Teachers Face A Summer Of Soul Searching. What Do They Do In The Fall?
This originally ran in early June. No signs that things are looking up at all.
We know a handful of things.
We know that virtually nobody wants to continue the pandemic shut-down crisis school model in the fall (with the possible exception of ed tech companies that hope to keep cashing in on it). Elected officials across the country are calling for schools to open again, a position that’s easy for them to take because A) everybody is suffering from full-on pandemic fatigue and B) none of those officials will have to deal with the actual issues of opening schools.
We know that nobody really knows how dangerous re-opening schools will be. Will students become super-spreaders, sharing it at school and bringing it home to vulnerable family members? How great a risk will teachers be running?
We know that “official” guidance on how to open schools is in short supply, and that what is out there is, for teachers, mind-boggling. The average teacher’s reaction to CDC guidelines is an eye roll powerful enough to shift the earth’s axis. Teachers have conjectured repeatedly that the members of the CDC must have never set foot inside a school, but that’s not the CDC’s job. Their job is to figure out what safety would require. Somebody else will have to figure out how, or if, that can be done.
Teachers know, in their guts, where this is headed. They have seen versions of this movie before. For instance, in 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which promised every student with disabilities a free appropriate public education. Knowing that meant extra expenses for school districts, Congress promised funding to back IDEA. They have never, in 45 years, honored that promise, and schools have just had to find their own way to meet that unfunded mandate.
And it’s not just the big things. Teachers routinely spend their own money to help plug the gaps in support from local, state and federal authorities. We’re having a national conversation about controlling the spread of coronavirus in classrooms where teachers still have to buy their own tissues and hand sanitizer. We’ve already seen problems with adequate protection and supplies for actual medical workers. Many teachers have a sinking feeling about what is coming. It will look like this. There will be considerable discussion about what measures should be taken and what measures can be taken. It will be punctuated by discussion of the cost. Congress may, perhaps, toss a little money at the challenge. In the background, there will be the voices of teachers pointing out things like, “With the recommended social distancing, only six of my thirty-two students will fit in my room.” The discussion will go on without them. By August, elected officials will give themselves credit for discussing things, as if discussing a problem actually solved it. Some will insist that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu and we have to put America back to work. Others will admit that the money they approved is not nearly enough to meet the demands. District administrators will complain that they don’t have the necessary resources, but they’ll still get no more help.
And by fall, individual teachers in individual schools will have to figure out how to do the best they can with the little that they’ve got. The district guidance they get will range from restrictively stringent to hopelessly non-existent. Mostly, they’re going to have to figure out how to cope on their own.
This is not, in and of itself, unusual. It’s what teachers do—figure out how to McGyver a million-dollars education out of three paper clips and some toothpaste. But this time it’s different, because this time it will be a matter of life or death.
So this summer, teachers will ask themselves a whole new set of questions. Can I stand it if I’m required to do more of that online junk that I hated so much last spring? Can I withstand the depressing sight of children daily spending recess in isolated bubbles? If I’m in a high-risk group, will it be safe for me to go back under these conditions? Will doing this job mean I can’t visit my aging parents this year? What do I do if the district tells me that even though X, Y and Z are necessary to stay safe, I can’t have them unless I somehow get them myself?
It would be great—absolutely great—if elected officials responded to the current situation by saying, “There is nothing more important than our children’s education, so we are going to do whatever it takes, spend whatever is necessary, to make sure that every single schools has every single resource it could possibly need to make its students and staff safe and secure and able to concentrate on the critical work of educating tomorrow’s citizens. We will spare no expense, even if we have to cut other spending, raise taxes on some folks, or spend more money that we don’t actually have.”
Nobody who has been in education longer than a half an hour expects that to happen. Classroom teachers will, as always, have to pick up the slack themselves, only this time it’s not yet clear how much slack that will be or how much it will cost, and many teachers may decide the cost is more than they can afford. Teachers will have a lot to think about this summer.