Dear America, Don’t Reopen Schools.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic rages on in the United States, while Americans find ourselves in the midst of a truly bizarre debate on whether or not to open schools. As the daughter of two veteran public school teachers, this is an incredibly outrageous question with an obvious answer: absolutely not.

The United States has higher rates of COVID-19 infections now than we did when schools first started to shutter their doors in March. Teachers, children, and school custodial staff have already died from COVID-19. Even when children were thought to be carriers of the virus, as opposed to being actively harmed by it (a theory we now know to be untrue), that was enough to close schools. Lives were undoubtedly at risk. Lives were already lost. Move school online.

With little to no guidance or resources, American teachers immediately got to work. Educators across the country scrambled to move their classrooms into online formats, give students the resources they needed to participate in school, and then actually conduct classes. Many teachers also found themselves as students again quickly trying to learn how to use programs like Google Classroom or Blackboard in just a matter of days. There was no time to waste. This was an emergency of unprecedented proportions. America needed its teachers to rise to the occasion. And they did.

I know, I was there. Helping my parents set up their online classes, relearning the intricacies of Google Classroom, talking students through accepting the classroom invitation on Google Classroom, translating instructions and assignments for children who didn’t speak English, all while we suffered from the coronavirus. I don’t know for certain that we had it, as tests were widely unavailable at the time, but my family was undoubtedly sick with a laundry list of symptoms that bore a striking resemblance to COVID-19 and lasted for months. A hacking cough. Nonstop, crippling headaches, which made my head feel unbelievably heavy and sore. Extreme tiredness. Severe joint pain. Lack of appetite. Nausea. Daily nosebleeds that could last for hours. Loss of smell and taste. Petechial hemorrhaging that started on my legs and spread throughout my entire body. It was terrifying. Lest anyone still believe that COVID-19 isn’t all that serious, consider yourselves warned.

Yet, my parents got up every day to work anyway. That didn’t surprise me. In their combined eighty years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of times my parents called out sick from work. What did surprise me, however, was watching the public gain a newfound respect for the teaching profession. As parents transformed into quasi-substitute teachers overnight, they quickly realized just how damn difficult teaching really is. My parents and I observed in amazement at the complete 180 Americans made towards teachers. Once blamed for just about everything concerning their children, Americans went from chastising teachers to praising them. My parents had never seen anything like this. We wondered how long this newfound appreciation would last. Apparently, only about four months.

Four months. That’s how long it took for teachers to go from heroes to cannon fodder. Who cares that there are currently more coronavirus cases than there were in March? Who cares that teachers and students have already died? Who cares that approximately one-third of American public school teachers are 50 or older? Who cares that COVID-19 can cause permanent or fatal damage to virtually every vital organ system? Who cares that school buildings are literally the perfect environment to spread COVID-19? Do it anyway. Children should be in the classroom. They probably won’t die, after all. Well, maybe some will die, but they won’t be the majority of COVID-19 cases. (I’m guessing, “your child’s preventable death is statistically insignificant,” didn’t have quite the same ring to it.) The countless teachers, family members, and friends that schoolchildren will infect with COVID-19 might die, as well. But do it for the economy, i.e. Trump’s reelection bid, they say. Other professions have gone back to work. Why can’t you?

To start with, your coworkers at the office aren’t children. In my limited time in the classroom, I’ve seen children lick windows, eat food off of the floor, bite each other, share half-eaten food and drinks, stick toys in their mouths, projectile vomit, spit on each other, throw a hell of a left hook, and start a food fight, just to name a few. The idea that children, ages three to eighteen, are going to sit perfectly still at their separated desks while wearing masks all day, is a joke, at best. Teachers aren’t going to be teaching anything; they’re going to be doing crowd control for eight hours. Pulling children off of each other, reprimanding those who’ve taken off their masks, and attempting to disinfect surfaces, assuming they are even able to get disinfecting supplies.

Keep in mind, what I’ve just described is the best-case scenario. What happens when a child shows up to school sick? Will there be a quarantine room specifically for sick children? Who is going to be supervising this hypothetical room? Will each school be assigned a full-time nurse? Don’t make me laugh. What about all of the teachers and students who were exposed to a sick student? Is the entire school on quarantine for the next two weeks? Suppose that sick student took the bus to school. That bus picked up students from two other schools. Are they shut down too? Let’s say that sick student has siblings that go to different schools. Are those schools also closed? Is everyone who has been exposed going to be guaranteed a test? Doubtful. What about the cost of medical care? If a student or employee gets exposed to this deadly disease at school, the school district could be held liable for the cost of their care. What happens when folks predictably die? I’m assuming school districts haven’t siphoned off millions of dollars for the inevitable flood of wrongful death lawsuits.

Now let’s talk about money. Back in May, a small, private school equipped with all of the necessary resources, found it nearly impossible to consistently implement CDC guidelines. What does that say about inner-city public schools? The districts with the least amount of funding, most students packed into a classroom, deteriorating facilities, crumbling HVAC systems, and absolutely no supplies that teachers didn’t provide themselves.

Maybe some folks aren’t aware of just how poor inner-city schools can be. Allow me to enlighten you. My parents have taught in trailers, basements without windows, and auditorium stages with students sitting on milk crates. This past school year, my mother’s classroom didn’t have electricity. It took five months of nonstop pleading with just about every superior she could find before the electrical work was finally fixed. Throughout their teaching careers, my parents have consistently bought their own soap, toilet paper, tissues, hand sanitizer, paper towels, notebooks, folders, pens, pencils, and binders for their students. Where are they going to get critical disinfectant supplies and PPE, that even hospitals have faced difficulties in obtaining? If, by some miracle, teachers manage to find supplies, who could afford them? Certainly, not the districts with multi-million dollar deficits. Inner-city schools will undoubtedly suffer the most because of the Trump administration’s outright contempt for human life.

Of course, no one actually cares about these inevitable problems or even what teachers do to fill those eight hours of the day. Those will be problems that teachers have to solve. Out of sight, out of mind. Until your child gets sick. No one has any reasonable or cogent answers to the aforementioned questions because there aren’t any. Opening schools isn’t about teaching children; it’s about “restarting the economy.” Get the kids back in school so the parents can go back to work. Pretend everything is fine, even as this country breaks record after record for the number of daily cases and deaths. Die from a horrific disease so Trump can save face and possibly salvage his reelection campaign. To which I say, no chance in hell.

Demanding that teachers risk their lives by returning to the classroom just to promulgate the façade that everything is “back to normal” in this country is monstrous and criminal. I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but forcing people to act like everything is just fine in the United States, will not make the virus magically disappear. It’s going to be a pretty hard thing to ignore as cases and deaths continue to skyrocket. I’m sorry that the Trump administration botched their pandemic response so badly that it is not feasible to open schools. This is their responsibility, not teachers. Don’t blame teachers for not being willing to die in a pandemic, blame the president who did everything in his power to make the pandemic worse.

The truly spectacular part about this entire debate is that even those pushing to open schools know it isn’t safe. Following criticism from Trump that CDC guidelines for reopening schools were too onerous, the CDC chucked the guidelines and now says we should just roll the dice with the lives of children, teachers, and school faculty. (Relax parents, “most” of your kids should survive!) But let’s take a look at what’s already happened with schools. A meeting to discuss opening schools in San Francisco resulted in forty school administrators in quarantine. In the Hazelwood school district in Missouri, parents of student-athletes were told to sign a liability waiver saying that when their children end up sick or dead they can’t sue the district. A teacher in Arizona, who taught summer school, has already died from COVID-19. The Governor of Missouri stated that children will get COVID-19 at school, but don’t worry, they’ll be fine. However, Trump’s own son, Barron, will not be returning to school in the fall. Don’t let anyone in power fool you; it’s not safe to reopen schools.

Remote learning is difficult. It undoubtedly has its limitations and often requires more work than teaching in-person. Teachers, however, are willing to do it anyway. That should tell you how dangerous it would be to return to the classroom. Americans learned the hard way just how challenging it is to be a teacher. Maybe your child’s teacher wasn’t lying when they told you your kid was disrupting class and not following instructions. It’s time we start listening to teachers, who are telling us it is unreasonable and unsafe to reopen schools. They would know and we have an obligation to listen to them. America, your teachers have given you everything: their time, money, dedication, and wisdom, and were given nothing in return. Not societal respect, fair pay, or decent working conditions. The very least we can do for them is not to mandate their near-certain deaths in a pandemic.

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