First of all, please don’t ask when schools are going to “reopen” or when teachers are going back to work.
We have not stopped working.
I have more than 170 students to teach. I grade between 80 and 120 assignments each night. I prepare lessons and monitor student learning on Zoom and by corresponding with students around the clock, answering their questions and reassuring them through their traumas, including now the ravages of COVID-19 in their community and families. I’ve written the usual dozens of college recommendations this year and helped dozens of seniors write their personal statements for college admissions and scholarships.
I miss teaching in person and sometimes, late at night, find myself sadly looking through old photographs of my classroom and the students who used to occupy it. Like many teachers, I am eager to return to a classroom, though I know it won’t be anything like used to be — and I fear that the impatience of some parents and cable news pundits and politicians and a lot of other people will compel us all back without adequate safety measures.
An emergency our leaders ignored
I do not know what public schools are like everywhere, but I know that where I teach, we have never had regularly sanitized classrooms and we have never had a reliable system of air circulation or filtration.
It would have been nice to have always had safe and healthy working conditions, but many teachers never have. Forgive us for being skeptical when we are assured that we can be made safe enough to forgo a vaccination that might save us from permanent health damage or death were we to be exposed to the virus.
I sympathize with parents, especially those with elementary and middle school students. My kids are all adults now, and I can hardly imagine what it would have been like having them all home for a year trying to manage online learning. This is an emergency — for the growth and development of students and the economic prospects and sanity of parents. It has been an emergency since last March and, unfortunately, our leaders have refused to treat it as such.
We should have invested the resources necessary to safely have in-person school, at least for the youngest and most challenged and vulnerable students. But we didn’t, and so we are now playing catch-up. Many of the upgrades schools need for a safe return would represent reasonable long-term investment in educating our children, and yet here we are in Year 2 of a global pandemic, still debating waiting.
Cable news hosts and their guests recently have pitted guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against the demands of our unions, specifically citing the CDC claim that vaccinating teachers is beneficial but not essential for the safe reopening of school campuses for in-person instruction. Then they criticize the Biden administration for not pressuring school districts and shaming unions for not agreeing to return to in-person instruction before teachers have been vaccinated.
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One argument, made by CNN’s Erin Burnett and others, is that because the CDC’s guidelines are based on science, any insistence on vaccinating teachers must be at odds with science — which no self-respecting educator ought to be.
Is reopening K-12 public schools a purely a scientific undertaking? How much do the scientists understand about what goes on inside our buildings?
How many seventh-grade teachers were consulted?
How realistic is the strict discipline of social distancing and mask compliance needed for nonvaccinated people enclosed in classrooms?
How many classrooms have the kind of ventilation and air circulation we will need?
How exactly are we going to reduce class size by up to 70%?
How many politicians and school boards and school districts are we being asked to trust?
What are the COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated teachers breaking up fights in a hallway or a bathroom?
How does a teacher maintain a 6-foot distance from a 6-year-old who is having an emotional breakdown and needs a hug?
Respect teachers collectively
Just wondering. Because it seems to me that vaccinating all the teachers is immensely easier, cheaper and faster than fixing all the other problems caused by underfunding, mismanagement and corruption in so many of our public schools.
I do not always agree with all my fellow rank-and-file teachers or with the union leadership, but I appreciate the protection that collective bargaining affords us, and I am well aware of the peril of workers, teachers or anyone else who does not have the protection of a union.
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A lot of us probably would go back without a vaccine and hope for the best, because we love our students and miss them and have always taken risks for their safety and well-being. Some of my colleagues and I drive students home late at night after school events; we’ve confronted armed intruders in our building and chased them off and even intervened on the street when we’ve seen our students in danger. In our nation’s shameful and awful history of school shootings, there isn’t a single example of a teacher cowering behind their students or fleeing for their own safety. We die at a much higher rate from school shooters — as we should. And our commitment to our students’ well-being makes us easy marks for politicians and school districts that don’t care about protecting any of us when it is politically expedient.
So please do not praise the teachers for our hard work and commitment and talent, and then attack the unions we make up.
If you don’t respect us collectively, you aren’t appreciating us individually.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss