When I began teaching in 2006, I never imagined I’d be calling on students to share their journal entries while pouring bowls of cereal for my own children.
In the last months of remote learning this spring, no matter how I set them up before my classes started, my 5- and 7-year-old daughters would inevitably make their way over to my computer screen, watching and listening as my class of ninth graders read from those journal entries or participated in discussions.
But while teaching from home with children at home was an enormous challenge, it pales in comparison to what seems to be coming.
Now, as districts begin to unveil plans to reopen schools in September — in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis — parents everywhere are being forced to make decisions so difficult that no answer seems right.
Here’s one thing we’ve recently learned as a society, during this pandemic: The economy depends on working parents, and working parents depend on schools. A big question remains: schools, teachers, students ― who can we depend on?
The discussions of school reopening seem to consider everyone but teachers and school staff. I turn on CNN to find Betsy DeVos repeating the fact that children contract the virus at lower rates than adults. But we cannot talk about schools without talking about the adults who run the schools, teach at the schools and clean the schools, not to mention our cafeteria workers, bus drivers, our paraprofessionals, our related service providers and our administrative staff.
Of course we understand that working parents need to be able to go to work, but working teachers and other school staff also want to survive to make it home.
As teachers, our job is based on our ability to plan. Yet no one is making a plan to keep us safe.
I’ve known schools were in trouble since I started teaching. First-year teachers have the most trouble, because they are not used to the dysfunction, not used to having to make a recipe without the ingredients needed. I often find myself mentoring new teachers and helping them through this, sitting in a staff lounge as they cry over marker-stained hands. It’s a hard thing to realize, I tell them, they don’t give us enough to succeed. You just have to do the best you can.
“This” refers to things like supplies, or time, or a classroom where students can fit. And then there’s everything they give us too much of: paperwork, varying skill levels within the same classroom, living breathing students with needs that exceed every ounce of what we can give them.
The dysfunction and lack of support for our schools has always been there. But now, as schools consider their reopening plans for fall, it’s being brought to light like never before.
Given guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we know it’s not safe for schools to resume business as usual. Social distancing guidelines have to be adhered to. In New York City, where I teach, this means classes split into two or three groups that will meet on rotating schedules on alternating days.
But even with fewer students in the room at a time, how will teachers make sure that kids stay apart? That they keep wearing their masks? How will we pass out papers and pencils to kids who have forgotten them, or help students who need close-contact, one-on-one support?
What will happen when a suddenly sick child vomits in the center of the classroom? Who will bring him or her to the nurse, who will clean up? Indoor dining has been deemed unsafe, yet students will be eating inside classrooms and buildings together.
My classroom windows only open a matter of inches, so how can we talk about proper ventilation? My heater already doesn’t work part of the winter ― kids sit shivering in jackets on days that it doesn’t kick on. What will that be like with windows open all year, even cracked?
Who will be footing the bill when the hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes runs out? How many weeks will it be until the soap dispensers are filled with water? Teachers have always felt pressured to make up for the inevitable shortages of supplies and materials themselves, but now it will be life or death.
Temperature checks will be needed, as will extensive cleaning and more nurse support — many schools don’t have a nurse on the premises at all. We have an already-breaking school system, and now the COVID-19 crisis is stepping on its back.
Surely, our city leaders — who emphasize over and over the importance of our schools opening in order to not fall into economic collapse ― understand this and are planning to help. Someone, somewhere must be planning to help, right?
Not the federal government, which has instead repeatedly threatened to cut funding. Not the mayor of New York City, who just approved a $404 million budget cut to our school system — the same mayor who twiddled his thumbs for weeks instead of making the right decision to close our schools when community spread of COVID began in early March, which ultimately killed 70 teachers in the following month, and sickened thousands of others. Not the chancellor of the city’s Department of Education, who announced the new system for alternating schedules without any mention of child care options for children when they are not in the classroom.
In fact, there has been no mention at all about child care support. What are the options for parents like me, who have our own children in school? How will we manage their alternating schedules while we are expected to report to work every day?
Teachers will be asked to do the impossible this September: teach in person, masked and managing the safety of the students in front of them, without the supplies and ventilation and space and support we need, and at the same time, we will be expected to provide remote instruction to the students who are not in front of us.
And our own children? Where will they be? On the days they are not in the classroom, who will care for them?
What will I do? How can I do this?
I don’t think I can, and I know many of my colleagues feel the same.
Why isn’t the whole country fighting to fund education, when corporations are receiving billion-dollar bailouts? We need schools more than ever, so we need to act like it. Respect them. Care for them. Fund them.
For years, society has been able to sweep the dysfunction of our school systems under the rug — treating teachers as martyrs and “heroes” who like to work with the impossible and make magic out of a mess. Well, we aren’t martyrs and we aren’t heroes and we don’t want to be seen that way. We are human beings who love our students, and we want to teach them with everything we have, short of risking our own well-being, our own health, our own sanity and our own lives.
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