With national leadership urging schools to reopen this fall despite rising cases of COVID-19, classroom teachers are facing bewildering choices. Already undervalued, teachers are weighing the dangers of in-person instruction against the effectiveness of online learning, with little certainty about either. Students are isolated, parents are exhausted, school districts are scrambling to make responsible decisions, yet teachers themselves are being asked to carry most of this burden, risking their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs. Even a superhero would be daunted. As we approach the start of the 2020 academic year, we asked U.S. K-12 teachers to tell us how they’re feeling and how they’re planning for the year ahead.
I teach high school history. Some people (like anyone who’s interacted with the average American voter) might say I have an important job. I used to agree, but once I learned the value the free market places on my salary, I began to think otherwise.
I love my job, but I am terrified of going back to a school building anytime soon. I get plenty nervous in “normal times.” Usually, I make it through the summer before I worry about returning. This year is obviously different. Has anyone else been having their “first day” nightmare starting in July and starring Trump’s unmarked federal agents, or is that just me?
In my circles, social media has helped foster solidarity among teachers. It feels crazy to go back to school in person while cases are surging in so many parts of the country; so many of our community members are at high risk. But too much time on social media also – and I can’t emphasize how dangerous this is — exposes me to different viewpoints. We all want to go back, but communities are divided not only politically, but also on how much risk they are willing to assume. Some parents seem ready to get their kids back to school just so they can put in a solid day’s work on Zoom. And I get it! I’ve been doling out Chex cereal bribes to my son since the beginning of this paragraph.
I already teach with an eye to my door, knowing my country doesn’t take gun violence seriously. School shootings have taught us that kids and teachers are expendable “heroes,” so why not treat this threat similarly? Safety is not a national priority unless it concerns rich, white people (or those gun-waving WASPs in St. Louis). I believe that good people in all levels of government think they’re working hard on contingency planning and in the best interests of kids. But when the people at the very top are so disconnected and disingenuous, it’s hard not to get disaffected. Remote teaching and learning is so far from what any of us want to be doing — do I have to say that, again? There’s no vaccine, and there’s still so much unknown about COVID-19. Health and safety should be paramount: we don’t have a choice but to stay home.
A year ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. I am fortunate to have health insurance and to take medication that manages my symptoms. The medicine suppresses my immune system, so the pandemic has made me quite nervous, even more anxious than I already am about what our dog will do when he hears fireworks (hint: he will pant a lot and keep us up for hours at night, smelling his foul breath). I am worried about what happens if I get it, but also what happens if I can’t take care of my wife and son. I am extremely grateful that we can work from home and get groceries and other necessities delivered — by people who our society now calls “essential,” but the free market still calls “replaceable,” “contract workers.”
American history is a rich tapestry, and one of the main threads is the wide gap between our ideals and our practices. Since George Floyd’s murder, we’ve been going through a long-overdue reckoning: Are we willing to struggle with our past in order to allow Black people to receive justice? How can we set up an economy that works for everyone? And how can we make sure people who say “All Lives Matter” don’t get their feelings hurt? For far too long, well before COVID-19, we have devalued and left people behind. We need a government that can help us bridge the gap between what we preach and what we practice — one that starts by truly honoring the sanctity of Americans’ lives and contributions. As always, it’s up to us to create it.
Max Roberts, a Massachusetts native raised in Missouri, is a proud history teacher, writer, father, and husband. Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in history, he is grateful to all his teachers and students, past and present, for helping him understand how to learn and to teach.