Most of the concern around this question relates to the potential deadliness of school buildings and classrooms, the absence of teachers in decision-making during the pandemic, the hostility of the public toward teachers who have no control over their work conditions, the callousness of school board members who remain aloof from danger while requiring others to risk their lives, the politicization of science at the expense of reality, the meddling of politicians who know nothing about either health or education, and more additional challenges than I can list in a single column.
And that’s just the health crisis.
Teachers can be punished for mentioning the historical fact there is racism in the United States, and that it’s built into institutions. They are being told to do more with less, an administrative bromide that has never been based in reality. They are required to maintain curricular schedules in the face of spotty attendance, greater worries than diagramming sentences, community environments saturated in grief, their own families’ health concerns, and many other social challenges.
I think the question is appropriate right now. But I think it might require modification. I know of teachers whose schools are taking the pandemic seriously, requiring masks (if not vaccines) and taking other precautions to provide as healthy an environment as this pandemic allows. Teaching is not a universally horrific profession if you can find the right place. The problem is that there aren’t many of them.
I think other questions are appropriate, too.
Who would want to be a school bus driver right now? According to one survey, 81% of districts reported shortages of drivers, with over half of these shortages considered severe or desperate. It’s no surprise. Bus drivers were laid off during the year of remote learning, and they haven’t come back. With the average age 56, bus drivers are part of a population more vulnerable to COVID-19 and driving large groups of unvaccinated kids crowded into a long metal tube and doing what kids do. The pay is terrible, and the hours make it hard to generate more income in a gig economy; and drivers only get paid when they drive, which in ordinary years is about 180 days. Sick days? Please.
Here’s how one driver describes his day: “You get kids throwing stuff at you on the bus, you get the fights, the bullying, the name-calling. You have to be a chaperone on top of the driving. And we ain’t getting paid for that part of it.” After his second shift he “has to clean his bus for several hours, scrubbing away spilled juice and scraping gum off the floor.” He does this on his own time, of course.
Anyone ready to sign up for this job?
Who would want to be a substitute teacher right now? As one person put it, “People who are looking for work may not want to work in a place where there’s a lot of unvaccinated people like children.” A typical story came from the Riverside (Calif.) County district, where on a recent day, 176 teachers were absent—it happens a lot these days—and only 106 subs could be found to teach their classes, requiring overburdened teachers and others to cover their classes.
On an understaffed day at Edgewood Intermediate School in the Cincinnati area, when neither teachers nor subs were available, a parent reported her son was told to “do what he wants,” which produced a day of playing games on his computer. The parent, of course, complained: “I’m sending my kid to in-person school to get an education. I don’t need a babysitter. That’s not what he’s there for. He’s there to get an education. And if they’re not doing that, then they are failing.” The parent also failed to do anything like volunteer to help out during a global pandemic. Much easier to sit back and gripe than be part of the solution.
Who would want to be a school administrator right now? The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators conducted a survey to see how urban school leaders felt during the pandemic. Ninety-five percent responded with negative feelings: anxiety topped the list, accompanied by feeling overwhelmed, sad, stressed, frustrated, uncertain, and worried. These feelings match how teachers feel these days. If the pandemic weren’t deadly enough, these feelings can have a great, negative impact on overall health.
Who would want to be a school board member right now? They have been the subject of public outrage and threats of violence. If they don’t require masks (much less vaccines), they are protested by advocates for healthy schools. If they do require them, their meetings are overtaken by anti-maskers who, according to the National School Boards Association, engage in “domestic terrorism” to promote their views. School boards are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And that’s just from citizens. When a state governor takes the position that safety measures are optional, they tend to side with the anti-maskers and their anti-science beliefs.
Who is caught in this consuming maelstrom of anger and conflict? Teachers, of course. They have no say in how schools are conducted. Politicians never enter schools except for photo ops and then demand from the safety of their offices that teachers soldier on, no matter how deadly the march might be.
School boards capitulate to Golden Dome pronouncements while also steering clear of the deadly buildings whose policies they govern. Administrators follow suit, yielding to people who could use a good education about the meaning of “global pandemic.”
Teachers are then held responsible for not only teaching a curriculum written by other people and not skipping a beat, but covering the classes of colleagues who are not in attendance for reasons that affect their physical and mental health. Their classes are overpacked with kids who are fresh from school buses where there are no health protocols in place, if they can find anyone who will still risk their lives to drive them.
And teachers are the ones held accountable for educational outcomes. Who would want to be a teacher these days? I don’t know, but whoever they are, they must love kids and learning. It’s a shame that such love isn’t extended to them by those who decide how a school should be run.
The author of this guest column, Peter Smagorinsky, is a retired professor of education at the University of Georgia.