Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Teaching’s ‘New Normal’? There’s Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death

By Justin Minkel — November 17, 2020 4 min read
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Back in late March, a handful of COVID-19 infections in my state set off a justifiable panic. My principal hurried into my classroom that Friday, handed me a sheaf of worksheets topped by a hastily scrawled note to parents written in indelible marker, and told me to get them photocopied and sent home by the end of the day. We didn’t know, she said, whether we’d come back in school on Monday. We might not come back at all.

We didn’t. Kids, parents, and teachers struggled through emergency distance learning for the rest of the year in a kind of daze. We built the plane as we flew it and wondered some days if our shaky plane was about to crash.

Teaching had always been instinctive, but remote teaching felt weird and wrong. It felt like we’d suddenly been asked to teach underwater or in zero gravity.

We still did normal things: class read-alouds, team meetings, and lessons on seeds, inferences, and counting by tens. But through a screen, our students felt far away.

Beneath the surface normalcy, a whole lake of terror simmered. This virus was new, it was deadly, and it spread with dizzying speed. It felt like we were in a zombie movie, but instead of stockpiling weapons and nailing wooden pallets to the windows, we panic-bought canned beans and reminded our students that it’s a good idea to put pants on before joining a Zoom call.

The risks my colleagues are forced to take each day stagger me.

It’s amazing what we can get used to.

At some point in the course of these past few months, terror has given way to acceptance. America keeps burning with a staggering spike in new infections, yet teachers keep being told to report to work in conditions that could kill us.

My children’s school district here in Arkansas sends an email almost every day to notify parents of new COVID-19 infections. The most recent daily update listed 13 new infections among students and staff spread across six schools.

Three staff members at my school have tested positive for COVID-19. My friend in Wisconsin became the last teacher standing after every other teacher in his wing either got sick or went into quarantine. Shortly before his class went back to remote learning last month, one of his middle school students said, “I love scary movies, but I don’t like being in a scary movie. I could be next, right?”

Back when the pandemic started, our lives were off-kilter and scary, but at least we knew that. We were freaking out inside, but so was everyone else. Over time, the bizarre became ordinary.

Rates of infection that would have elicited raw terror six months ago are now being met with a shrug. There were a record 74,000 new cases nationally among children during the first week of November, which brought the total number of children who had tested positive to 927,000 since the pandemic started, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Note: The age range for “child” differs by state.) The zombies are winning in this movie, and it’s terrifying.

Every teacher I know could get seriously sick—today, tomorrow, or next week—just by showing up to work.

Statistically, most of them wouldn’t die. But they might lose their sense of taste and smell for a while, like my closest friend on our grade-level team did. They might get so sick they can’t lift their heads off the pillow, like a teacher at my friend’s school did. Following a partial recovery, they might return to school pushing a walker they never needed before contracting the disease, as a teacher in my town has.

That’s scary enough. But here’s the really terrifying thing: Every teacher I know, no matter their age, immune system, or level of physical fitness, could die. For no reason they have the power to prevent. Remote learning—while it can make you want to scream like the music teacher in the TikTok video “How I’m Handling Online Teaching”—has one huge advantage over face-to-face instruction during a deadly pandemic: It won’t kill you.

What’s weirdest to me about this whole lethal situation is the creeping sense that all of this—the fear, the infections, the mortal illnesses, and avoidable deaths—is now normal. Most of the school emails in my inbox could have been written before the pandemic ever happened: “Assessment for ELA unit,” “Does anyone have Dry Erase Pockets?,” and “Cookies in the lounge!” Sprinkled among these routine emails, the notices of new staff and student infections sprout like poisonous weeds in an otherwise ordinary garden.

This contrast—between the mortal threat of infection and the mundane business of another school year—rattles my bones.

Maybe it’s so jarring because I’m watching this lethal school year play out from a distance. A couple months before COVID-19 hit, I decided to request a year’s leave to focus on writing. The risks my colleagues are forced to take each day stagger me, and I wonder if that’s because I haven’t been subjected this school year to the “boiling frog” phenomenon that can make everything from wildfires to school shootings start to seem normal, if they increase gradually enough for us to get used to them.

But there are some things no one should have to get used to. Teaching in conditions that could kill you is at the top of that list.

Forced to choose between unemployment and potentially deadly school buildings, teachers have gotten on with their work with all the grit, grace, and gallows humor they can summon. Still, the collective effort at normalcy sometimes seems both noble and doomed, like those musicians on the Titanic playing their hearts out as the ship went down.

Connecticut English teacher Meghan Hatch-Geary wrote in the National Network of State Teachers of the Year’s survey on reopening schools, “Teachers are not expendable. Our jobs—our lives—need to matter here. We may do heroic work, but we are not actual superheroes. We are human beings. Our humanity needs to matter.”

We can’t let anyone—legislators, administrators, parents, the public—forget that mortal truth. There is nothing normal about forcing teachers to work in conditions that could claim our lives.

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