It takes a certain kind of person to devote their life to this difficult and often-thankless job. I know because I was raised in a community of them. I have mowed their lawns, painted their apartments, even babysat their children, and I’m convinced that they are as essential as any other essential workers. Some even raise rock stars! Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Adam Levine, Josh Groban, and Haim are all children of school workers (with hopefully more academically rewarding results than mine). Over the years, I have come to notice that teachers share a special bond, because there aren’t too many people who truly understand their unique challenges—challenges that go far beyond just pen and paper. Today, those challenges could mean life or death for some.
When it comes to the daunting—and ever more politicized—question of reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, the worry for our children’s well-being is paramount. Yet teachers are also confronted with a whole new set of dilemmas that most people would not consider. “There’s so much more to be addressed than just opening the doors and sending them back home,” my mother tells me over the phone. Now 82 and retired, she runs down a list of concerns based on her 35 years of experience: “masks and distancing, temperature checks, crowded busing, crowded hallways, sports, air-conditioning systems, lunchrooms, public restrooms, janitorial staff.” Most schools already struggle from a lack of resources; how could they possibly afford the mountain of safety measures that will need to be in place? And although the average age of a schoolteacher in the United States is in the early 40s, putting them in a lower-risk group, many career teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, nurses, and janitors are older and at higher risk. Every school’s working faculty is a considerable percentage of its population, and should be safeguarded appropriately. I can only imagine if my mother were now forced to return to a stuffy, windowless classroom. What would we learn from that lesson? When I ask what she would do, my mother replies, “Remote learning for the time being.”
Remote learning comes with more than a few of its own complications, especially for working-class and single parents who are dealing with the logistical problem of balancing jobs with children at home. Uneven availability of teaching materials and online access, technical snafus, and a lack of socialization all make for a less-than-ideal learning experience. But most important, remote setups overseen by caretakers, with a teacher on the other end doing their best to educate distracted kids who prefer screens used for games, not math, make it perfectly clear that not everyone with a laptop and a dry-erase board is cut out to be a teacher. That specialized skill is the X factor. I know this because I have three children of my own, and my remote classroom was more Welcome Back, Kotter than Dead Poets Society. Like I tell my children, “You don’t really want daddy helping, unless you want to get an F!” Remote learning is an inconvenient and hopefully temporary solution. But as much as Donald Trump’s conductor-less orchestra would love to see the country prematurely open schools in the name of rosy optics (ask a science teacher what they think about White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s comment that “science should not stand in the way”), it would be foolish to do so at the expense of our children, teachers, and schools.