class

Essential

I am supposed to be back on campus, with students in front of me, on August 11. I don’t think you need me to point out that that is less than a month away. I live in Texas, where the state education agency has mandated that all districts offer a full on-campus program (we are allowed to offer remote learning, but not required to). Texas, where our 7-day average for new cases is about 9200 as of July 12. That’s higher than Arizona (though not per capita) and only about 700 behind headline-hogging Florida. 

About ten days ago, the country collectively thought “hey, remember school? We used to send our kids there. We should send them there again.” The president weighed in, as usual, via Twitter and caps lock and his vice president saying the same things but in complete sentences without caps lock. People have opined in op-eds. Most teachers I know and many parents have posted about it on social media. 

“They’re gambling with our lives.”

“They’re asking us to be guinea pigs.”

“They only care about the economy.”

I’ll be reporting back to campus in three weeks. 

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April.

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April. In retail. In fast food. In health care when PPE was in shortage (as it is becoming again). Society responded with rounds of applause, with cartoons painting nurses and doctors and grocery store workers and delivery drivers as heroes. 

Then we handed them masks (sometimes, in some states), put up some plexiglass (in some places), and got on with things as best we could. 

No matter what I wish, I do not think that teachers will fare any better. 

We teachers have the idea that we belong to the professional class. By education and by cultural capital, we do. Many states require teachers to have master’s degrees within a certain number of years from beginning in the profession. Every state requires continuing education hours. Teachers spend a lot of time learning. (This is to say nothing of the learning that good teachers constantly undertake in their own classrooms.) 

What this crisis is driving home, what has been obvious for years, is that, in economic terms, teachers belong to the working class. (When was the last time you heard about a lawyer needing a part time job to keep bills paid?) We’re harder to replace than retail employees, sure, but if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder. “Skilled labor” is still labor. 

…if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder.

None of this is to say that our worries as teachers are meaningless. Nor is this post about encouraging us all to embrace our inner Marxist. I’ve just been struck by how many teachers’ complaints involve comparison to health care workers (and their salaries) and tacit assumptions that we’re somehow worth more (in some sense) than the essential workers who’ve been doing their essential work for the last four months. 

And our work is essential. The problem I’m seeing in a lot of the conversations about schools reopening is that they mistake how much of teachers’ essential work will actually happen on a socially distant campus. Skilled teaching involves tons of interaction. Even teaching high school seniors, I am generally moving around the classroom most of the period, monitoring students and their work, crouching down by desks to check in, and doing all sort of things that can’t be done effectively from six feet away. And many of those things are the ones that make the much-cited contribution to students’ mental health and security. I can’t imagine trying to teach elementary students from inside a six-foot (or even three-foot) bubble. Your groceries can be rung up from the other side of the plexiglass. Can you learn calculus that way? How much more effective is it going to be than just learning via screen? The best thing about having kids back on campus—and though tragic, it’s not a small thing—may well be that more of their parents will be able to pay rent. 

I have more anxiety than answers. There hasn’t been a waking hour in the last week in which I haven’t thought about how schools will reopen and the idiotically political discourse that’s sprung up around it. The risks are different than they are in retail. My naive hope that we’d be able to glean some lessons from schools reopening in Europe has gone out the window as case numbers have shot back up in Texas and around the country. Those reopenings were all undertaken in places where the spread of COVID had been slowed. The way things are going now, it’s a statistical certainty that students and at least some staff will be showing up to campus with the virus in their system. And schools are just being left to make do.

I’ll control what I can. I’ll get some masks with cool patterns, I guess. I will treat getting home like healthcare workers do: in through the garage, clothes into the wash, shower. I’ll do my job the best I can.

I am, after all, essential.