Opinion: The One Question Never Asked And Answered About Re-Opening Schools

Last updated on March 9th, 2021 at 08:11 am

When it comes to teachers, America sure has a love-hate relationship with them.

On the one hand, we often hear platitudes about the nobility of the profession and the important role of these committed folk with whom Americans entrust the development of their children for the lion’s share of every week.

On the other hand, teachers tend to be underpaid and work in underfunded schools with overcrowded classrooms.  Remember 2018, when teachers from West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado effectively engaged in mass strikes the likes of which our nation has not witnessed since the 1930s, motivated by lagging teacher salaries in those states and the woefully low levels of funding for public education? These labor actions were followed in 2019 by massive teachers’ strikes in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for similar reasons. 

Teachers in West Virginia reported qualifying for food stamps. And that the IRS now affords K-12 educators a $250 tax credit, in recognition that teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, effectively institutionalizes the acknowledgement that public schools are woefully underfunded.

So much for nobility.

Of course, when teachers speak up and advocate for the better learning conditions for students and increased support for the profession itself, that’s when the slander against teachers—and their unions–ramps up. Then we hear how people just go into the profession to get summers off, blahblahblah.

Indeed, the insistent call to re-open schools in the midst of a pandemic in no way under control has re-ignited, across the political spectrum, both the slander of teachers and the downplaying of the pandemic which seemed once reserved for right-wing crackpots, such as our previous president.

In January, the nation witnessed days in which we lost 4,000 people to COVID-19 on a daily basis. The pandemic is far from under control.

And yet the call to get teachers back into schools has been more insidious than earlier Republican calls to re-open the economy even though it meant loss of life, especially because teachers are in fact working and teaching, often harder and longer hours than ever.

Let’s not mistake, as George Will seems to, the call to go back to school as the call to go back to work. Will complains about the conditions some unions are placing for “its members to return to classroom teaching, for which they ae being paid,” a phrase that grossly misrepresents reality. Teachers are being paid to teach, and they are working harder than ever at it under very adverse circumstances.

Remember when Republican Representative from Indiana Trey Hollingsworth insisted re-opening the economy was more important than the lives such action would certainly entail?

He laid out the choice between opening the economy or shutting down to save lives this way:

“Both of these decisions will lead to harm for individuals, whether that’s dramatic economic harm or whether that’s the loss of life. But it is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter.”

Hollingsworth at least acknowledged the consequences of re-opening.

The likes of Will and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, to name just two among many voices, just simply ignore the ongoing dangers of the pandemic in insisting the CDC has declared schools safe for return.

Let’s actually listen to what the CDC director Rochelle Walensky actually says. 

She has made clear that the data, the science, “shows not a lot of coronavirus transmission when proper mitigation measures, including masking, distancing, dedensification of the classroom, ventilation, contact tracing, hand washing” are in place and being done well.  And she also stresses that teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations as essential workers.

Let’s underline the big “IF” and “WHEN” here. There is “not a lot” of transmission when IF these mitigating measures are implemented well.

Mayor Lightfoot has insisted teachers return to Chicago Public Schools prior to vaccination, calling for the union to reach a compromise.

Compromise with death? Is that what she means?

First, as a resident of the fair city of Chicago who has children attending Chicago Public Schools, I can tell you many of the buildings are ancient and lack proper ventilation. And as I write the temperature is 10 degrees, so windows ain’t going to be opened.

I myself work at a small state university in Chicago, and the administration walked away from the bargaining table when it came to assuring proper ventilation and safe air quality.

So, let’s really listen to what the CDC says. First, proper mitigating measures need to be in place. Our leaders conveniently omit this phrase when they lambaste teachers.

Second, what they are calling safe is “not a lot of transmission.”

At my own institution, which serves a large proportion of working-class students and students of color, the predominant expressions of fear and reluctance to return to campus come from students themselves who may take several buses to get to school and who live with extended family, including grandparents.

And while young children may be less vulnerable to COVID, they can certainly transmit it and do so widely.

And are we forgetting that over 450,000 Americans have died thus far, with 630,000 projected by June?

Indeed, in a recent poll, only 37% of Chicago’s parents said they would return their children to school.

This push isn’t coming from families.

And if Lightfoot and others really care about children, their families, teachers, and school staff, then just get teachers vaccinated, as many districts around and outside of Chicago are actually doing!

So here’s the question I have not seen our pundits and politicians answer:

What number have you decided on?

That is, how many deaths are acceptable to you to make opening schools worth it?

If only ten teachers, staff, or students die, is that worth it?

If an asymptomatic student transmits COVID-19 to ten people on a city bus who then each transmit it to ten other people, is that worth it?

And not just how much death, but how much sickness that may have long-term health effects we do not quite understand yet?

Please tell me, leaders and experts, what’s your number?



Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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