Education

Teachers Are Suddenly The Frontlines In the Fight Against COVID

Image attribution flickr user Tulane Public Relations

Should Schools Open This Fall?’ Is The Wrong Question

by Terry Heick

In the United States, we started off concerned with nurses and doctors–and rightfully so. But are teachers next up in the battle against COVID-19?

First, some context. There’s no way to make this post non-political but the point of the post isn’t political. As founder and director at TeachThought, I’m willing to make statements that appear political if I think that’s in the best interest of our mission at TeachThought: to innovate education through the growth of innovative teachers.

But merely offering my opinion-as-political-statements is counter-productive. TeachThought isn’t a political organization and is neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘conservative’ but rather interested in critical thinking to further human causes–i.e., critical literacy. And in respect to that critical literacy is the current national crisis around COVID-19.

This is a topic that really deserves a strong scientific foundation stuffed with the most recent research and statistical trends. I realized, however, that such a tactic could come off as simply being ‘against teachers returning to school in the fall.’ To be clear, being at least vaguely familiar with science and data around ARSCoV2 as a virus, I do not think most K-12 schools should open in the fall.

I could make that argument in light of existing counter-arguments I’ve seen, but in the end, as a matter of national policy, my opinion doesn’t matter. And as far as contributing to the ‘discussion’ about it all, at this point most people already have their mind made up and we all know what confirmaton bias does to thinking.

Why Are We Putting Teachers On The Frontline Of The Fight Against COVID-19?

But while there is at least some discussion happening about whether or not schools should open for in-person instruction in the fall, I’m not seeing as much about innovation–nor why we are so willing to be cavalier with human lives regardless of very real concerns about mental health and poverty, for example.

While mortality rates for children are extremely low compared to adults, asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers are suspected (as of early July 2020) of being responsible for 50% or more of new infections. Any teacher who has struggled with dress code can squint a little and guess some of the problems children might have with masks.

It was strange to see the American Pediatric Association come out in support of children returning to schools:

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” according to the guidance. These coordinated interventions intend “to mitigate, not eliminate, risk” of SARS-CoV-2.

With all due respect for their knowledge about the treatment of viruses in children, asking them if we should open is like asking an equine veterinarian if we should allow fans at the Kentucky Derby this fall or asking Mick Jagger’s doctor if we should allow fans at a concert to see The Rolling Stones. And so on.

And then on July 6 came this tweet–screaming in all caps with three exclamation marks:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1280209946085339136?s=20

While most school districts have been planning all summer on how to handle ‘school’ this fall–polling teachers and families both formally and informally–the ability to push bets and wait out July to see if something might make a little more sense in early August was taken away with one tweet.

And just like that, teachers are–rather suddenly–being placed on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19 in the United States.

Seeking A Better Question

At the risk of understatement, there has been a lack of leadership on a national level since the COVID-19 first started making news in late 2019. Now more than halfway through 2020, I’m not sure things are any better.

The challenge of facing COVID-19 in K-12 and secondary education is urgent and multi-faceted. The concerns in the bubble of education are similar to those experienced outside of that bubble–biological, scientific, economic, political, cultural, legal, and so on. There quite simply is a lot to consider with careful, rational thinking and patient communication borne of goodwill–both of which seem to be in short supply.

The majority of social media-based ‘discussion’ I’ve seen is about if schools should open to in-person instruction in the fall rather than how to do safely. An even better question would be, “What is the best way to educate children during a pandemic?”

Or more specifically, “In light of the human needs (what students and teachers need) and existing human and technological resources (what we ‘have’ to serve those needs), what should we do this fall?”

Those are big questions that should be part of any discussion about education–with or without the threat of COVID-19. That we have yet to suitably answer questions like these before COVID-19 is our burden during COVID-19.

It’s not just unfair to ask teachers to teach in-person this fall, it’s governing (and governmental) malpractice. In effect, we are asking teachers to withstand the brunt of six months of lost leadership at the national level. And further, we’re doing so under the guise of what’s ‘best for the kids’–as if any teacher not willing to play roulette with the virus is the problem.

While every teacher I know wants to teach in-person in schools this fall, fewer than a fourth I’ve spoken with think it’s a good idea. And even if some teachers are willing to (literally) risk their lives for the ‘good of children,’ why are we even considering allowing that? How did we get to this point?

How did we arrive at the reality that for the next six months, teachers will function as the frontline for COVID-19?

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the three million-member National Education Association, leads the largest union in the United States. And in response to Trump’s shouting demand she had this to say today on CNN:

Even trying to open schools to in-person instruction in the United States ‘safely’ (there will be no ‘safe’ re-opening, only less dangerous re-openings) through recommendations from the Center for Disease Control is being answered with questions about practicality and cost.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1280857657365200902?s=20

Above, we have threats–I think against the CDC but it’s often difficult to tell with Mr. Trump.

And below, we have misleading, out-of-context data:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1280853299600789505?s=20

Demanding opening in lieu of very compelling science against it–then threatening to defund any school that doesn’t fall in line? These are not characteristics for rational thinking. Consider the following data:

And then there’s this short-sighted piece by Bloomberg that completely misses the sanctity of life and the purpose of education. The lack of critical thinking here is only surpassed by our lack of foresight and planning.

None of this is smart, affectionate, practical, innovative, courageous, or thrifty. This is a massive, massive failure from top to bottom–and the teachers are now being asked to save everyone from the mess. That’s unfair and unsafe and nowhere close to our best thinking.

Conclusion

And so, as of July 13, 2020, that’s where we are. No one knows how any of this will turn out, of course. The virus could ‘weaken.’ A therapy or vaccine could miraculously emerge and wash away all of the uncertainty.

But until such an event, teachers are being asked to risk their lives to teach in big brick buildings with more human beings per square foot than any hospital or factory and most office spaces. We have released inmates from prison because of the threat of COVID-19, but are suddenly saying it’s safe for schools to open–presumably because the mortality rate for children is low?

Police departments across the country have altered their service (well before the Black Lives Matter movement) in light of the threat of the virus. It’s too dangerous for them and more importantly, spreads the virus.

Many prisoners are being released from prison because it’s too dangerous to stay there.

Barber shops and bars and restaurants can’t open and sports stadiums–at least for now–are empty to protect citizens and reduce the spread of the virus.

So, what about the teachers? Why should educators have to make the choice to put themselves and their families at such extraordinary risk? How is this even legal, much less moral or rational?

If we are (justifiably) concerned with doctors and athletes and police officers and moviegoers getting (and then transmitting) the virus, why not teachers? Because ‘parents are mad’? Perhaps they could become teachers and step in to fill the gaps.

Because of learning loss and lack of access to technology in poor communities? Rational thinking would solve those as individual problems rather than the cruder alternative of simply ‘reopening.’ Sentimentality is an enemy during a crisis and uncertainty breeds propaganda.

So then, why are we okay with making teachers the frontline in the fight against COVID-19 in the United States?

Why are we viewing this as ‘open’ or ‘closed’?

Where’s the innovation?