Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Returning to the Classroom Safely Is Just Another Impossible Task for Teachers

By Richard Ullman — July 15, 2020 3 min read
00Ullman IMG (2)

As school districts grapple with the logistical details of resuming in-person instruction following a pandemic-ravaged school year, it’s becoming disturbingly apparent that they’ll have to engineer the reboot of the one ahead without much in the way of federal-level guidance. The mandate is simply: Reopen—or else.

Except for President Donald Trump’s recent proclamation, “We’re very much going to put pressure on the governors and the schools to reopen,” and U.S Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ steadfast insistence that “kids have got to get back to school” without offering any particulars as to precisely how, education policymakers on the state and local levels are presumably expected to figure out the specifics on their own.

Stated less diplomatically, the message teachers are getting from on high is: “Even though fully reopening schools while COVID-19 numbers are spiking is dangerous and unrealistic, just make it happen.”

As a recently retired public high school teacher, nothing about this delusional disconnect surprises me in the least. Indeed, during my 30 years in the classroom, federal and state policy mandates were too often misaligned with actual circumstances. It was commonplace for those policies to direct my colleagues and me to somehow defy basic principles of logic.

It was commonplace for those policies to direct my colleagues and me to somehow defy basic principles of logic."

Permit me to provide just a few examples from personal experience:

Teachers today are simultaneously expected to increase rigor while also differentiating and simplifying instruction so that learning is easy, nobody fails, and mastery is attainable by all. By any objective standard, those goals contradict each other, regardless of how much pressure comes from some chief executive’s bully pulpit or cabinet-level policy dictate.

Similarly, high school teachers in many states are tasked with making every lesson real-world relevant even though the year-end state exam on which both teachers and students will be evaluated emphasizes boring, irrelevant, and esoteric content. It’s simply not possible to consistently meet both of these requirements. Period.

From having to prevent physical altercations while also being forbidden from ever putting your hands on students to being told you must magically patrol your classroom, the halls, and student restrooms all at the same time, to being assigned a disproportionate share of accountability without any real authority or autonomy, the list of seemingly impossible job requirements for teachers has always been extensive. Have we forgotten that teacher morale and retention weren’t exactly at high levels before the COVID-19 crisis?

Still, none of these examples comes even close to the utter absurdity of forcing teachers, or anyone—including students, parents, staff, administrators, cabinet members, presidents, and, by extension, all others with whom they interact—back into a setting that actual medical experts say carries the “highest risk” for the spread of coronavirus.

During my three decades as a teacher, I also came to understand that the job is mostly denigrated and largely misunderstood by those outside of it. I got used to recognizing the subtext of what the public wanted from educators:

“If teachers really cared about kids, they’d disband their unions, happily consent to be at-will employees with zero job security (in a profession rife with politics and nepotism), work for less, acquiesce to every flavor of the moment reform, accept total blame for school underperformance, and allow themselves to be political punching bags.”

But, even when I was at my most jaded and hyperdefensive, I never expected even the most virulent anti-teacher, outside-the-classroom elements to quite literally say:

“If teachers really cared about kids, they’d cheerfully return to in-person, conventional instruction during a pandemic without a vaccine or proven treatment.”

Yet, here we are.

Just when you thought teacher dignity and morale couldn’t get any lower, it would appear the very real prospect of martyrdom has now become a job requirement for those who do the actual heavy lifting in the pedagogical trenches. Meanwhile, the power brokers who will never have to enforce mask wearing for children, coordinate social distancing (or, really, the illusion of it), or go anywhere near an actual classroom are presenting themselves as the real heroes for kids.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s the most egregious insult of all.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teachers
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD

Read Next

School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
Gremlin/E+
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor Invisibility to Inclusivity for LGBTQ Students
To the Editor:
I read with interest “The Essential Traits of a Positive School Climate” (Special Report: “Getting School Climate Right: A Guide for Principals,” Oct. 14, 2020). The EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and teachers provides interesting insight as to why there are still school climate issues for LGBTQ students.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked
In states like Georgia, the push to empower the youth vote comes to fruition at a time when “every vote counts” is more than just a slogan.
6 min read
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Brynn Anderson/AP