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Teachers Are Scared to Go Back to School. Will They Strike? (Education Week)

We don’t talk about school shootings enough. It’s bad enough that this country has gotten to the point where even a school shooting with multiple deaths may no longer merit the briefest of mentions on the evening news, but what’s worse is how those people devoted to destroying public education silently use these tragedies to their advantage. Even if growing waves of school shootings might not penetrate the broader American consciousness that deeply, they still provide good fodder for some people to talk their friends and community members into pulling their children out of those public schools. Any school could be the next site of a shooting, so isn’t it just better to homeschool all your kids, and just incidentally further cripple those schools’ abilities to provide a safe and quality education for the children who still go there? (Either that, or the shootings are used to justify turning public schools into authoritarian hellholes by loading them up with “security” officers.)

These shootings happen on college and university campuses as well, and while I might not necessarily think about the possibility of a shooting every day of a semester, I do think about them a lot. As much as I value face-to-face interaction with my schools, and I’ve always taught my classes in-person whenever possible, I’d be doing a disservice to my students if I didn’t consider the risk, however small it is, that I’m asking them to take when they come to my classroom. For all the talk about the conveniences of online coursework, a lot of students feel a palpable sense of safety from taking all their classes online. Although that security doesn’t outweigh the other benefits of going to college campuses for a lot of those students (such as the social aspects of education and college life that can’t be fully replicated online), there are a growing number of students who just don’t want to take in-person classes unless they absolutely can’t help it, whether because of safety concerns or the pandemic or what have you, and those of us who work in education need to respect those students’ wishes. They’re certainly well-founded.

I’m about to start my third year of teaching here in Wisconsin — tomorrow is the second anniversary of me getting the job offer to come here — and I’ve certainly had my share of ups and downs in that time. This is the first new teaching assignment I started after Mom’s passing, and as often as I get sad when I think about that, I can’t deny that there is a certain measure of freedom I now have that wasn’t there when I was still living in Toledo, helping her through her final years. Lately, though, that freedom has started to feel much less like a blessing, and more like a curse.

The entire University of Wisconsin System moved to online-only education last spring after the pandemic started, and all the people in charge of our campuses and universities continue to agonize over the right way to reopen our campuses and resume our work — educational and otherwise — in the best way possible. When we instructors were asked to express our preferences for in-person or online classes for this coming semester, I agonized over that decision for weeks, because as much as I value the benefits of in-person classes, I couldn’t ask my students to take the risk of getting COVID-19 by coming into an enclosed physical space with me and the other students in the class. My English classes this autumn will all be held online, and I’ve spent a good part of the past three months preparing myself to teach the best possible classes I can teach under these circumstances.

As I’ve been doing this, though, there’s been a thought that’s kept creeping into my head: This is a small campus, and I’m the only English instructor here who doesn’t have kids. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a spouse. I’m fairly certain that I’m the only one whose parents are both dead. If there are going to be in-person English classes here during the pandemic, then it feels like I should be the one to teach them, since fewer people stand to lose something if I were to contract COVID-19 and die. That’s such a morbid thought to have, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

The thing is, back when Mom was still alive, I was still having those thoughts about what would happen if I were to die on campus, just because of the rise of school shootings in recent years. These are calculations that I’ve made before, and maybe some of the variables have changed, but the same basic principles are still there, and while there will never be any kind of important task that’s completely free of risk, having to think about these things is still a sordid burden.

As teachers across this country continue to struggle with their own rights and responsibilities when it comes to their schools possibly reopening in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, they are all dealing with the same underlying problems. I have neither the time nor the inclination to get into a prolonged argument about guns in America, but regardless of people’s feelings about school shootings, I think there’s a fairly widespread belief that the people in charge of trying to ameliorate the problems of gun violence on campuses haven’t done nearly enough to try to solve those problems. Especially when it comes to politicians, many of them have basically done nothing at all, and give off the impression that they don’t think there even is a problem.

With each passing week, it becomes more and more clear that far too many of those same politicians also believe that the pandemic isn’t really a problem either. We just crossed five million confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in America, and the total number of cases in this county has gone up nearly 250% in the past thirty days. Four years after four deaths at an American consulate at Libya was a neverending scandal at the forefront of a presidential election, the deaths of over 160,000 Americans as a result of the pandemic (so far) is not only meriting a mere fraction of the outrage and news coverage, but politicians are actively trying to push that number out of the headlines in an attempt to make way for the trickle of “good news” that they think they can take credit for. Not surprisingly, these are often the same people trying to undermine public education by every means at their disposal.

For those on the front lines, the burden of these problems, on top of doing work that is incredibly difficult under even the best of circumstances, is rapidly becoming too much to bear. As more schools attempt to reopen this month and next, the question isn’t going to be when teachers start to strike. The question will be why they didn’t do it sooner.

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