An Open Letter From a Teacher to His Peers

(As a now retired career science and math teacher of forty years, I am partial to those teachers who remain “in the trade.” Here is one teacher’s explanation of how he finds himself…)

By Joe Cunningham

To my colleagues in the field of education,

This year has been an absolute struggle for us all. In some places, all your students are in the classroom every day. In other places, students are coming only a couple of times a week, alternating with their peers. And still, elsewhere, students have not returned to school at all.

This is a very weird, very uncharted territory for us all, and I know that those of us who come to work every day do so with the best intentions for ourselves and for our students. We do what we always do: We work to secure the future by educating our students and preparing them for the world ahead. But, somewhere along the way, there are groups of us who have discounted the needs of our students and have focused entirely on ourselves.

In many ways, we have found ourselves ruled by fear. We fear the virus, which has made friends and family fall ill (or worse). We fear the expectations that we must produce results at the same level we were expected to before the COVID-19 pandemic. We fear the return of students to full capacity at a time when we were enjoying smaller class sizes, either due to hybrid schedules or students who opted to transfer to a private school, homeschool, or online school.

We began this year expected to learn and master teaching online. We were given new instructions for assessing our students’ progress. We were given little-to-no time to really prepare, because many of the decisions by the districts that re-opened were last-minute, and are more often in flux than not.

Across the country, there are two sides of this battle and often we’re caught in the middle. On one side, you have the teachers and unions advocating we stay out of school until impossible demands are met: every teacher should be vaccinated, every student should be vaccinated, the virus completely eradicated, or whatever other measure is set. Some districts have fought to meet one of these demands, only for another to be put up in its place, with districts racing to meet those.

On the other side of this battle, you have political advocates and parent activists demanding a change, either in the employment status of the dissenters or to the system that would be a total reform few districts would be prepared for. They want to fund the students and their families rather than the schools. They want to increase options for school choice so that parents and students seeking an open school can send their child to one. They call for more vouchers, more scholarships, and everything else that can help them meet those goals.

Full disclosure, I am more often than not in that second camp.

I find myself at times rooting against some of you who advocate sickouts or strikes, who call for schools to close down fully and stay closed. There is no reason for school districts to be closed right now, much less for the 2021-2022 school year to be in question. I’m sorry, but I can’t support these actions. Because while this year has been mentally, emotionally, and, yes, physically draining on me, it has been ten times worse for the students who would be under our care in normal times.

Keeping schools closed, keeping students out of schools full time, only serves to weaken them academically and emotionally. They need human contact outside of their homes, and they need the social reinforcement that school provides. They also need the knowledge we are supposed to give them. I don’t care how good you are in the classroom and preparing online lessons, students can’t learn the skills they need if they are, at best, at school every other day. Worst case, they are at home falling behind and isolated.

Again, we are letting ourselves be ruled by fear. CDC data shows that in-school transmission is nearly non-existent. School districts that have opened up partially and fully have mitigation efforts in place that are protecting students. Infections, close contact quarantines, and the like are due almost exclusively to behavior outside of school.

Hard surface transmission, likewise, is practically nonexistent. Masking has shown to be successful (though I am fully against this idea of “double-masking” because that is absolutely ridiculous and impractical). Schools are safe.

The demand of unions in some places calling for schools to remain closed until students get the vaccine is absolute lunacy. None of the vaccines available are cleared for minors. It’s an impossible demand, and they know it. But they make the demand because they are ruled by the fear of this virus.

Teachers absolutely should have been closer to the top of the list when the vaccines became available. There are few jobs that require as much social contact as teaching. In some places, exemptions were available and teachers can start getting vaccines soon. But in states that don’t list teachers as front line workers, they don’t get that benefit.

But that does not mean we should keep school districts shut down. We should not be operating out of fear but in reaction to the data. The data we have suggests strongly that schools should be open. Our students need to be there, and we need to be doing what we can to help them succeed.

I realize that this is not going to be a popular opinion among most of you because this has been the most emotionally-taxing year we’ve been through. But we have to be strong. For the students. They are why we’re here.

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