Editor’s Note: Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher and freelance writer whose work has appeared on CNN, in USA Today, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @ElanaRabinowitz. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I am a public school teacher and I don’t want to die. As the question of whether and how to reopen schools in the fall intensifies, with parents and especially politicians expressing their opinions, I want to ask: Has anyone asked what we want to do in the fall?
For some schools, particularly in the South and West, “this fall” means a school year that usually starts a few short weeks from now, in August. I am an ESL teacher in New York City, where the school year starts a bit later, but that extra time won’t mean much if teachers and staff aren’t consulted about how to feel safe – or provided with the necessary support and supplies to be as careful as possible in preventing the spread of Covid-19.
This spring, after a controversial delay in closing schools, too many teachers and education department employees died of Covid-related illnesses. According to Chalkbeat, which covers education, more than 75 education department employees in New York City – teachers, teachers’ aides, administrators, office employees, food service workers and others – have died in the pandemic. I love my students, but I don’t want to be next.
We want to be there for the kids, especially now. But who will be there for us – the educators? The ones who, along with other school staff, are literally being asked to risk our lives so the economy could go back to normal?
My own community is in a process of reopening, but states across the nation are experiencing surges in cases and a strain on medical resources – and some are returning to a more locked-down approach. As school boards here and elsewhere scramble to come up with a plan for returning to school this fall, and as President Donald Trump and his administration are starting to apply forceful political and funding-contingent pressure to states to open their schools for in-person instruction, one voice glaringly left out of the conversation with public officials has been the teachers’.
With a fiscal crisis upon us, once again teachers are being called on to make things right. The essential educators of your children are being drafted – willingly or not – to serve during this pandemic. No matter where you live, why not ask a pool of educators for their ideas? Here’s mine: combine a limited in-person curriculum with online learning and stop pretending that there is a one-size-fits-all solution that will work for an entire state, much less the entire country.
First off, yes, students need to return to school in person in some way, especially the little ones. You cannot have a meaningful connection with your teacher if you’ve never met them in person and those face to face connections are irreplaceable. This might mean having staggered in-person orientations of classes and not returning to the classroom until teachers and students feel ready. Some school days must be virtual.
Schools that are already overcrowded cannot simply have classes in the cafeteria and gymnasium to allow for social distancing. Other facilities will need to be used if in-person teaching is adopted. Federally funded buildings such as libraries, community centers and unused government office buildings are potential alternatives to allow for students to have additional room. They can also be spaces to provide activities or childcare for students when they are not in school.
These changes need to be made before school starts. In addition, we cannot return without the necessary supplies, facilities and health care workers in place. Some students (and teachers) are traumatized by the dislocation and perhaps personal losses from the pandemic and will also need additional support before even attempting to return to a classroom. Mindfulness and meditation should be part of the curriculum.
No one should be able to enter a school without having their temperature taken. Masks and hand sanitizer need to be provided, something that seems obvious but can’t just be taken for granted in a system where teachers and parents often have to donate their own money for basic supplies.
Will teachers have to use their own money to ensure their own safety and that of others?
Meanwhile, not all changes are necessarily bad. Why not make this school year a time to assign more books written by Black Americans and other people of color? A post-Covid-19 classroom, in person and online, must surely invite discussion of Black Lives Matter; the protests have affected children and their parents and of course, the ravages of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on Black and brown Americans.
The bottom line is that each school within each district will have to come up with what works best for them – this cannot be another top-down decision but a matter of working within the local communities to see what fits best. What schools need from the top is support, flexibility and money – not control. Just as cities are working to restructure police departments to include community input, we need to redesign schools to include the valuable insight that only classroom teachers can provide.
For example, students with special needs will need more structure and hands-on time than other students. For some, it will be a split session, for others alternating days or weeks to ensure that students have face time (and not FaceTime) with their peers. But I know firsthand that schools are notoriously difficult places to control. As a middle school teacher, I am concerned about potential behavior problems associated with masks and social distance. What protocols will be in place when kids’ hormones eventually lead to fights and heated arguments? There are so many unanswered questions.
I understand that we are all desperate to go back to normal. But there is no normal anymore. The rules that were once in place no longer apply. We as teachers love your kids, but they are not ours, although we often think of them that way. Small children need love and affection and teachers simply cannot have them sit on their laps and make everything all right. We can’t wipe their noses or hug them, and we can’t provide for our own families if we are afraid and anxiety-ridden every day of the school year.
Perhaps the new normal means thinking of teachers in a new light. The parents among you have all had a glimpse these last few months of what our job entails. If you want us to continue doing it, it’s time for you and your elected officials to work with us to ensure that we are as safe and comfortable at school as you hope your children to be.