school reopening

Nobody

“Nobody’s talking about…”
“Nobody’s considering the needs of…”
“Nobody seems to understand that…”

An empty stool in a corner
Who is listening to me?

I’ve been seeing these all week in social media and comments sections. (FSM help me, I cannot look away from this coronavirus in schools train wreck, even though I am definitely inside the train with most of you.) The statements inevitably conclude with something about the speaker’s position. Teachers complain that nobody is thinking about them. Working parents complain that nobody is thinking about them

I can guarantee you, though, that pretty close to every teacher has thought about the parents of their students. I can’t make the same promises about every parent, but I’m guessing many, probably most, have at least a glimmer of sympathy for the position teachers are being put in. (There are always going to be people who have wild misapprehensions about how much work teaching is and how much skill it requires, and yeah, I’ve seen those posts, too.)

The “nobody” you’re looking for? It’s much of our leadership. It’s the machinery of our society. In some cases it’s been willfully blind to problems, in others the blindness has become baked into the system. 

Here are some truths:

People are going to die. Teachers have already died on the job. (See for example this story about summer school teachers in Arizona.) Eventually, students are going to die, too. It’s a “when,” not an “if.”

Having students on campus is not going to magically return education to normal. There will be an awful lot that teachers won’t be able to do in a socially distant classroom. For younger students, especially, it may be more psychologically challenging than remote learning. (Try to put yourselves in the shoes of an eight year old who goes back to school and has to wear a mask and stay in the same seat and not borrow things from their friends and have limited specials and even recess is probably messed up and different.)

Households are going to splinter. Families are juggling irreconcilable obligations at enormous costs in time, money, and stress. There aren’t signs it’s going to end soon. That stress isn’t just going to vanish into the air. That’s ongoing harm that is going to have consequences sooner and later. 

Remote learning is still going to suck, although it will not be the crisis schooling of last spring. Teachers have had time to reflect and prepare. We’ll do better, but there’s only so much our public education resources allow us to level the technological playing field for students (never mind what’s going on with their families).

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die.

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die. There’s a reason we use the phrase “it’s a matter of life and death” to mean “this is the most important thing.” It’s literal this time. How many deaths are we willing to accept? What is it going to look like when the first school-based outbreak hits the U.S.? Are we going to respond by shutting everything down again? How much are we willing to sacrifice to push that chance of death down as close to zero as we can get it?

Reduced to absurdity, that line of thinking has all of us who are able living in well-supplied bunkers and never going out. Can’t get into a car wreck that way. Can’t get struck by lightning if you’re underground. Can’t catch a disease you’re never exposed to. 

Equally reductive is this idea that we’re going to wave our flags and show off our best mask-free smiles and just try not to keep asking for time off for funerals while everything is going back to normal. (I’m intentionally ignoring both the “it’s in God’s hands” and “it’s all a hoax” camps. Fight me.)

Most people want something between those. We’re pondering, talking about, often shouting about where we think we should be between those two poles. When somebody’s prioritizing different things, it becomes easy to say “nobody thinks about me.” But it misses the point. 

I know we’ve nearly lost it in digressions, but the real point is this: we’re not set up for a public health crisis that’s also an economic crisis that’s also a political crisis. That “nobody is talking about my side” problem is the confluence of all sorts of things in the discourse (yes, I went there. Grad school never completely wears off) that push us towards binary antagonism. 

We don’t have effective mechanisms for keeping people at home and letting them keep their homes (and food and utilities and jobs). That is true even when everything is morning in America: our social safety net is made of twine and pipe cleaners. (And that bolstered unemployment from the CARES act? It’s about to run out.) Our society is predicated on people exchanging their time and labor for money. Think about how many of us identify by our jobs

Our leadership has failed. Not universally. Not completely. To say that this was all avoidable does not return the spilt milk to its bottle. There has been too much magical thinking. There has been too much concern with how the news affects politics. Too many of us have viewed our leaders through the lenses we’ve built up over the years, positive and negative. 

On the education side, we’re asked to be inventive, original, engaging…and meet our testing targets. Bureaucracy cannot help but move slowly. I love my district. My principal is the best boss I’ve had, and every AP has teachers’ backs while also being deeply concerned with the students. And despite that, we don’t know what things will look like in September. We’re not entirely sure what things are going to look like for our scheduled return in a matter of weeks. And why is that? Because we’re dealing with a combination of vague guidance and strict mandates from the state. Because we’re not sure what the county COVID-19 testing numbers are going to look like next week. I am lucky to be in a district that’s grown so much that the buildings are all pretty new, but is small enough that we’re not having to balance poor campuses against wealthier ones as the central office works out policies. And I’m still anxious about the limits of what our district can do. 

And that brings us to the ultimate point here: The “nobody” that’s talking about the things you care about is the same one that’s coming to save you. Nobody. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody is coming to save us. Whatever combination of panic, frustration, and fury we’re feeling about reopening schools in our coronavirus world is a symptom, not the disease. If we want to change it, we have to try and push our broken systems into a better shape. That’s a matter of consultation and economics and politics…which I hope we are all better understanding are matters of life and death for an awful lot of us. 

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.