Gwinnett teacher: Why are leaders denying science and math of COVID-19?

A protester holds up a sign for a mask mandate in schools during the "School Safety First Rally" at the Oconee County Board of Education in Watkinsville, Ga., this week
A protester holds up a sign for a mask mandate in schools during the "School Safety First Rally" at the Oconee County Board of Education in Watkinsville, Ga., this week

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Teacher asks why lives and views of educators are often overlooked in discussions of reopening schools

Jairus Hallums is a Gwinnett County middle school teacher. In this guest column, Hallums talks about how the country’s response to COVID-19 reflects a disregard of the science and math skills we feel are so important for students to master.

It also shows a disregard for the health and safety of teachers, he says.

By Jairus Hallums

I am an African American male educator who teaches eighth-grade English Language Arts in the largest school district in the state of Georgia. One thing I always want my students to be able to do is keep their fingers on the pulse of the culture they live in. While they are young citizens, they still are citizens; therefore, their observations, their thoughts, their feelings should be acknowledged and fleshed out.

Their insights could provoke that which has not been provoked, encourage what has been discouraged, release what has been restrained, and shed light on what darkness has engrossed. Since it has been awhile since I have modeled a lesson for my students, and since I am being sent back into the classroom soon, I want to model how to do this, again.

Jairus Hallums
Jairus Hallums

Irony is a literary device in which a word or event means something different—and often contradictory—to its actual meaning. While there are several dimensions of irony—situational, dramatic, verbal—I will focus on the broader picture of the device. It would seem that within our multifaceted cultural contexts, that irony abounds. Follow along, as I think through what we see in our society, and read how I point out the unintended, and definitely, contradictory meanings that come from them.

The year 2020 carried significance as we all entered it. No one, except those who reside in, and work for, the White House, knew that the country would be overtaken by the novel coronavirus. As the energy of the disease increased globally, it became clear that the leadership this nation needed to guide us through the pandemic was going to be incompetent, at best. It became clear that the vision was blurry, or nonexistent, which would have—and still have—serious consequences. The federal government is in disarray. Our state government is inconsistent. Local governments are fledgling entities because there is no clear, compassionate, trustworthy state leadership. I don’t ever remember seeing a flattened curve in Georgia. Do you? COVID-19 cases have been increasing, consistently.

Mixed in with all this, is the continued blooming of racism, sexism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and the like, that have been planted, and replanted, for generations. The results have been incremental changes at best (e.g. Confederate monuments coming down), and staunch repudiation at worst (e.g. because “cops kill more white people,” says Donald Trump). It is clear that we are moving, but are we going anywhere? Much like working out on a treadmill: we can do plenty of walking and running, but go nowhere. The seriousness of the season we are in requires more than what we have. How is it in the year 2020 there is no clear vision?

Next, how are so many people who claim to be pro-life walking around with no masks, and encouraging the full reopening of schools? It would seem that insidiousness of individualism has concretized in the hearts of so many. “Pro-Life” essentially means, “my life.”

How often have we heard “I’ll risk it” or “I’m not worried about ‘Rona”? How selfish can one be? Life has been given to all of us, equally; therefore, we should do everything we can to preserve ours, as well as our neighbors’. By the way, for Gov. Brian Kemp to say that local governments are barred from taking more restrictive steps than the state is a clear exercise in white privilege. “Whiteness” will always seek to stand its ground when it feels pressured. By saying another decree is “unenforceable” is a blatant pushback on what is perceived as an encroachment upon supposed authority. To “encourage but not require” masks is to contradict an often quoted mantra of this “red” state: we are pro-life. Frankly — life is too precious for territorial temper tantrums. All life is either sacred, or it is not.

Further, how is it that there is such a strong push for students to get back into schools, to learn about science and math, when many national, state, and local leaders are denying the science and the math regarding COVID-19?

Our students are supposed to honor the material, but the adults are not? I must say as an educator, it would be hypocritical of me to teach one thing, and do something else. The science and math, now, reveal a starker situation than existed in March. What message are we sending to students, as they are trying to figure out how science and math relates to their lives, and their leadership is diminishing the evidence that these subjects have yielded?

Lastly, when I say, “Black Lives Matter,” that is a problem. Many will respond that, “All Lives Matter.” If that is the case, then how have so many educators been left out of the conversations on reopening schools? I know public education deems me more a machine than a human being; but last I checked, I still had breath—some life—in my body. Don’t I matter?

I went into this field knowing the significance of authentic education in the lives of students, so I understand the push for getting them back into the groove of things. Further, I, too, am ready for the kids to get out of my house, and stop eating up all my food. However, the reality is that there are so many variables.

What happens if I get sick? Mind you, I am in my early 30s (which is in that sweet spot of the age groups that has ticked upwards in numbers, recently), and I am African American (which means I could possibly be impacted in ways others will not.) Then, what happens to my family? What happens to my children’s teachers? My wife? Her co-workers? If you’re going to say, “All Lives Matter,” remember mine, too.

I am always grateful to be able to stretch my teaching muscles. I wish, however, I did not have to write this. Not everyone may agree with me; but I would hope, everyone could agree that life is precious, and that there should be greater attentiveness to the fullness of it for all.

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