The Issue with Reopening Our Schools from the Perspective of a Teacher's Daughter

As our country faces an important decision in regards to whether or not schools will come back in session for all grades and to what degree A few days ago, both President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have been vocal about the adamant decision that they would be open to cutting funding for public schools if they choose not to reopen this coming fall. It is well known that in our country,  the education sector both at a national and state level is always one of the first things, if not the first, to receive budget cuts when it’s time to readjust the budget numbers. In my home state of Maine, over many years I have seen schools have to face the realities of their arts programs, after school programs, and other supplemental programs being cut year after year without taking into account how many students and parents these monetary decisions effect. 

This issue isn’t just one that is trending but one that is personal to me as- my mother has been a teacher in the Regional School Unit (RSU) 38 School District for almost 25 years., and suffered a vocal cord dysfunction a few years ago that could return if she is exposed to come into contact with COVID-19 with someone who is asymptomatic or symptomatic. This makes the threat of both a COVID-19 exposure and outbreak very real for not just my mother but my entire family. 

It is no secret that the lives of our public school teachers are hard enough as it is with the limited resources they are given, the consistent underpayment, and the little recognition they receive for the large roles they play in the lives of our country’s children. As I stated above,  our teachers are severely underpaid for the amount of work they do because their job goes beyond the role of a teacher in the classroom. They do not just teach our nation’s children but for some act as a maternal or paternal figure for kids who may not or do not have one at home due to the death of a family member, absentee parenting, neglect, and many other home situations of the like. Not only do teachers take on a more “parental figure” role- for all children, but they care for their students, offering physical comfort such as hugs, high fives and more as well as advice and guidance when students encounter problems and adversity in the classroom or in other school situations. On the other side of the classroom’s four walls and beyond the students, teachers deal with both the compliant and kind parents but also the verbally abusive parents who feel the need to blame any problem facing their child in the classroom setting on the teacher’s actions or lack thereof.  For example - there’s a disruption in class with their child? Must be the teacher’s fault for not stating rules clearly enough for the child to understand. Their child is bullying another student? Couldn’t be their son or daughter who instigated this horrible behavior, the teacher must have done something wrong for their child to act out in such an inappropriate and uncharacteristic manner. 

Secondly, public school teachers have so many professional expenses that come out of their own pockets because they are not given the adequate financial means to do so by either their school administrators, districts, or via state or federal government funding. Over the years, I received a multitude of pre-school letters with a list of classroom items the teachers asked their students to bring at the beginning of the year to aid in stocking the classroom with necessary supplies for all children so that those who can’t afford to purchase these back to school items on their own still have access to them. Things like tissues, disinfectant wipes, colored pencils, notebooks, binders, even something so relatively inexpensive and simple as pencils are added to these lists. With budgets already tight and teachers having to get resourceful in regards to budgeting and obtaining classroom supplies, teachers in these schools and districts cannot afford another potentially deep budget cut. 

Our public school teachers are already facing a number of questions that have no answers and have to think multiple steps ahead in anticipating behaviors of their children, parents and the degree in which their school will take COVID-19 seriously - whether it’s an overly cautious school action plan or one that doesn’t account for enough still remains to be seen as we enter our final six weeks of summer.  However that being said, imagine being a parent sending your child or children back to school this fall. This year, everything would look incredibly different compared to years prior which can take form in many different ways. Maybe recess would be cut shorter to limit contact on the playground and with shared playground equipment, physical education classes structured differently to account for class size and student contact - not surprisingly, even the size of your child’s class might be significantly different than previously to account for social distancing. 

Now, on top of new responsibilities our schools are facing with the return of students - think about how much the responsibility of your child’s teacher will increase.  What if a teacher was to get sick? Usually, a substitute teacher would opt-in and keep the class on track while the teacher recovers. However, what if the teacher doesn’t know how long they’ll be out because they either have COVID-19, are waiting on a test, or have something mimicking the symptoms? What if a student comes in coughing and sneezing with parents insisting that it's just allergies or asthma - do you send the child home to be safe costing them classroom time and their education or do you risk the chance of exposing other students to a possible COVID-19 case? There are not only so many questions and decisions facing our teachers but a number of scenarios they are being asked to account for that don’t have a clear cut and dry answer.

Teachers are also going to have to answer to and face many different types of parents who have handled COVID-19 differently in their houses. There will be overly cautious parents who haven’t had a case in their family because they “have been doing everything right” yet have concerns that the same precautions taken at home won’t be done so at school leading to their child contracting COVID-19. There are also families who reside with extended families such as elders or grandparents who may opt for their children to continue remote to limit exposure to those who are vulnerable in their households and need to be taken into account with their students returning to schools this fall. On the other side of this, there will be those parents who expect teachers to be diligent at every second of every hour their students are in their classroom blaming teachers for a table that wasn’t wiped down thoroughly or a student neglecting to wear their mask during the school day. In reality, COVID-19 is a very real threat and one that looms everywhere, even doing all you can to prevent exposure and an outbreak in your own home is not enough and to now put that expectation on our teachers in a school setting sets a dangerous expectation on top of all they already have to do with the return of their kids.

If a child contracts COVID-19 at their school, consider the situation with the parent who blames everything on the teacher. My child got sick? It’s the teacher’s fault for not wiping down the tables enough while the kids were out, or the fault of the custodial staff for not cleaning well enough. The responsibility of a teacher is no longer just to care for and teach the children of their community. Their responsibility is now to make sure their students are respecting social distancing, following rules of bathroom usage, mask-wearing in class, among a host of other issues. 

Teachers have faced decisions made out of clear disregard at a local, state, and federal government level that have taken the form of shrunken budgets and contract battles for too long - a mandate to reopen schools continues that disregard. If these school administrators and district schools make the decision to remain closed and transfer to remote learning for the initial portion of this next school year, they should not face budget cuts while acting in both the best interests of their students and teachers. Although it may seem easy to transfer a lesson plan from live to online, the effort of running a classroom entirely online is exhausting, and of course, is not ideal as learning is meant to be in-person and hands-on for both teacher and student. 

Both my mother and my boyfriend’s mother are teachers and I have watched them spend hours and hours trying to keep a class of young children’s attention over a Zoom call while trying to educate them in tandem with that - as you can imagine, that’s a nearly impossible task. Yet at the end of the day, no matter how much the job changes or on what platform and in what setting, these are still our teachers and still hold the important role to - prepare these young kids for middle and high school, and eventually the rest of their lives. With continuous changes of the classroom setting and the question to now place a monetary value on children’s lives in order to keep our schools afloat, we can only ask them to continue to - do what’s best for the kids they love so much and who will continue to need their support, education and guidance moving forward in these uncertain times. 

I want to conclude by stating to Betsy DeVos that the lives of our students and teachers, one of these lives being my mom’s, are not expendable and do not have a price tag. Budget cuts can continue to be made in our schools but at the end of the day, it’s not about the money for our teachers. It is known in all professional circles that those who are teachers are not paid enough and by translation, are not in this career for the money,  those who  become teachers do so to not only educate and shape the young minds who will become our next societal generations but because they want to make an impact on the kids they are given year after year. Aside from parents, children see teachers almost as much which results in teachers holding an important and large presence in the raising of children and if we are to force our teachers to go back to school under unsafe and uncertain conditions, we are only taking away from the heart of their profession which is what created driven, passionate and educated students like you and me.