Commentary: Teachers Should Do Their Jobs? I Can Assure You, We’re Doing More

Jessica Salfia poses for a portrait at Spring Mills High School , Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Martinsburg, W.Va. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr/Resolve Magazine

In March, schools across the nation closed in the face of the threat of the spread of COVID-19. With little to no training and even fewer resources, teachers like me shifted our classrooms from a physical space to a digital one. 

This past spring, my days were spent at my kitchen table bouncing between teaching my high school English classes via Zoom and online discussion boards while my husband did his work as a high school administrator remotely and helped our children – ages 13, 9 and 7 – with their own lessons and class calls.

Jessica Salfia poses for a portrait at Spring Mills High School, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Martinsburg, W.Va. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr/Resolve Magazine

This was one of the most stressful teaching experiences I have had in 16 years of teaching, but we, my family and I but also the educators and administrators I work with, believed that by shutting down schools, quarantining and staying home, we would beat the virus back. 

However, since the start of summer, I have watched in horror as counties and communities in Appalachia but also across the country have relaxed community restrictions and guidelines, opened restaurants and bars, and cases have exploded once again. Many rural school districts especially those that had few to no cases in March now have hundreds, and it’s time for schools to reopen. 

I recently wrote about the fears many teachers are experiencing and the struggle of remote learning for the Washington Post. Teachers understand that we are facing an impossible situation, and while remote learning is imperfect and in many cases inequitable, in-person instruction for many teachers and families is potentially life-threatening.

But the calls to return to in-person schooling from politicians and some members of the public continue to grow louder. 

Last week, The Atlantic published this unfortunate op-ed by New York City nurse and writer Kristen McConnell titled,I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did.” McConnell, whose husband is a public school teacher, argues teachers are essential workers and while she supports precautions for school workers and children, she opposes the idea that teachers’ unions would threaten to strike, as the American Federation of Teachers has, if school districts require a return to the classroom with what minimal social distancing measures they can manage. 

Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time,” she writes.“It’s time for teachers to get back to work.”

 Teachers should be thinking about children and get to work, huh? What makes you think we aren’t?

 When the school year ended and summer began, every teacher I know went to work to figure out the best way to teach vulnerable students while also protecting their health and safety. We’ve been providing feedback to our districts, planning for both in-person and remote instruction, and meeting remotely with administrators and senior staff to create reentry plans and discuss how best to open school safely. We have researched and collaborated and planned and trained.

The idea that educators have been sitting around doing nothing besides finding reasons not to return to the jobs we love is one of the most insulting parts of her argument. We all want to be back in our classrooms. We just want to be there when it is as safe as possible.

 But unfortunately, the more we learn about the virus, the more concerns educators like me have. Many schools across West Virginia and Appalachia have poor ventilation, inconsistent air conditioning and teacher and bus driver shortages. With cases spiking all over West Virginia, many teachers and families feel that remote learning is the safest scenario for their districts right now.

 It’s not just a question of planning, though. In her op-ed, McConnell also creates a false equivalency between her work as a nurse in a hospital battling the pandemic and the reopening of in-person instruction with teachers returning to public education classrooms.

 These are not the same thing.

Let’s start first with salary. According to Zip Recruiter, the average salary of an intensive care nurse in New York City is $104,202 a year, not including COVID care bonuses and overtime. A friend of mine who is a nurse in West Virginia was offered $15,000 a week in addition to her salary to go work in a New York City hospital during their COVID surge in April. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers in West Virginia are among the lowest paid in the country. Recent figures estimate that the average annual income for a high school teacher in West Virginia is $45,240. We are not being offered hazard pay to return to school in the midst of a global pandemic, even as cases continue to rise across Appalachia and the South.

In addition to the vast discrepancy in salary, I will not be provided full PPE while dealing with one student at a time like an ER nurse. Instead, I will be in a cloth mask in a room with 20 teenagers also in cloth masks — teenagers who may or may not leave those masks on. I will be trying to keep those 20 teenagers 6 feet apart in case they are asymptomatic, while teaching them how to be better readers, writers and humans. If I am exposed to COVID-19 and have to quarantine, there may not be a substitute teacher available to cover my class or my lessons. 

And then there’s funding. I have never seen a nurse or a hospital be forced to create a GoFundMe campaign for supplies or tools or instruments to do their jobs properly, but this is a regular occurrence in public education. I agree with McConnell that public schools are a vital and integral part of our society, but public education has never been funded like the essential service that it is.

Jessica Salfia poses for a portrait at Spring Mills High School, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Martinsburg, W.Va. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr/Resolve Magazine

Educators in America are not healthcare workers, but McConnell’s take is emblematic of the view most of America has of schools. Public schools are the catch-all – the societal safety net. In addition to an education, we feed kids that need to be fed and, in some cases, provide medical care and counseling they can’t access anywhere else. America’s teachers are given the responsibility of the social, emotional, physical and mental well-being of the children in our communities, and we have risen to meet these needs as best we can with our limited resources. So, is it any wonder that when asked to force our students and ourselves into a potentially dangerous situation we have balked?

 McConnell employs military-style language in her call to action claiming that “this is war and I’m a soldier,” and while this country has trained its teachers to put our bodies between our students and an active shooter, I don’t know the last time anyone went to war with 20 school children in tow. I will not take my students into “war,” nor should any teacher be asked to. 

We are conditioned to protect the kids in our care, and pushback against premature or unsafe school reopening plans is another version of this. Teachers are not whining. We’re making sure that when and if schools open, they are safe and can stay open. We are speaking out because we want our students, our families and our communities to be safe.

But so far, schools are not safe. Across the country, districts that are opening too soon, that are not putting appropriate safety measures in place, are having to immediately close and go to remote instruction because of COVID outbreaks. All that is an unnecessary stress on both teachers and students, and teachers are advocating for safety measures now so that we don’t have to be put in one of these situations.

McConnell cites that teachers, like nurses, are “called” to their profession. This may be true. I do feel that teaching is a calling. I am also a professional with multiple degrees asking for a safe work environment. If we open schools without the appropriate safety measures in place, and there is a viral explosion in our community, our friends, family and students might get sick and might even die. 

This is not the time for workers to be turning on each other. This is a time for worker solidarity. As Sarah Jones recently wrote for The Intelligencer, “There are obvious incentives for Trump and his allies to pit essential workers against each other. Workers themselves shouldn’t take the bait.”

 Because when we stop picking each other apart and look around, we’ll see the wealthiest folks in this country choosing remote learning for their children or forming “learning pods” and hiring private tutors. Most Board of Education meetings are still being conducted via Zoom for safety, and the President of the United States’ own child will be attending school remotely until the pandemic subsides. Even some primary care physicians and nurse practitioners are choosing telemedicine when possible so that folks can stay home where it’s safest.

 I would never begin to tell a nurse or any worker how and when to do their job safely. I believe that nurses are extraordinary. Ironically, this week a Facebook memory popped up from my second child’s birth, and I had written then of the nurses who attended me, “Nurses are the most amazing, hard-working people I have ever met.” I am in awe of all the doctors and nurses that have put themselves at risk to care for people during this pandemic and this country owes them a debt of gratitude.

But that is what they signed up to do — care for the sick. McConnell wants to argue that teachers advocating for safe returns, discussing safety strikes and objecting to unsafe reopening plans “aren’t doing their part for their country.” 

On the contrary, we are absolutely fulfilling the role this nation has asked us to fill. My essential service to this country is to provide young people with the best and safest educational experience possible, and more and more, advocating for our students, our communities and ourselves is just the type of “work” teachers are being called to do.

 Jessica Salfia, co-editor of the book “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike,” is a writer, activist and teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Her writing has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WVCTE Blog.

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