Teaching has always been both a calling and a livelihood. But in this 21st Century teachers are being deployed to a new front line in biological warfare without the necessary armor for self-preservation.
As I think about my former school’s class size general range of 20 to 26 students, give or take, it was not possible to provide the recommended social distance necessary to prevent the spread of disease within a classroom. I see in my mind crammed hallways of kids marching together to their next class two-by-two or three-by-three in opposite directions on both sides of the corridor. I also have an image of those tiny P.E. lockers stacked 5 high where 50 to 100 kids crowd into airless locker rooms to change. I remember 75 band students lugging instruments elbowing their way to their seats for rehearsal in an already inadequate music room space. In an overcrowded school like mine, there was literally no wiggle room. Today’s teachers are being asked to gamble, or even sacrifice, their lives for their livelihood.
Some parents do not want to hear about teacher feelings, especially their fear of contracting a virus which has thus far claimed nearly a half million American souls. Within two days in April 2020 Covid-19 took the life a 48-year-old middle school principal I knew and also that of a 30-year-old elementary teacher and baseball coach also in New Jersey. These men were in what was supposed to be the prime of their lives. There are others, too, but these two deaths in the field of education defined the grave danger of Covid-19 for me, and for other school personnel, during its early onset.
District superintendents find themselves between parents demanding that we turn back the clock and make believe that everything is just like it used to be and teachers who worry about contracting the virus or possibly asymptomatically carrying it home to their spouses, children or aging parents. Parents speak out at virtual board of education meetings bashing teachers and demanding that they follow the science and return to full-time in-class instruction.
Imagine, instead, if parents demanded that superintendents and boards of education be fully transparent and accountable for the mitigations that are recommended for the safe return of children and teachers to the classroom. Imagine if parents demanded Covid-19 vaccinations for teachers who have to wait behind half of New Jersey’s population with pre-existing conditions, including smokers.
In a world gone mad, a superintendent is suing his district’s teachers’ union.
Here in New Jersey, superintendents do not acquire tenure in their posts and at least appear to bend their decisions, and not just in this matter, to the will of parents, making teachers pawns in the politics of this pandemic.
The battle lines have been drawn. Parents want teachers to mind their own feelings, pay attention to the science, and return to the classroom. Feelings and science, however, are not mutually exclusive and have the potential of working hand-in-hand toward achieving the common goal of reopening schools. Feelings of reassurance and safety can be generated by the concrete knowledge that the science is being followed, and that those in authority are being transparent about specific steps and strategies in that regard, and that leaders in a school and district actually care about their staff.