In moments like these, I can’t help but retrace my steps. How did I get here? What was the series of incidents that have led me to this very moment in time? How did I find myself in the midst of a global pandemic and the collective anguish of teachers who, yet again, are having to scream and shout in order to get administrators and governors across the country to hear us?
After all, it was just a few months ago that celebrities and influencers were posting flippant memes about how invaluable teachers were; that we should be paid triple our salaries; that they finally saw just how nuanced and complex our jobs were.
In a matter of months, it seems, we have completely flipped the script. We’ve gone from putting teachers on pedestals for, once again, making the best of an impossible situation, to demonizing them for wanting to teach from home, take care of their families, and actually help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Don’t you think we want to leave our homes? Don’t you think we miss the smiles and hugs? Do you realize just how challenging it is to teach remotely and still reach our students? Do you understand how many more barriers there are when teaching through a screen?
Still, though, teachers across the country are advocating to stay home. We are advocating for teaching that is more challenging than it would be in person. And why is that? Well, consider this.
Imagine, just for a moment, what school is going to be like when we return. Desks will be arranged in neat rows throughout the classroom or turned towards the walls. Children will be arriving to school, masked, having to efficiently put their bags and backpacks away without the opportunity for serendipitous conversation in the hallways. They will walk down these same hallways in their usual lines, only to be spaced six feet apart, spanning the length of half a football field.
When they get up to take a body break or go to the bathroom, we will all be left wondering if, in fact, they washed their hands and how close in contact they came with peers from other cohorts in the process. They will drop crayons and markers on the floors, and other students will pick them up in good conscience, forgetting that they are not supposed to share supplies.
They will have playdates behind the scenes, their families will go out to dinner at restaurants that are not respecting guidelines, and they will have family barbecues and parties that neither respect social distancing nor take the proper precautions to mitigate the spread of infection–ultimately making this choice on behalf of an entire class-worth of families who are unaware and do not consent to these extracurricular activities.
And teachers will be susceptible to and in direct contact with all of it. Now I know you might be thinking, but there are a lot places where this is the case. Hospitals are open, and as a result, nurses and doctors are required to go to work each and every day. And that’s true. All of that is true. But the fact remains that hospitals have rigid protocols, rigorous training, and more consistent access to medical grade PPE than schools will.
In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 states, “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protections against unemployment.”
“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protections against unemployment.”
–Article 23, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
For decades, teachers have been challenging the unjust and unfavorable conditions to which teachers have been subjected. Millions of voices have risen up to demand changes, only to be met with incremental change. The pre-existing and self-evident fact that teachers across the country have to work multiple jobs to make ends-meet is unjust and a human rights violation in and of itself. But now the stark reality that many teachers are being asked to choose between their safety and their jobs is perhaps one of the most egregious acts of human rights atrocities against teachers in history.
I know all of the counterpoints. I’ve heard them already, so please do not leave them in the comments. I know there are children that live in homes that are unsafe. I know that from personal childhood experience. But I also know that there are countless children who are less safe in schools that weaponize curriculum and pedagogy to control them. For every point you make for “reopening” our schools, I can likely provide you a complementary and symmetrical counterpoint for keeping our schools remote for the foreseeable future (Note: Schools were never “closed” in the first place. We worked a full year.).
And that’s not the point here. I’m not here to debate you, and I’m certainly not here to debate my humanity.
The only things that are currently clear to me is just how unclear our future is and how little we know about this virus. New information comes out every day, adding nuance and complexity to the realities of reopening. We are not prepared for this. We are not prepared for the stark reality that one of our students in our classes could die. We are not prepared for the heartbreaking potential that one of our colleagues could fall ill, lose their life, or be impaired for the remainder of their days. We are not prepared for the trauma that will ensue when entire classes have to be quarantined for weeks on end because someone in their class got sick, forcing families to then grapple with the very same questions that teachers are wondering: have I put too much trust in institutions who seem to be more guided by economic demand than the health and safety of my children?
God, I am so proud to be a teacher. We are so strong, we are so resilient, and if 2020 has taught me anything, it has taught me that we truly are the glue that holds our entire country together. But we cannot let this messaging turn us into saviors or martyrs. Our country does this by design. They put us up on these proverbial pedestals, as they did in late March and early April, to offer us validation, to ease us into even greater flexibility hoping that they can get just a little bit more out of us before we break.
We can’t let them do this. We must relentlessly reiterate that our lives are more valuable than the systems and companies they believe will be impacted by schools staying closed (Spoiler alert: lots of companies figured out how to have their employees work from home, and it went better than expected.). We must continue to advocate that Congress provide financial assistance to parents who’ve lost jobs or who need to stay home and take care of their kids, much like they would provide funds to caregivers of adults with cognitive disabilities. We must call our entire county to action, requesting that parents and community stakeholders stand with us and validate the value that we bring to our communities. They must be willing to shout with us, on our behalf, that we, teachers, are not expendable.
But most of all, we must rise up in collective voice, and remind anyone and everyone who has ever benefited from our school system that teachers’ rights are human rights–once and for all.