America’s Teachers Face an Impossible Choice

Teachers face an impossible choice. Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Arizona is sick. The state led the whole world in confirmed cases of COVID-19 last week, the New York Times found; the virus helped fill 89 percent of its intensive care beds. But next month, students and teachers will go back to school, and for some, that will mean walking back into classrooms for at least part of the week. The prospect puts teachers and other school workers in a vice. They can go to work, and risk life-threatening infection, or they can stay home. But staying home might not mean quitting. Two years ago, Arizona teachers joined the Red for Ed walkouts over low pay and a lack of funding for schools. Some say they’re considering a new round of protests, and they’re not alone. In other Red for Ed states, teachers are ready to protest again, this time for their lives.

In the small border town of Bisbee, Arizona, Erin Rhodes hears the helicopters all day. They’re coming, she thinks, for COVID-19 patients. She watches the mayor post the case totals on his Facebook page. “The numbers are going up every day,” she tells Intelligencer. The helicopters are necessary, she adds, because the local hospital is too small to provide critical care. Serious injury or illness can require a trip at least two hours away by car, to Tucson, and even there, intensive care units are approaching capacity. But Rhodes has another reason to worry. She teaches kindergarten in the nearby town of Naco, and classes will begin next month.

In healthier times, the arrival of August signals the start of a new school year. But the coronavirus has changed everything. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country, especially in the south and the west, and school districts are trying to navigate the reality of the pandemic. The pandemic poses an open question, and the answers vary, even within states: The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts already announced they’ll hold the fall term online; in Orange County the school year is set to proceed in ersatz normality, without masking or social distancing. Elsewhere, local education officials have devised a patchwork strategy, a blend of socially distanced instruction in school and online learning at home. New York City is one such school district: Its public schools will offer a mix of on-site and virtual instruction next month. So will the tiny Arizona grade school where Rhodes works.

Rhodes says she hasn’t heard much about how her school intends to navigate its new normal. But in Bisbee, where she sits on the local school board, officials recently passed a hybrid schedule. Starting August 18, the district will divide students into two groups, and attend in-person classes on different days; instruction would still be virtual two other days a week.  (Bisbee has a four-day school week.) If the outbreak doesn’t slow, the district could shift, and move all classes online. Rhodes voted for the plan, though she still worries that a child or teacher will get sick, and says she thinks the “best thing would be to wait for in person learning until it’s safe,” whenever that moment happens to come.

If schools do reopen for physical instruction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged them to follow certain guidelines. Schools in virus-free communities can get away with increased sanitization and lessons in hand-washing, the agency suggests; in areas with “minimal to moderate transmission,” schools should space out desks, cancel field trips, and limit student socializing; a painful requirement for children who may have already spent months at home without friends. Schools in hotspots may have to remain closed, the CDC added. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is eager to force children and teachers alike back into schools, whether they’re in high-risk areas or not. “Schools should be opened,” the president recently said. “You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.”

It’s false, of course, that lockdowns are deadlier than the virus, even though the psychological costs of isolation are severe. Teachers face a life or death choice, and compromise measures might not be able to prevent a brewing conflict. Kids need real classrooms, trained teachers, and socialization they don’t get at home; the absence of each will harm low-income students the most. On other hand, the decision to open up classrooms comes with its own risks, and teachers didn’t go into the profession to risk their own lives, let alone the lives of their family members.

“I think that the schools are not prepared to open,” Rhodes says, and notes that she has a 72-year-old mother and a 1-year-old grandson to protect. “Teachers teach because that’s what they want to do, that’s what they’re meant to do. I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t want to go back. But this is about going back and sacrificing your health, or sacrificing a co-worker or your family and kids.”

The risks Rhodes cites are not theoretical. Three Arizona teachers fell ill with COVID-19 after sharing a summer classroom. One died. In California’s Bay Area, over 40 principals were exposed to the virus at a meeting convened to discuss the reopening of school. And though children are not as prone to complications from COVID-19, some do become seriously ill. A 13-year-old Oklahoma girl died from COVID-19 on July 12, and researchers have also linked an unusual multi-system inflammatory disease in children who tested positive for the virus.

For Lisa Kamp, a special education teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, COVID-19 is a real danger to her students. She works for the district’s Homebound program, teaching students she refers to as a “category of forgotten children.” Some are transplant recipients, others are expectant mothers, and a few are completely nonverbal. Even before the pandemic, Kamp says she already had to take precautions before entering the homes of children with fragile immune systems, but now the danger is far worse — and not just for her students. Kamp herself has an autoimmune disease.

“I don’t understand how they’re going to do this. Just open up like nothing’s wrong and put these kids in danger, not only academically, but health-wise,” she worries. The school district, she adds, has not been helpful. “I know the general education students were given Chromebooks, but when we asked for our kids, we were totally ignored. We were told they could use their parents’ phones.” In March, when schools originally closed, Kamp delivered lesson packets to children’s homes. She says she’d rather do that again than risk physical contact with her students.

Despite the risks associated with reopening, some teachers said they’re ready to get back into classrooms. In an email to Intelligencer, one Oklahoma teacher says that infection rates in her rural community are still low, and she feels safe enough to work with protective gear and social distancing in place. “Virtual learning in my community is tough. Some have no access to the internet. I do not have access to the internet at my home,” Jerricho McCrary explains. “I am worried my students have regressed so much that there is no return.”

After schools closed in March, children learned from Zoom classes, or from take-home packets, or not at all. Parents helped as much they could. But they aren’t educators, and many still have to work. That might not be a problem for wealthy parents, who can hire private tutors or share resources with equally well-connected families. But low-income families face daunting obstacles. The pandemic deepens their disadvantages, and eats up whatever equity public schools achieve for their children. Teachers tell Intelligencer that they’re acutely aware that students in poverty are poised to fall further and further behind their more privileged peers. Rhodes, in Arizona, says that around 90 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced meals, and many are the children of essential workers. Other educators say that older students can be essential workers themselves.

“I had several students who, as soon as schools closed, were told, ‘Because you work at Walmart or you work at a local grocery store, you’re essential and we want you here five days a week,’” explains Jessica Salfia, who teaches high-school English in West Virginia and participated in the state’s famous 2018 teachers’ strike. “I had some kids who just sent me an email and said, I’m sorry. I’ll do what I can, but I’ve got to go to work every day.”

Salfia believes there are ways for lawmakers to help teachers bridge the gap that the coronavirus helped expose. “If virtual learning is now going to become part of our new normal, then broadband Internet and devices for students need to be a part of education funding,” she says. In Arizona, educators have called for a delayed start to the school year. Some teachers’ unions have also asked for instruction to move entirely online for the fall, deeming it the best way to balance a worker’s right to safety and a student’s right to learn.

“Academically our students will fall behind, but we can help them recover from that situation. However, our students cannot recover from death by coronavirus,” Kamp says, bluntly. Of course, neither can teachers, and some are now contemplating a return to activism. Kamp supported the state’s Red for Ed walkout in 2018, and says she’d support another one now. Rhodes also participated in Arizona’s earlier walkout, and says she can imagine a similar, socially distanced expression of outrage if Arizona’s Republican governor tries to force teachers back into classrooms. On Wednesday, a number participated in a series of “motor marches” asking the state’s governor, Doug Ducey, to delay the beginning of school. Others have signed a letter asking Ducey to delay all in-person teaching until October.

“I can tell you that something is going to happen,” Rhodes says. “There are going to be schools where teachers do not return because of this virus. And because the government or schools individually are deciding to say, ‘We’re opening school, and you need to be here to work.’ Which is going to be horrible.” Another Arizona teacher, speaking to Intelligencer anonymously for fear of retaliation, echoes Rhodes. “The reality is that organizing has begun,” she says.  She’s waiting to see what Ducey, a Republican, does next.

In West Virginia, Salfia says there are no definite plans for another walkout. But cases are rising, she notes, and teachers are frustrated. “There is a certain energy right now that feels very similar to January 2018. I think we are closer right now to a national teacher strike than we have ever been in this country,” she says.

The coronavirus may be life or death for teachers. But stakes were high well before the pandemic began. In 2018, the Red for Ed movement began a battle for the future of public education; the virus has not fundamentally altered the shape of the war. Salfia worries that to lawmakers and powerful figures like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the pandemic is just an excuse to privatize schools. DeVos herself suggested as much on Sunday. “If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise,” she said during an appearance on Fox News.

“There is no doubt in my mind it is a calculated attempt to dismantle public education,” Salfia says. “There is no other reason to put our teachers and our schools in danger and to push us to reopen.”

America’s Teachers Face an Impossible Choice