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A 27-year veteran of the Syracuse school district where she teaches, my mother, like many dedicated educators virtually teaching through the pandemic, was thinking of her kids first.
“I have to leave plans for the substitute,” she told me. “I promise I will take some time off afterward,” she bargained, typing away at the computer between light coughs, as I pleaded with her to take the day off immediately.
Her students and others across the country already faced impossible hurdles, from shaky WiFi connections to challenging home situations, in which some parents were required to work and leave their children unsupervised. Some kids slept through the alarm set for them to wake up and log on. Others tried their best to keep up, but missed the hands-on instruction needed to help them learn complex material and were very clearly falling behind. And still a select few thrived in a virtual setting, eagerly consuming lessons and executing assignments.
The city where my mother teaches — and where I grew up– has one of the highest concentrations of Black and Latino poverty in the nation. But the wealth gap is evident throughout the country. Every ugly racial and social disparity that existed in education pre-Covid-19 has only been magnified on a global scale for the world to see. Studies show that not only are Black and Latino students more likely to be virtually learning without access to additional resources or support at home, but they also face a crushing learning loss that may take, at best, months and at worst, over a year to recover from. This is what my mother contended with when deciding to either recover or log on.
But my mother also represented the racial disparity present in the health system by falling in a high-risk group: a Latina, in her late 50’s. Black, Latino and indigenous people are more likely to die from Covid-19. My mother and other teachers of color who teach in predominately Black and brown school districts have this in common with the families of children they teach.
When she was diagnosed, I wearily put on my adult-child hat, pleading with my mom that she couldn’t do good for any of her students if she wasn’t taking care of herself.
I reasoned that not only did she need to heal for her own recovery, but also as the sole caretaker of my father who is fighting cancer and was also diagnosed with Covid-19, he needed her too.
It seemed she was facing a series of impossible choices that other educators faced as well — who to care for, and in what order?
As schools talk of reopening, the same question is presented to leaders across the nation: who and what should be prioritized? Battling narratives are splashed across newspaper headlines about teachers unions, mayor’s offices and parent groups, all warring over the best way to reopen schools, with a predictable villainization of some groups as the ones who don’t “really care” about the students.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to release guidelines soon about how to proceed with safe school reopenings, after controversial remarks from its director that suggested teacher vaccination wasn’t necessary.
And the Biden White House has clarified that earlier goals to open American schools within the first 100 days of the administration, in fact only target K-8 schools and will aim for one day a week of in-person instruction where it is safe, deferring to the CDC.
As new Covid-19 variants pop up around the world, it’s clearer that the battle to contain the virus is an ongoing one with changing faces.
While it may be comforting to hold up school reopenings as a sign of progress, we must not lose sight of what science is saying or the people and cooperation needed to actually pull off the plan.
Not all parents are ready to send their children back to school, nor do they trust that schools are equipped to safely welcome them back. That divide splits along racial and economic lines, with many parents of color being less likely than White parents to risk it.
Education was already a highly polarized and politicized space, prior to the pandemic. The phrase “no child left behind,” while lofty, was also bogged down with the baggage of the politics of executing that vision.
But in a global pandemic, there truly can be no child, parent or teacher left behind in the process.
We saw this in Chicago, where, after negotiations to reopen public schools reached a boiling point, unions and school officials reached an agreement that involves vaccinations for teachers, and agreements about thresholds for closing if needed.
The political fallout in Chicago shows there are no disposable players in this equation. Policy makers should engage all stakeholders to improve chances of success, rather than issuing blanket mandates or threats that force teachers to make impossible choices.
My mother thankfully recovered from Covid-19, and without missing a beat she went right back to virtually teaching her students. She also did her part in getting vaccinated, hoping to be part of a movement that gets her back into the classroom sooner to be with the students she misses.
Teachers like her are essential to the success of school reopening, and they demonstrate that when you provide options for teachers to safely work, they’ll do their jobs. But they should never have to choose between life and death — work and recovery — to do so.
That’s an impossible and unfair choice. One that America doesn’t have to force them to make.
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