Editor’s Note: Alexandra Robbins is an education reporter and the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestseller “The Nurses.” She is currently at work on a book about K-12 teachers. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Julie Davis, 49, was an inspirational third grade teacher, a “mother to everyone,” who attended her students’ extracurriculars and donated to children in need. About three weeks after a student at her North Carolina school tested positive for Covid-19, Davis fell ill. This mother and grandmother died certain, her brother said, that she caught the virus at school (an assessment the superintendent said was unproven). One week after Davis’s death, her school system shifted to virtual instruction because of rampant Covid-19 infections in the schools and community.
Amid growing numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths, I’ve spoken to educators who told me they’re afraid for their lives and the health of their loved ones. Meanwhile, some organized groups of parents are issuing increasingly forceful calls to reopen schools. But too many of them neglect the teachers.
This neglect fits a pattern. In March, some districts initially failed to heed teachers’ pleas to close, forcing them to keep working in person; at least 70 school-based staff died in New York City alone, though it’s unclear whether they contracted the disease in schools. In a statement emailed to New York City outlet THE CITY in response to questions in May about how the Department of Education had handled the situation, a spokeswoman said that DOE’s practice was to “immediately” notify school communities about Covid cases confirmed by the state Department of Health and added, “All our decisions are informed by public health experts in order to protect the health and safety of our students and staff.” In the summer, some decision makers excluded teachers from discussions about how to operate pandemic classrooms. And now, many parents and pundits alike are ignoring teachers again.
America faces a dissonant, pivotal moment this holiday season. The death toll from the pandemic has crossed yet another harrowing threshold and some cities are curtailing indoor dining and increasing Covid-related restrictions on other parts of daily life. At the same time, vaccine doses are rolling out and health care workers are rolling up their sleeves to receive them. It’s a moment when so many of us have to sit with that conflict – and when everyone needs to be heard.
Discussions about schools reopening or remaining open must not overlook teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, school nurses, resource specialists and other staff. The callous disregard in some places for educators and staff – the failure to see them as people with loved ones and lives outside the classroom – has been distressing for teachers and eye-opening for the parents who support them. Like the more than 300,000 souls fallen to the virus in this country, educators should not be reduced to statistics.
They also should not be viewed as sacrifices. Ordering teachers to risk their lives and/or health by teaching physically in schools for the good of the community recalls to me Trump ally Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s vile implication, when he said “those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country,” that – as the Washington Post put it – “older Americans should sacrifice their lives (to Covid-19) for the sake of the economy.”
Here are the actual statistics, as of this writing: A December 11 CDC weekly Covid survey reported that more than 16% of tested school-aged children (ages 5-17) were Covid positive, a higher rate than every other age group.
As of earlier this month, since August 5, more than 110 active K-12 teachers, administrators and staff have died from Covid-19, according to EdWeek and other online media reports. These figures don’t include complete counts from districts that don’t share data, educators who survived with lingering Covid-related health issues – a result for many who contract the disease – or loved ones who caught the virus from them and died.
Some of those lost include Arkansas fourth grade teacher Susanne Michael, 47, who had just adopted a former student and her young siblings; Texas high school science teacher Erick Ortiz, 52, a father of three; Michigan paraprofessional Michelle McCrackin, 53, a strong advocate for her community; and Tennessee elementary school teaching assistant Joyce Parker, 59, known for her compassion. While it’s not clear they contracted the virus at school, all of them were teaching in school buildings, and McCrackin’s small district was in the midst of an outbreak. When asked about whether these educators were exposed to the virus at school, both Michael’s and Ortiz’s school districts directed me to previously published media statements extending their condolences but did not address the cause of death or mention the virus. McCrackin’s and Parker’s district offices did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But too many people who push for schools to reopen or stay open ignore teachers or blame them for their own frustrations. A San Diego, California parent reopening group’s petition doesn’t once mention teachers. A Fairfax, Virginia, parent reopening group responded to an excerpt of a frightened teacher’s post with comments such as “If you are too afraid, don’t teach” and “What a selfish LOSER!” A Washington State group suggested that students are the most important stakeholders in education. Parents in a Montgomery County, Maryland, reopening group posted a Facebook thread earlier this month that included the statements “This whole thing is literally making me hate public school teachers,” “(Teachers) are working hard to make themselves irrelevant,” and accusations that teachers “got a little too comfortable working from home” and are “an aloof entitled group.”
Often the parents in these groups demanding reopening seem to be privileged and some purport to be speaking on behalf of minority communities. But reports – and some experts – say that minority and low-income communities disagree with those self-appointed spokespeople.
“We’re seeing in municipality after municipality, schools reopen with the idea of equity and, repeatedly, minority students are returning to schools at the lowest rates,” maternal and child health epidemiologist Theresa Chapple told me. “Black and brown communities have experienced the brunt of the virus and therefore are limiting family exposure. Black and brown families are more likely to live in multigenerational homes. For my children to go to school, dropoff would happen between parents, pickup between grandparents. It’s not as simple as sending a child to school.”
Can schools in some rules-abiding communities reopen safely? Possibly, depending on their resources. But educators shouldn’t be unwilling guinea pigs. While one district’s parents might be considerate and careful, another’s might engage in risky behavior that could increase students’ chance of infection – and spread to classmates and staff – such as attending crowded gatherings with maskless attendees, as Oregon parents did at a reopening rally. Some parents might knowingly send a Covid positive child to school (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oklahoma) or medicate fevered children or use other strategies to send sick kids to school, as many parents did before the pandemic. These parents are neglecting the teachers.
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The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in July that one in four teachers – nearly 1.5 million educators – have preexisting conditions increasing their risk of serious illness from Covid-19. Countless others live with immunocompromised loved ones. Yet some school boards have been voting to force educators to teach in person even as their own board meetings are conducted online.
Some districts are already bringing students into the buildings without demanding that teachers join them. Free remote learning centers and tutoring for low-income families, both facilitated by professionals who want to work in-person, are a start. Some teachers are ready to work in person at reopened schools, too, and that’s fine, if that’s their choice.
Currently, too many educators don’t have the choices they need, including to teach online only. Virtual education isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s an option teachers must have. Decision makers, school boards and parents cannot neglect the teachers – the heart of education – who are working harder than ever during this unprecedented time. Teachers deserve our gratitude. They don’t deserve to die.