-boom generation and, therefore, in a vulnerable group and on the brink of retirement. But also, even in this day and age, many teachers are women who are part of a two-income household, and so they don’t HAVE to do this, however much they love teaching. They love their students, but they love their families more. When districts start having sick-outs, strike-outs, and sudden resignations, then let’s see how many local politicians are willing to substitute in the classroom.
The upside of this pending disaster is that perhaps the nation will realize the importance of schools and teachers and decide to support our schools more strongly when all this is over, but who knows? It’s just like the post office: everyone takes it for granted until it is threatened.