Teachers Aren’t Sacrificial Lambs. No Essential Worker Is.
By Sarah Jones
In a pandemic, a new school year is a source of panic, not relief, for parents. There are no good options, no way for anything to feel truly normal again. Some school districts are moving ahead with plans to reopen as normal; others are going all remote; and some are implementing a hybrid model. Each option represents a burden for parents. In-person instruction carries a certain amount of risk, especially in communities with high levels of viral spread. Virtual learning can bore kids and demands a level of involvement that working parents may not be able to provide, and the hybrid model may just double a parent’s responsibilities.
Circumstances being what they are, teachers’ unions — and many school districts — largely favor a virtual start to the school year. That’s an irritant for President Trump, who is fixated on returning children to classrooms. But Trump isn’t alone in his frustration. For some parents, too, teachers’ unions are an obstacle to their children’s education, a view articulated at length in a new piece for The Atlantic. Kristen McConnell, who identifies herself as an intensive-care nurse married to a public-school teacher in New York City, writes that while she cared for COVID-19 patients in the spring, her husband “toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons.”
“He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too,” she added.
The idea that remote work and home education don’t qualify as doing one’s part for society is so pernicious that it nearly distracts from McConnell’s core argument, which is both simple and widespread: If work is essential, it must also be sacrificial. That argument is worth examining, not least because it’s likely to reappear as parents cope with another semester at home. McConnell has taken a view expressed most commonly in the pandemic policies of certain large corporations and extended it to teachers. The same thread is visible both in Amazon’s failure to get enough masks to workers and to ensure social-distancing in warehouses and in the insistence that teachers should head back into classrooms, whatever the risk.
To press her case, McConnell embraces what she refers to as “military language.” The pandemic is a war, she writes, and teachers and nurses share an obligation to man the front lines. But she fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of a pandemic and thrusts teachers — and essential workers as a category — into positions they were never meant to fill. In doing so, she gives voice to a perspective that various commentators feinted toward for weeks. “Can someone explain why teachers aren’t considered essential workers?” Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera queried Twitter — the implication being, of course, that teachers ought to report to their job sites the way nurses and Amazon warehouse workers have done for months.
But the pandemic isn’t a war. When someone takes a job, they’re selling labor for profit, not enlisting to fight a deadly battle. Amazon workers, grocery-store cashiers, and fast-food cooks have all spent months protesting against that exact characterization of their pandemic-era lives. There have been walkouts, formal strikes, rallies, and whistle-blower cases — some involving nurses, members of McConnell’s own essential profession. In fact, nurses are among the loudest voices decrying a lack of working protective gear, unsanitary conditions, and even the inadequate storage of bodies in hospitals. Some paid for their boldness with their jobs. The story of essential work during the pandemic is one of exploitation and struggle, context McConnell ignores entirely in favor of urging teachers to fall into line. She doesn’t mention a single walkout or worker death and chooses instead to cast protesting teachers as victims of fear. The American Federation of Teachers, she writes, was wrong to threaten “safety strikes” over risky reopenings. “These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing,” she asserts, citing no evidence whatsoever for her point.
In fact, mask mandates are far from universal, and precise guidelines vary from state to state and district to district. Social-distancing will be difficult to enforce inside schools, and poor ventilation systems could spread the virus among students and teachers alike, according to experts interviewed by The Atlantic itself. Over 200 school workers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, have already been excluded from work over exposure or a positive test for COVID-19. Teachers face real and potentially deadly risks and not just because of the innate threat posed by the coronavirus. Local and state decision-makers endangered them further by pushing ahead with traditional reopenings or hybrid models, despite high rates of community spread, and by providing them with inadequate levels of protective gear. Ironically, McConnell herself appears aware of that second threat, based on her own Twitter account:
McConnell goes on to assert that teachers “are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: The politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic.” Once again she cites no evidence, and, indeed, she can’t: Throughout the pandemic, teachers’ unions have demanded masks for their members, an indication that they do actually believe masks work. Their protests for safer reopening strategies aren’t really about mask-wearing either. They’re asking a different sort of question altogether, and it’s one McConnell dodges: Can masks alone fully mitigate the risks posed by shambling school facilities or an inability to social distance? Teachers’ unions worry that the answer is no, and many have concluded that virtual learning, while flawed, is preferable to risking death in order to teach in person. At least teaching, unlike intensive-care nursing, can take place online.
That undermines McConnell’s last strategy, too, which is to draw a direct comparison from her own work as an ICU nurse to the work performed by teachers. In both professions, she argues, workers accept a certain amount of personal danger because society can’t function without them. “What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on,” she said, which is true, and something teachers themselves have admitted in interview after interview after interview.
But the unsatisfying truth is that life can’t go on, not as it usually does, and teachers aren’t to blame for the situation. McConnell ignores this; so does Trump, and so do the politicians and commentators who co-sign his call for reopened classrooms. There are obvious incentives for Trump and his allies to pit essential workers against each other. Workers themselves shouldn’t fall for the bait. McConnell is right about this much: We’re in this together. What she doesn’t understand is that we have the same enemies, too. Legislators underfunded schools for decades, then failed, in many cases, to enforce safety measures that would have controlled the spread of the virus. They’re still failing parents — and teachers — now as Senate Republicans hold up rescue aid that schools desperately need. If parents want to know whom to blame for their plight, they should look to their own legislators.
Teachers strike for their lives
NFT SUPPORTS BLACK LIVES MATTER
In light of George Floyd's passing, the Norfolk Federation of Teachers would like to say that Black Lives Matter! It is sad that it has to be said at all. Our hope is that from here on it will not take the loss of another black life and worldwide protests for people to understand this fact. Now is the time to do more than just talk. We must stand together!!!
Norfolk Federation of Teachers
NFT OFFICE CLOSED BUT WE ARE WORKINGFROM HOME
However, we will be working from home Monday through Friday diligently checking emails, voicemails, and answering calls.
We thank you for your patience and understanding during this time.
Let's all stay home to protect each other! Together we can and will get through this.
WE APPRECIATE YOU!!!!
In the past, people have doubted the work that you put in. Now during this time parents are even more appreciative of the work that you do!!
you’re not at school, you work from home preparing lesson plans,
setting office hours, and weekly Zooms. Even during this crisis you
continue providing as much normalcy to teaching and learning as
possible. You give each and every student an opportunity to be their
best whether working from home or sitting behind a desk.
AFT MEMBERS ON THE FRONT LINE OF COVID-19
LISTEN TO THE TRUTH-TELLERS
As the year draws to a close, I am so grateful to the educators, healthcare professionals and public employees we represent for the extraordinary work they do every day to make a difference in our lives. I’ve always encouraged others to thank them, but this year, I’m asking that we go further: Let’s also listen to the teachers and nurses in our lives. They are truth-tellers who can reveal things we need to know about our country.
Let’s listen to teachers about how they stretch themselves to fill the void left when schools lack counselors, nurses and librarians. And, as some politicians brag about “the best economy ever,” educators can tell us about the other side of an inequitable America (link is external): the more than 1.3 million homeless students (link is external) in our public schools, and the 40 percent of Americans who can’t put together $400 in an emergency (link is external).
Let’s listen to teachers about childhood hunger (link is external), which makes it difficult to concentrate and learn. Educators know that, for children who experience food insecurity, school meals should be as standard a school supply as paper and pencils, and the inability to afford school lunch should never be used to shame a child. Educators are outraged that, two years after the GOP gave away $2.3 trillion in tax cuts (link is external), mostly to the wealthiest Americans and corporations, the Trump administration is cutting SNAP (link is external) (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for more than 700,000 people and free school meals for nearly 1 million children (link is external) living in poverty.
Many people marveled at the unprecedented “Red for Ed” movement—and then moved on. We should listen closely to the message that sparked this activism: that budget and policy choices like austerity and syphoning money from public schools fail our students and make teaching an even more draining and financially untenable profession. Educators are telling us what children need to thrive. In Los Angeles (link is external), striking teachers won class size limits, more librarians and a full-time nurse in every school. And in Chicago (link is external), educators secured a pledge that the district will hire more special education teachers and ensure every public school has a nurse and a social worker.
These activist educators know how essential nurses, therapists and other healthcare professionals are. Let’s listen to them, as well. They know that nearly half of America’s children experience trauma (link is external), that the high cost of healthcare forces many to delay care until they are severely ill, and that many families can’t afford the prescription drugs they need (link is external).
Let’s listen to educators who are speaking up against privatization cloaked as “reform.” In Houston, for example, the state’s Republican leadership wants to take over the school district, wresting democratic control from parents and the community. Houston’s public schools have close to an A rating from the state’s accountability system, but state officials have pointed to a single struggling school in their subterfuge to charterize and privatize the district’s public schools. Their ruse defies logic—when your house has a leaky faucet, you don’t put your home up for sale; you fix the things that need repair. Let’s listen to the educators, parents and community leaders who are fighting back and calling for the state to support public education, not sell it off.
Teachers have always had enormous responsibilities—to teach and nurture their students so they have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives; to help them develop judgment to be engaged citizens; and to make our classrooms and schools safe havens for students, especially now, as students fear mass shootings (link is external), and hate and bigotry (link is external) are on the rise.
Today, when many people believe we are in a war on truth, teachers are helping students to think independently and critically, to distinguish facts from falsehoods, and to make arguments in respectful ways. And as the very foundations of America are being undermined, our teachers are also called to be defenders of decency and guardians of democracy. That is why it is so crucial that teachers and all working people have voice at work, in our democracy and in our elections.
This weekend, the AFT and several other conveners hosted a forum on public education (link is external)
in Pittsburgh. Eight candidates for president shared their values and
thoughtful ideas for realizing public education’s role as a ladder of
opportunity for all our children and as a foundation of our democracy.
They understood that if you want to strengthen our country’s future, you
must care about our children and listen to their parents, advocates and
It often feels like we are living in an Alice in
Wonderland moment. As some people claim that up is down and down is up,
teachers are working to set things straight. Let’s listen to them,
because they are educating America’s young people, who all deserve
bright futures and on whom our hopes and aspirations rest. Teachers want
what children need, and that is good for all of us.
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Half a million kids could lose access to lunch
Educators are united against President Trump’s proposal to undercut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would take away food assistance from millions and deny access to free school lunches to half a million kids (link is external)