What Teachers Think About Reopening Schools in Fall
. . . And How Parents Feel About That
by Alexis Barad-Cutler
So we’ve just grazed our bare feet onto the soft, welcoming promise of summer — and already, it seems, the knives are out. Gone are the feelings of immense gratitude and empathy to our children’s teachers, that we were tweeting, posting, and making endless memes about. “Remind me to never homeschool”, became the running joke of February and March, as parents quickly realized the immense amount of patience, stamina, and resolve it takes to engage young children in doing hard things. As many families across the country sit anxiously wondering if schools will reopen this fall, so do teachers with families of their own. Where these two worries intersect is the hot, fiery debate that seems to be pitting one “side” against the “other.”
The conversation no one wants to have is the one where teachers express their reluctance to return to teach our children in person, or that some teachers even resent that parents would want to put educators’ lives at risk. It is an uncomfortable notion — that the person we expect to care for our child for all of the hours in the day that we physically are not there —actually doesn’t want to be there. Remember how jarring it was as a kid to run into a teacher in the neighborhood — at the grocery store, or at the movies? How we couldn’t imagine The Teacher existing in any realm other than The Classroom? The same dissonance seems to be at play here: realizing that our teachers may have strong feelings about not wanting to be at the front lines of a life-threatening disease can feel like a betrayal. “How can they exist in a feeling state outside of wanting to serve our children?”
This, of course, is completely irrational. But when it comes to matters of a pandemic that threatens life and death, or whether we can afford to put food on the table, or manage our own children’s mental health — irrational is kind of where we are living right now.
Many of us have experienced that guilty feeling when we observe the unnatural interactions our children have with classmates and teachers during Zoom meetings. We’ve seen our kids fall apart into tantrums, and revert into anxiety-induced behaviors due to lack of social interaction. The Promised Land of school beckons before us like a cure-all, where we suspend disbelief about the likely mass-spread of virus. We picture the pearly gates of the school-year opening to receive our children into the wide arms of smiling teachers, who will fix everything that went awry these past six months.
The debate about whether schools should reopen in the fall has also become an argument about what our teachers should be willing to sacrifice for the collective good. Distilled down, it is another kind of “Mommy War” (though that is such a cheap term), where on one side is the group (mainly teachers) that feels that managing a classroom during a pandemic is an impossible task without the proper support structures (e.g. copious sanitizer, mandatory masks, individual school supplies for each child). “I didn’t sign up for this,” is a constant refrain. On the other side is the group (mainly parents) that feels that even though this feels like an impossible decision for teachers, we have no choice but to send kids to school as long as we have to work. The retort: “No one signed up for this, but we all are eating dirt one way or another, so join the club.”
But the war we seem to be fighting against is grossly misdirected. We are all terrified of the future — whether we are teachers, parents, teachers who are parents, frontline workers, etc. This argument is a distraction (like most) from the real problem: When the dust settles after the scuffle, will we see clear as day how much we live in a world where childcare — no —children and those who care for them (including teachers) are not valued? Why is it that one of the last things to be figured out in the long list of questions the pandemic has raised is the one that has to do with our children, and their education? It speaks to not only a broken system, but tells us clearly what is valued above all else in our society — the almighty dollar. America wants us to get back to work, no matter the lives it costs.
Why do we value money/wealth so highly, and why are we willing to put lives at risk — young, precious lives — for the sake of capital? As anyone who has been paying attention to the Black Lives Matter movement of late could probably tell you, look no further than the structures upheld by white supremacy and patriarchy. Author and scholar Bell Hooks, describes these interlocking systems in her book “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice“; as “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” The white patriarchal idea of our ultimate value being tied to wealth and power is one we are raised into, and taught to believe since birth. And it is running everything — including how our children are going to live for the next year at least, and how they and their caregivers (and we) are going to live and possibly die.
This pandemic has been a gift of opportunities, and this is yet another moment to get fired up about tearing down broken systems, and rebuilding them. This is a chance to reframe what the meaning of school is in our society, the value we place on school and education, and where we place children in the hierarchy of our nation’s priorities. The next question is: What are we going to do with this gift, and how will we pass it on to the younger generations who will carry the burden of the real war we are living through now?