Teachers Respond: Should Schools Reopen?

Readers discuss whether it’s safe for children and educators to go back to the classroom this fall.

In June, a New York City teacher collects personal belongings and supplies needed to continue remote teaching through the end of the school year at Yung Wing School P.S. 124. (Michael Loccisano / Getty)

I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did.

Last week, Kristen McConnell argued that schools are essential to the functioning of society, which makes teachers essential workers.

“I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school,” she wrote. “But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation.”

I don’t know why the idea of a labor union reserving the right to strike for the safety of its members is so objectionable. In July, our governor here in Oklahoma “strongly encouraged” schools to reopen in the fall and refused to make masks mandatory statewide, even while the state experienced a record number of cases. Clearly, we cannot be confident that every state government will keep its public servants safe without outside pressure.

The work that teachers do is important, but it is not worth the cost of people dying. As a young and healthy teacher, I am not overly concerned for myself. I am worried for my co-workers and the family members of students, teachers, and support staff at my school—especially those who are older and/or have preexisting conditions.

I am also worried that portraying public-school teachers as ambivalent workers in need of stern encouragement only serves to further tarnish public education in America. American education underperforms in part because of the comparatively low prestige of teaching. Teachers are used to serving students in spite of mediocre pay, demanding work, and public criticism. We know what our “level [of] duty” is.

Carter Brace
Tulsa, Okla.

Kristen McConnell is absolutely correct that teachers must return to the classroom. Schools, especially in low-income and marginalized communities, cannot be kept closed indefinitely. Above all, this is an equity issue. While many middle- and high-income families will be able to afford private tutors and attend schools with more resources available for distance learning, those in low-income and marginalized communities do not have this option. I am a teacher in a low-income community, and I know that every day my students stay away from the classroom is a day they fall further behind their peers. Teachers have a duty to serve their communities, and now we must step into the breach and look beyond the immediacy of the health risks to what a future would look like if the pandemic creates even further separation between the academic tool kits of marginalized and privileged students.

Michael Bannon
Toronto, Ontario

In full disclosure, I work for a teachers’ union.

Educators, children, nurses, and doctors did not stand by idly while many Americans were suffering and dying. Many of them made home visits or packets of materials for students who lacked technology at home or the internet. They helped serve food to students and families, and organized car caravans and backpack drives to ensure their most vulnerable students knew that supportive and caring adults were there for them.

Some educators made masks to donate to first responders. They made their living rooms into classrooms, helped students regain a semblance of normalcy, and advocated for increased federal funding to ensure communities and families did not feel the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact. Nevertheless, all of this seems to be ignored as the writer wants you to believe that educators should buck up and get back to work as she did.

McConnell creates a false binary: If you’re a good educator, you’ll prepare your living will and get back to work. If you are a bad educator, you will protest and go on strike. How can we blame educators for wanting to protect themselves and their students?

We are all struggling to make the best decisions with the information we have. Educators, like nurses and doctors, are human beings trying to do their jobs despite these extraordinary circumstances.

Annelise Cohon
Hyattsville, Md.

As a public-school teacher, I couldn’t agree more that schools are essential and need to open—safely. It’s important to recognize, however, that teachers aren’t just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for our communities. We’re fighting to make sure that schools are reopened in a way that doesn’t lead to a second surge. In order to do that, we need real-life working conditions to follow existing health recommendations and states to shut down activity in other sectors. If we want schools to reopen, we need to close bars. Everyone in our society needs to get on board so that schools can get back to what’s really essential: feeding, sheltering, and educating our children.

Amina Sheikh
Cambridge, Mass.

I am a hospital chaplain and a professor, and I think there are important distinctions between health-care workers and educators.

As a health-care worker, I signed a preemployment form acknowledging my potential exposure to infectious diseases that also outlined what I was supposed to do in case of exposure. There is an entire department at my hospital that oversees potential exposures and I have access to personal protective equipment, which helps me do my job safely.

As a professor, I have never been asked to sign a form that acknowledges my potential exposure to life-threatening diseases, and to my knowledge, there is not a department devoted to managing such exposures. In addition, no one has offered me PPE in order to teach more safely. The expected and actual labor conditions for health-care workers and educators differ significantly, and the politically expedient term essential worker should not be used to gloss over those differences.

Rev. Kristel Clayville, Ph.D.
Chicago, Ill.

To demand that teachers return to in-person schooling shows a callous disregard for teachers, their families, and the communities they serve.

My fiancée and I are both elementary-school teachers. Every sanitizing spray or hand soap we have ever had for our rooms was either donated by a parent or bought on our own dime. To prevent infection, we would be spending hundreds of dollars per week in each of our classrooms. Who will pay these bills? No part of the government’s response to this crisis inspires confidence that adequate safety measures will be taken. With additional spending for COVID-19 precautions, a year of teaching might end up a negative for many financially.

There are also several practicalities of school that COVID-19 simply makes impossible. I have at least 22 students in my classroom at all times. There simply is not room to maintain a proper social distance. In an ideal world, every child would understand the gravity of the situation and make sure that they respect every guideline every second of the day. But anyone with experience educating children knows that simply will not happen. And even in this perfect classroom, how would students eat lunch, have recess, go to gym, or even move between classes? There is no practical way to plan an in-person class that both maintains health guidelines and meets expectations for schools.

I will not be one to pretend that the rollout of online learning has been perfect. There are inevitable technology glitches, language barriers, and miscommunications. There is the emptiness of not being able to talk with students face-to-face, and I know that students are missing time with their friends. Most of all, I have worried about the impact that online schooling will have on educational inequality. With less time in person, the gap between rich and poor students will only grow. However, this gap also exists in coronavirus infection rates. If a return to school creates a new wave of infections, children in poorer neighborhoods will be disproportionately impacted. There is no ideal choice, but it is hard to argue that a flawed education is a worse outcome than losing a family member or even their own life. Of a series of bad options, online schooling is the best one.

Noam Kosofsky
Nashville, Tenn.

I am due back at school in late August and hope the kids will be there. I am not at all happy with the attitude of many teachers, who feel they are in a protected category. I agree we are essential workers. With appropriate measures in place, I believe we should do our duty. If I get sick, I expect a doctor, nurse, or paramedic to be there. Parents have a right to expect the same from teachers.

Louise Nunn
South Deerfield, Mass.

Kristen McConnell replies:

I appreciate these thoughtful responses to my article and agree with much of what these readers said, including the fact that, as Carter Brace wrote, “the work that teachers do is important, but it is not worth the cost of people dying.” My article was by no means a demand for schools to reopen in person no matter what. That position would be absurd. As I stated, any city or state with spiking cases of COVID-19 should keep schools and indoor businesses closed. But parts of the country currently have case levels low enough to support a return (or a part-time return) to the classroom with safety measures, including mandated mask wearing and social distancing. Many parents are willing or eager to send their children back to school, and there are many families for whom not being able to send children to school would be devastating, because they won’t be able to work even though businesses are open. Families that lack social or financial safety nets will suffer the most if this happens.

As I wrote in my article, I am a nurse and my husband is a teacher. “Essential workers” like me have learned that there is a functional middle ground between business as usual and staying home or interacting only with people you love and trust. That middle ground requires us to respect the power of the coronavirus by always wearing masks when we’re around other people, by washing our hands often and trying not to touch our faces, and by social distancing whenever possible. It also requires us to live with the chance that we’ve interacted with someone carrying the virus. Your food, your mail, your public transportation, and, if you’ve needed in-person treatment for COVID-19 or anything else in the past five months, your health care are brought to you by people who are living in that middle ground, who have learned that while it’s less comfortable, we can do it. I’m of the opinion that teachers should also be willing to work in that less comfortable middle ground, because their work is very important to the functioning of our society.

The irresponsible behavior of the government and of individuals who have rejected the basic and obvious precautions of mask wearing and social distancing have prolonged this nightmare. As Amina Sheikh said, “We need real-life working conditions to follow existing health recommendations” and “everyone in our society needs to get on board so that schools can get back to what’s really essential.” She is referring to the social contract, and she’s right: If we as a society were working toward families being able to safely send their children to school in the fall, we would do things differently. I think everyone should be willing to modify their behavior for the greater good; that includes mask wearing but it also includes being willing to teach, under extraordinary circumstances, the children of families who choose to send their kids back to school this fall.