OPINION: District responses to COVID-19 harm bodies and spirits of teachers

Flowers were laid side by side along the school sign in front of Kemp Elementary School in Powder Springs on Monday, Jan. 25, to remember Dana Johnson, a first-grade teacher. She died last Thursday morning, six weeks after she was admitted to the hospital, said principal Billy Pritz. Another Cobb school community is reeling from the loss of an educator. Cynthia Lindsey, a paraprofessional at Sedalia Park Elementary School, who also died Thursday after she was hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-19.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Flowers were laid side by side along the school sign in front of Kemp Elementary School in Powder Springs on Monday, Jan. 25, to remember Dana Johnson, a first-grade teacher. She died last Thursday morning, six weeks after she was admitted to the hospital, said principal Billy Pritz. Another Cobb school community is reeling from the loss of an educator. Cynthia Lindsey, a paraprofessional at Sedalia Park Elementary School, who also died Thursday after she was hospitalized earlier this month with COVID-19. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Gwinnett teacher laments devaluation and dehumanization of educators during pandemic

Jairus Hallums is a Gwinnett County middle school language arts teacher.

In this guest column, Hallums talks about the dehumanization of teachers in the COVID-19 pandemic. This essay is a meditation on how teachers have been seen and treated during this pandemic, cast in historic context. Hallums holds a master of divinity degree.

You can read an earlier column by Hallums here.

By Jairus Hallums

Maude H. Jones. Dana Johnson. Cynthia Lindsey. Patrick Key. We speak their names in honor of who they were. We pay homage to their legacies of allowing themselves to be used to cultivate the lives of children and youth for years. We pause to reflect upon their willingness to put their bodies in harm’s way--to give of themselves--so that learning could continue for the next generation. As we remember their lives--and the lives of many educators across the nation--we reflect on the ills that assaulted theirs, and continue to assault educators’, in the coronavirus era.

Thus, this is the time to lament. It is also the time to confront the ways the bodies, and spirits, of so many have been harmed in this season. Join with me in this necessary lamentation, confession, and hopefully, a re-dedication to the cause of preserving the sanctity of humanity.

My body is a living being; it is not a thing to fulfill an objective. The objectification of bodies is at the center of many of America’s greatest ills. For example, the castigation, manipulation, and annihilation of Native Americans. The determined enslavement of African peoples. The unjust internment of those of Japanese descent.

The misguided, and detrimental, designation of female bodies as secondary--particularly those with tinges of color. The intense negation of queer and trans individuals. Movements, in our current day, continue to highlight the concerns. The #MeToo movement arose out of the objectification of female and male bodies. #BlackLivesMatter took center stage, as black bodies crossed into territory established for whiteness, and paid the ultimate price. Refugees, migrants--“others”--are seen as nothing more than bodies encroaching upon spaces designated by, and for, the dominant power.

Gwinnett teacher Jairus Hallums
Gwinnett teacher Jairus Hallums

This trend of turning subject to object continues in many different iterations: immigrant workers who have no choice but to work, who may be exposing themselves to disease; health care workers, who are subject to immense pressure on, and with, their bodies, while trying to save others’ bodies; and educators, who give of themselves consistently, only to be political objects functioning for the pleasure of, and benefit to, specific constituencies. In this season, we should reconsider the inherent uniqueness of humanity. Ultimately, reprioritizing what we deem sacred and valuable.

The concerns of educators are not just about the impacts of COVID-19. They are about the decentering of humanity. They are about the claims over our lives from power structures that deem our humanity as products for the perpetuation of egregious activities that benefits the few and harms the many. They are about the dismembering of our existence, such that the fullness of who we are is not acknowledged or honored. In this season, we must (re-)member the value of the fullness of humanity, (re-)claim the sovereignty over our bodies as an act of resistance against the objectification of our bodies, and (re-)center what has been de-centered, spotlighting the sanctity of human life, and building a society around it.

To be sure, the through lines of what I say cross through multiple occupations and disciplines, religious beliefs, and personal ideologies; but now, I speak from the position as an educator. (Re-)membering requires remembering. It requires us to recollect a time when wholeness existed. From there, we have a blueprint, of sorts, to piece together what was broken. The foundations of American democracy, and its partner, capitalism, are built with broken pieces of priceless vessels. This pattern of dismembering continues, today. The objectification of bodies prioritizes parts of one’s humanity over others, for the sake of accomplishing an objective. In other words, parts of one’s being are necessary for the “doing,” while one’s whole being is not; therefore, humanity is necessary for “doing,” and not “being.”

We hear “thank you for what you do” versus “thank you for who you are, and how you allow what you do to shine through.” When one’s skills and talents are the only focus, but not one’s existence, his being-ness, has been dismembered, thereby devaluing the essence of who she fully is. Nurses’ and doctors’ abilities are pertinent to the healing of other people; but when their being is not considered, they are put at risk. Teachers are needed for their specialized skills to educate; but when their being is not considered, the fullness of who they are is absent from decision-making from leadership in their districts.

All in all, acknowledging the part that is valuable is no compromise if devaluing the whole taking place. What is beneficial for the upkeep of systems and institutions oftentimes airs on the side of “part-focus” rather than “whole-focus”—which yields anti-human policies, procedures, and objectives.

As an educator, I am keenly aware of the parts of me that benefit my overseers. As long as my body is “doing” the work, the conditions or circumstances don’t seem to matter. Re-membering requires an acknowledgment of the wrong in denying the fullness of one’s humanity to present itself, and it requires the denial of the “part-over-whole” mentality that values what is beneficial and shuns what is priceless.

Beyond this, we, whose bodies have been claimed, must (re-)claim sovereignty. Human embodiment is the greatest currency there is. If it were not, then the greatest ills of history would not have come to pass. Power structures have oftentimes determined value over our bodies. Because of this, we, who are within these structures, don’t interrogate the premise by which we contribute to the objectives of the structure.

As “frontline” workers, we are freely giving of our bodies to protect, save, and build up the bodies, and livelihoods, of others. This has been taken advantage of, such that what is beautifully sacred is now devalued without just cause. For many educators, this reveals itself in mandatory reporting to school buildings, regardless of if students are in the building. Or showing itself in the lack of communication with educators prior to decisions being made--especially when they directly impact said educators. The claims over these bodies are explicit.

Thus—we must (re-)claim what has been claimed unjustly: our sovereignty. The agency we hold was not given by man; and therefore, cannot be dictated, and determined, by man. Any system, or institution, that depends upon the brilliance of humanity to succeed must relinquish any ideology that perverts the uniqueness, and preciousness, of humankind. The reminder for us is this: we control that which is necessary for the objectives of the institutions we operate within. It is not the other way around. In the safety of our acknowledgment that we are made in the image of God, there is liberty to claim ourselves in the face of everything—and everyone—that would seek to claim us, unjustly. (Re-)claiming ourselves may look like courageously asserting ourselves to leaders who would diminish us. Or simply--it may mean doing what is right for us. Caring for self has never been more important; therefore, taking time to love on ourselves is always right.

Finally, (re-)centering requires reprioritizing what is important. (Re-)centering requires challenging the status quo, and deconstructing mindsets of greed, individualism, and relativism. Other ideals, theories, and perspectives have replaced the inherent significance of humanity. What has been seen over the course of generations is the priority of [part of] humanity only as a medium for the perpetuation of benefits for the few over the many. Politics, policies, and economics have all played an increasingly heavy role in decision making, while lives have been at risk.

This de-centering of humanity reveals itself no better than in the cases of my fallen colleagues, from Cobb and Gwinnett counties, respectively: Maude H. Jones, Dana Johnson, Cynthia Lindsey, and Patrick Key. All of them gave of themselves; yet all were subject to priorities greater than them. And in the end, they all succumbed, leaving families, friends, and colleagues with a multiplicity of emotions.

Educators across the country have protested against in-person instruction, not because they believe remote learning is the best pedagogical medium, but because a global pandemic has disrupted all normalcy. Closer to home, educators in Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Cobb schools--just to name a few--have been forthright in demanding leadership to (re-)center what has been de-centered: their lives.

In a Gwinnett County Public School board meeting on Nov. 19, for example, J. Alvin Wilbanks, district CEO and superintendent, is quoted as saying, “If you are so unhappy with GCPS, we could accept your resignation at any time,” in response to an employee speaking about protections for employees and expressing frustration with how things were being handled by district leadership.

Even after the death of Cobb educator Patrick Key, the priorities were revealed by district leadership at a school board meeting Thursday when a school counselor asked for a moment of silence in the teacher’s honor. According to the Washington Post:

Key’s obituary mentioned his appreciation for wearing masks: “Patrick felt passionate about wearing masks during the pandemic,” [Jennifer] Susko read during the public comment time of the Thursday meeting.

Then, Susko asked for a moment of silence to honor Key, and for board members to put on their masks “as a tribute to this teacher who did everything you asked of him, even teaching through a pandemic.”

For the next 13 seconds, some members looked down, a few shifted in their seats. All were quiet. Most were wearing masks, but at least two men, including Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, who were not wearing face coverings remained maskless.

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While most Cobb board members on the dais were wearing masks, Ragsdale and board members David Chastain and David Banks were not and did not put them on during the moment of silence despite Susko’s entreaty, according to the AJC.

(Re-)centering reverses the equation whereby policy outweighs people. It recognizes that in these literal life-and-death situations, the standard rulebook does not apply. If it does, it reiterates the point that the sacredness of human life is subordinate, not supreme. If anything, this is the time when courage is needed in the face of the fear man induces, because this seems to be part of the problem. Hear this: discontent constituents will come and go, but the lives of diseased employees will never return.

My heart has been, and continues to be, heavy. I grieve with the families of the Cobb and Gwinnett teachers, respectively. My prayer is that we feel the full weight of their family members’ deaths, and confess all culpability in exalting anti-human tendencies over their lives, and the lives of colleagues, near and far, that they leave behind. Beyond this, it is incumbent upon us to (re-)member, (re-)claim, and (re-)center, as a means of rededicating ourselves to loving ourselves, and others, to life.

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