Forcing teachers into classrooms before it's safe is likely to mean a huge teacher shortage, middle school English teacher Kelly Treleaven wrote in the New York Times Monday.
Coming back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic meant things were "different," she explained. Instead of meeting in a classroom together, they stayed apart, talking over Zoom. No one knew about the specifics, because so much is up in the air. "We’ve been told our start date is subject to change at any time," she explained.
"We asked about short- vs. long-term disability plans on our insurance," she wrote. "We silently worried about a colleague who has an autoimmune disease. We listened as our counselor, who, along with her daughters, tested positive for the coronavirus the week before, shared how they were doing. We tried not to react from inside each of our little Zoom squares as we began to realize there was no way of maintaining true social distancing when school reopened."
An administrator kept repeating over and over again, "we're a family," as a means of explaining how to reduce exposure to the virus.
Ms. Treleaven said that she understood the sentiment, but wondered, 'Wouldn’t it be safer for our family to stay home?'”
She recalled her worst teacher, who made it clear she didn't want to be at work and warned that schools are about to be filled with teachers like that.
"Even before COVID-19, teachers were leaving the profession in droves," she explained, citing a report from the Economic Policy Institute. The shortage is looking "dire" she said, noting that she thought states would be panicking.
Instead, policymakers continue to kill education budgets, cutting jobs, stop raises for what small compensation teachers do receive, and roll back health care options. Any teacher begging for help because her building is filled with black mold is ignored. Teachers asking for safer conditions amid school shootings are handed a gun and told "good luck." Many teachers are forced to work part-time jobs so they can survive outside of their classroom job.
"So, a lot of good and talented teachers leave. When state leaders realized they couldn’t actually replace these teachers, they started passing legislation lowering the qualifications, ushering underqualified people into classrooms," explained Ms. Treleaven. "This has been happening for years. We’re about to see it get a lot worse."
She teaches at a school for gifted children, with the best teachers handpicked for the right job and they excelled, even when school went online.
"We called weekly — sometimes daily — to check on students whose parents had lost their jobs, whose family members had contracted Covid-19, or who we just knew were struggling. It was the hardest thing any of us remember in our careers, including teaching during Hurricane Harvey, which flooded tens of thousands of homes in this area. We were proud of ourselves, of each other, of our students," she recalled.
Still, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told teachers to get back in the classroom, even as coronavirus numbers are climbing.
Ms. Treleaven doesn't have the financial ability to quit, but she's thinking about leaving if she and her colleagues continue to be with so little dignity and respect. Already, some of the most respected teachers in her school have resigned and she's fearful more will follow.
"It’s our students who will suffer," she wrote. "Who could possibly replace the history teacher who created an improv comedy class that had kids laughing so hard they could be heard four doors down? Or the science teacher whose students’ projects have been sweeping various science contests, including one group whose research proposal was selected to be completed on the International Space Station?"
Americans act as if they care about teachers, but when it comes to policy, it's clear the support is just platitudes.
"If we force teachers to return to schools at their own peril, I don’t know how many will stick around. The politicians know they can’t replace us. But they’ll lower teaching qualifications until they do," she closed.