Commentary: Teachers are not ready for a return to in-person school

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Highland Park Elementary PTA hosts a "teacher parade," on Friday, May 1, 2020, in Salt Lake City as teachers and staff drive along most of the school boundary streets to celebrate teachers and students during the coronavirus pandemic which closed down schools.

At first, we weren’t sure anyone would come out for a “teacher parade.” But our students assured us they really did want to see us, even if it was only for a moment, even if it was just from the curb, and even if we never stepped out of our cars.

So we decorated our cars and drove up and down the streets in our school’s neighborhood, honking horns, screaming out names and waving until our arms were numb. Sure enough, the kids came out, and their parents came out, and their neighbors came out, and there were signs and cheers and drums and a few happy tears. It was everything.

Nobody wanted to shutter campuses in the spring, but as COVID-19 closed in on our state, just about everyone seemed to accept that it was the right thing to do. We had to flatten the curve. We had to protect the vulnerable among us. And even though our transition to distance learning wasn’t perfect — and goodness, it was nothing near perfect — the show of support from students and their families told us that they knew we were all in this together. We’ve never felt so supported.

But, oh, what a difference a summer makes.

Today, with just a few weeks to go before the school year begins again, we are growing distressed by the increasing pressure to return to campus without regard to whether it is safe to do so.

President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding for schools that do not fully reopen. “The science should not stand in the way of this,” his press secretary recently said. But for Trump, of course, the opening of schools is not a matter of life and death. For teachers it might be. Literally.

Put simply: We have absolutely no idea what will happen when we reopen campuses in any manner. That’s because no other nation that is experiencing an outbreak at this level has reopened schools. (And some that have at much lower levels have been forced to re-close them.)

We’ve heard a lot of people say lately that teachers are not babysitters. Moreover, teachers are not guinea pigs. Many of us are older, immunocompromised or suffering from chronic diseases that make us more susceptible to this disease. Others live with people who are more likely to die if they contract COVID. And all of us, no matter what age or health status, are entitled to grave concern: The long-term consequences associated with surviving COVID are absolutely unknown.

These are not unreasonable concerns. But they have been met with unreasonable derision. “Don’t come to work,” Salt Lake School board member Michael Nemelka said at a recent meeting. “Go find you another job.”

In comparison to such brash heartlessness, we are quite touched by the children who recently rallied, wearing masks and holding signs, asking for schools to reopen. Please know: We want schools to open, too, eventually — we just don’t want to have to choose between our jobs and the health of ourselves or our families. And we are concerned for your health, too; gratefully, we know children don’t often die of COVID infections, but we have no idea what this virus does to people in the long-run.

This is not to say that schools should not reopen under any circumstances — only that this should not happen when infection rates are so high.

In the meantime, a temporary continuation of online learning is an imperfect but far safer alternative to a resumption of campus activity. Indeed, that is the proposal that the Salt Lake City School District, after months of work and a wary eye on recent rises in infection numbers, presented to the school board on Tuesday evening. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Nemelka was quick to belittle the plan.

“Online teaching is just a lazy way of attempting to teach children,” he said. “I can give you example after example after example of what happened over the spring.”

With due respect, what happened over the spring is that teachers — with no time, no training and no tools to do so — cobbled together what we could to salvage the school experience for our students. It was triage. We would not expect Nemelka, a commercial litigator, to be able to step into a complex case in another area of law with no time or preparation. That he seems to expect a similar feat of us speaks to just how far removed he is for the realities of what we do.

There are still many obstacles to overcome. Online learning will not be perfect. But the scenarios presented for in-person classes are not perfect, either. Anyone expecting a “return to normalcy” this fall will be sorely disappointed when they arrive to see teachers in masks and face shields, desks spread as far apart as possible, and all manner of physical barriers dictating where students can go and where they cannot. And that’s before the first student, teacher, staff member or administrator gets sick. After that, the snowball effect will set in, and there’s no telling what school will look like.

Our job, as educators, is to do everything we can to meet every child’s needs. Right now, our district has proposed that any student who seeks to attend school online will be permitted to do so, meaning that in addition to risking their health, teachers who are ordered back into the classroom will be doing two jobs at once.

This is simply not viable.

Let us do our jobs the best way we can, the safest way we can. This is the best possible path toward reopening schools, once again, when the risk has subsided.

We are not asking for a parade, only for a decision that is feasible, sensible and safe.

Jill Buchsbaum

Heidi LaPlante

Macy Cook

Jill Buchsbaum, Macy Cook and Heidi LaPlante are elementary school educators in the Salt Lake City School District.