Teachers Are Not Your Canaries

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If You Weren’t Afraid to Send Your Kids Back to School, DeVos’ Disastrous Interview Might Change That (Rolling Stone)
‘Scared for my life,’ but needing a salary: Teachers weigh risks as COVID-19 looms (USA Today via MSN)

In researching the history of education in America for my next book, I’m constantly struck by how so many of the battles being fought today are similar to ones being fought decades, or even a century, ago. From big corporations trying to force their ideas of “appropriate subject material” on schools, to instructors being starved while football coaches get paid exorbitant salaries, it can sometimes feel like these battles have been waged non-stop since before even my grandparents were born. Particulars of these fights change with the times — no one had to worry about rural broadband Internet access during the Spanish Flu pandemic — but the more I research, the more similarities I find between the American educational landscapes of a hundred years ago and today.

The constant disrespect that teachers get in this country is one theme that doesn’t seem to vary much from decade to decade. Although instructors’ lots have waxed and waned as various political winds have blown across this land, there’s always been a rather sizable contingent of Americans eager to heap scorn on teachers for every imaginable deficiency they perceive in their children, their communities, and even their country. At least there used to be a sizable contingent of one major political party that would at least give some lip service to the value of teachers to our country, but even that fell out of vogue in the past decade. More on that later.

As the past few weeks have made clear, America will be nowhere close to the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic when the traditional start of the school year comes up in the next couple of months; if anything, the combination of rising cases and diminishing government response is leading me to believe that matters will be worse at the start of September than they are right now. Even if this country were to get its collective act together to stop the spread of COVID-19 right now — a delusional dream of a scenario, given how the pandemic has heightened the willful ignorance and conscientious stupidity of so many Americans — the trajectories of the countries that took the pandemic seriously from its beginning, even though they never had as many confirmed cases as America has right now, indicate that we’d be lucky to have the pandemic truly under control by the end of the year, let alone the end of summer. That doesn’t even take into account the possibility of COVID-19 mutating when the viruses of the upcoming flu season start getting into the air as well.

In the midst of all this, one Republican governor was so absurd to state that if big-box home improvement stores in his state can open, then so can schools. I’ve been in home improvement stores maybe a dozen times over the past twenty years, and I’m fairly certain that in all that time, I was never closer than ten feet to anyone but the cashiers there. The idea that grade school children should be expected to practice pandemic levels of social distancing at any time, let alone after six months of having their normal youthful activities disrupted by the pandemic, would be laughable if it weren’t so deadly. Even though the combination of the pandemic and my research has allowed me to indulge my hermitic tendencies like never before, I’m still finding myself yearning for a face-to-face conversation sometimes; does anyone honestly expect that young children, most of whom will have been cooped up in their houses over summer break unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, will be able to cope with the dual rigors of school and pandemic preventions in two months?

For all the misanthropic right-wing politicians making these decisions right now, of course, that’s not their problem. It’s never their problem. They’ve usually never had the slightest whit of education in how teachers do their work, and the conditions that teachers do that work in, but they still feel like they can tell teachers what to do and have teachers sort it out. From 94% of teachers dipping into their already-paltry wages to buy necessary school supplies for their students, to having to teach in buildings that are literally falling apart around them, to curriculum mandates that would have been unimaginable to even the robber barons of a century ago, teachers have long been the principal scapegoats for a large number of Republicans. That’s become increasingly true of many Democrats as well, who refuse to tackle the problems of systemic poverty and discrimination that are the primary cause of so many young people being unable to receive a quality education, and instead fire teachers and close public schools in an effort to put — and I can’t even type these words without bile rising in my throat — “students first.”

It’s the easiest thing in the world to cloak yourself in a mantle like that, to claim that anything you do is for the benefit of the less fortunate, and that’s exactly what is happening now with the calls by Betsy DeVos and other right-wingers that “children need to be back in school” in the fall. No one is denying that reopening our schools needs to be a top priority; the socializing aspect of schools may be just as important for the development of young people as the academic skills they learn there, at least as long as the school works to eliminate bullying and other detrimental social factors. (I wouldn’t know anything about that.) To reopen schools in the middle of a pandemic, though — especially one that is right now, in every sense of the phrase, out of control — is the height of irresponsibility. Even if children are less likely to become gravely sick as a result of COVID-19 than older people are, there have already been far too many American children who have died as a result of this pandemic, and that doesn’t even take into account how children could contract the virus at school and then pass it on to family members and other adults around them, including the adults they’d be closest to at school: Their teachers.

This all may be precisely the point of this push by Republicans and their ilk to rush to reopen schools. Ignoring the large number of teachers who may quit their jobs out of a basic sense of self-preservation, many parents are likely to pull their children out of public schools that are forced to reopen instead of going back to online learning at the start of the upcoming school year. The more children who are pulled out of a public school, the less taxpayer money that school gets, and the more likely it will be forced to close. People like DeVos and her ilk don’t exactly do much to hide the fact that they want to privatize education as much as possible, and if that’s their goal, then they’d be foolish not to see this pandemic for the opportunity it provides them to gut public schools even more.

As important as education is, reopening American schools in the midst of a raging pandemic is absurdly dangerous, not just to the students and all the people who work at schools, but everyone who might come into close contact with any of those people at a gas station or a grocery store, which is pretty much all of us. American teachers have been forced to fix problems they’re incapable of fixing for far too long now, and making them teach in-person classes during a pandemic would compound that problem exponentially. Teachers can’t do their jobs until the people responsible for running this country start doing their jobs, and make this country safe from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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