In the past 17 days, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has increased ten-fold in Tompkins County. While COVID cases increased, Ithaca City School District informed teachers that they would not be able to opt to teach remotely, which came as a startling announcement to many in our community as “teacher’s choice” had been a prominent talking point in the district’s reopening plan proposals.
There are no easy choices in the time of a pandemic, and the difficulty of decision-making is amplified when children are involved. My children and family, like so many others, benefit from and have relied on social development, counseling, special education, child care, and the countless other aspects of our schools that fall outside the basic learning of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
But schools cannot function without the service of teachers. These are the adults to whom we entrust our children. Too frequently, our country falls far short of a bare minimum level of respect for teachers, expecting them to pay out-of-pocket for classroom supplies and offering salaries so low that many need a second job. I fear that this is another time in which we will denigrate the teachers in our community.
We hear the refrain: the severity of COVID-19 is much less acute in children. The adults in our school buildings will not have this luck. We must face the very real possibility that the workforce that drives our schools may become ill. An outbreak of COVID-19 will put the ability to educate our children in jeopardy. In the approximate month since schools have opened in other states, at least six teachers have died from COVID.
The district suggested leaves of absence as an alternative to teaching in-person. Between scrambling to adjust their own childcare plans and the incalculable risk of in-person instruction, I blame no teacher requesting to take a leave.. However, accommodating this in a fair and equitable way may leave us with far too few teachers.
For those who must teach in-person, any confidence with which they held the safety of their schools has been broken. I cannot imagine the fear that so many teachers are facing, as they prepare to put themselves on the front lines of a pandemic. We may compare them to healthcare workers, but nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers are educated, trained and equipped (hopefully) to work with infectious disease.
Teachers feeling forced to teach in-person will have far-reaching effects for the future of our community. Beyond health risk, this situation degrades the trust between teachers and district administration. We will lose good teachers to other districts due to this.
There will be complications in any plan moving forward. Parents need to go back to work. Children absolutely need services that schools provide. The achievement gap between those with resources and those without will continue to widen with school closure. These are real issues that must be addressed. We are at a time that requires creative solutions. The solutions given by the administration of the district have been severely lacking, and I beg them to do better, starting by listening to teachers.
My own family has the luxury of being able to opt for remote instruction. I recognize that not all families will be able to do this, and I pass no judgment on any family’s choice. But a choice can be made with teachers and other students in mind. Many families need the childcare of school and many children need the support of in-person school. The more families who keep their children home, the more room there will be in schools for the students who must be there and the safer schools will be for everyone there. If you are able, I invite you to help our community decrease the density of in-school populations.This will increase the chance for teacher choice and make schools a safer place for those in school buildings.