I Am a Teacher. In-Person School Is Not Worth the Risk | Opinion

I fear writing this article will continue to polarize the discussions around reopening schools. I fear you will skip over my words because it is yet another piece about a topic that is flooding every corner of our country. I fear my words will come across as if I am ungrateful for my employment as a teacher. I also fear I'm too late—that Americans have already picked sides as the school year comes rumbling toward us.

Yet, I have written because the cost is too great. As fall approaches, my anxiety around the school year grows. Yes, I worry for my own family and personal well-being; it would be unnatural to do otherwise when more than 170,000 Americans have died. But what keeps me awake at night is our collective children. See, teachers become educators because they love kids. We cannot even envision teaching other grade levels once we have found our people.

"How do you wrangle a classroom full of eighth graders?"

"Oh my God, you teach high school?"

"Bless you for dealing with all those 5-year-olds in kindergarten."

We admire one another, and most of us never question our commitment to our students. We love them. It's well known how selfless teachers can be, buying supplies with their personal money, working overtime and a heroic few even throwing themselves in front of bullets. So when I say I fear the coming school year, I hope you pause for a moment.

I'm trying to tell you: The children's, your children's, emotional safety and well-being are in jeopardy.

There are many valid reasons to open schools this fall. Every family has needs that have to be met, and many of them are tied to our educational system. School is your children's center when they are not with you (for some kids, it's the only place they feel safe—or get a meal). I know all of these things. They are a big part of why I am passionate about my job. And online learning is always going to pale in comparison to in-school learning. Of course the goal is to return to in-person learning.

But when I think of what is best for my students, it is not what school is outlined to be right now. In fact, what has been planned for this fall doesn't address the social and emotional needs of students at all. It doesn't create an environment where they will learn. It's simply not considerate of students' needs on any level beyond child care.

In every profession, there are preconceived notions of what a job entails. Many people outside of the educational world have opinions about schools, as most of us have been students at one time or another. Simply put, being a student is like seeing the tip of the iceberg. The depth beyond the student experience is enormous. I say this not to ask for pity for teachers. It is our job to have these issues never come to light. Instead, I say this because the mandates to open safely are actively working against this hidden work of teachers. Looking through the safety mandates, no matter the variations, I only see the ways in which a learning environment is being broken down. Allow me to explain.

Hunger, stress and sleep, as well as feeling both emotionally and physically safe, are some of the top environmental factors that research shows impact learning outcomes. Every single one of them will be affected by the new safety measures for schools. These were issues even before the pandemic. The COVID-19 protocols are making what was already an uphill battle even harder.

Take hunger, for example. Even a child who is well fed struggles with hunger issues during the school day. Just ask any educator what it's like to teach the period before lunch. My own town will not be serving or allowing breakfast or lunch at school. The school day will run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. to allow children to go home for lunch. Children are expected to eat breakfast at home around 7:30 a.m. and then not eat their next meal until, at best, 1:30 p.m.

How do the mandates for opening schools in your own district affect the aforementioned environmental factors? Will children think they just aren't good at something because they weren't able to learn in a COVID-19 school environment? Will a child resent a teacher who was unable to help them? Will parents blame teachers for poor test scores? Will teachers lose their jobs or merit pay for poor AP scores? Or will we acknowledge that to open schools safely, we took away elements crucial to making learning successful?

I can guess what you're thinking: Online learning does not meet children's needs in many ways, either. Learning online for some is very difficult. You're not wrong. It's harder to create a supportive environment online, but it is doable. But the benefit of online learning during a pandemic is it does not risk damaging, possibly permanently, a child's ability to learn once COVID-19 is under control.

I have been teaching for 15 years. Almost every year I've taught, the school where I was teaching lost community members of all ages: students, parents and teachers. Learning grinds to a halt for students who have lost friends or family members, and when the loss is widespread, the entire community grieves together. Death in a school environment can send shock waves throughout the community that are felt deeply and traumatically.

Luckily, in my personal experience, these losses, while not infrequent, have happened one individual at a time. There is time and space for a community to process and provide the necessary resources to its members and take care of one another. I cannot describe to you the feeling of comforting a young person who is grieving. To say that your own heart is ripped out is an understatement. It's ugly crying in a staff bathroom afterward. And students can't always put on a brave face and get through a day like an adult might. Children's grief takes many different forms and ebbs and flows for months, rippling through every facet of their life.

Having seen what one death can do to a classroom, community and students, I shudder to think what would happen if COVID-19 swept through a community because schools opened.

Back to School?
Chairs are stacked at a public elementary school campus in Los Angeles on August 17, one day before the start of the new school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

As mentioned before, learning becomes nearly impossible when grieving a loss. But what happens after? How do students return to normal? What happens to the safe space of school? Does school become that bend in the road with a marker indicating a tragic loss of life? How can teachers convince students that it won't happen again? What if their teacher is the one who died? What if they were the child to bring it home and infect their family?

Not only would learning stop during the grieving period, but the trauma of where these events specifically occurred could affect students' ability to learn for the rest of their life. One wrong move, a sneeze or cough on a friend, could mean life or death. Everything we opened schools for would be working in a deficit—a hole so much deeper than anything remote learning covers inadequately.

To me, opening schools before the United States has control of the virus is like driving while texting without your seatbelt on. Sure, you will probably still get home safe. And if there is a crash, you will likely survive. It's possible you may not even harm other people. But why would you be willing to take that massive risk?

Now imagine that your whole family is in the car with you.

My thoughts of next school year are about safety, and not just physical safety. How will I get my students through this year without permanently damaging their social and emotional well-being? Because I know if we all stay home until COVID-19 is under control, as long as we are all alive, we can fix the rest.

Lisa Townley is an elementary and middle school teacher in Massachusetts.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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