Going to the mailbox each time, my heart flutters.
I open the lid and see a stack of letters. My heart sinks.
Is today the day?
Has my teaching assignment finally arrived?
It’s not that I’m so anxious to find out what grade I’ll be teaching this year or whether I have lunch duty or have to monitor in-school suspension.
It’s whether I get to live or die.
And that’s no hyperbole.
As the summer whittles down, my district has yet to release its reopening plan. Meanwhile, no communication from administrators or school directors, no public meetings, nothing.
Meanwhile surrounding districts release plans that go against Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines in the name of expediency, politicians use the issue to demonize teachers and rally their base, and our unions pretend the only problem is a lack of funding.
The Sword of Damocles dangles over my head and the rope that keeps it in place looks more frayed with every pendulum swing.
For a person like me with at least two pre-existing conditions, an assignment in the school building during a global pandemic could be a death sentence.
Teaching has taken a huge toll on my body. I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. Not to mention that I’m certainly not getting any younger.
That’s at least twice the average risk of getting COVID-19 if my employer decides to assign me back in the building.
And it’s something my doctors made a point of mentioning.
From the middle of June to the middle of August, teachers like me try to take care of all our personal needs before the hectic classroom schedule begins.
That means renewing clearances, financial planning, medical visits, etc.
So when I went to a routine cardiologist appointment, I was somewhat taken aback as the doctor told me, “Remember, you can’t get sick.”
“I’m sorry? What?” I said.
He had just given me a clean bill of health.
“Remember, you can’t get sick. You simply cannot afford it,” he said.
Then he went on to complain about living in a country that put economics before science.
I heard much the same from my gastroenterologist.
They were both furious at how the pandemic is being handled but had no more advice on how I could protect myself.
“If they want you to go back to work, what else can you do?” one asked me.
“Refuse?” I said.
I still don’t have a better answer.
It’s incredibly unfair that decision makers may force me to choose between my job and my life.
Teaching has been one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Every day I get to help kids become the people they want to be. I get to introduce them to a world of reading where voices long past get to speak to each of them individually. I get to show them how to participate in a conversation that’s been raging for millennia.
It’s challenging and exhausting and difficult, but I know I’m making a difference.
I love every minute of it.
But I love breathing more.
I don’t want to be buried under a respirator as my lungs slowly fill with fluid.
I don’t want to die gasping for breath.
Not if I don’t have to.
“You might want to update your will,” a friend told me with a grin when I mentioned this to him.
After 17 years in the classroom, years of helping kids learn how to read and write, years of listening to their needs and worries, years of helping them overcome their anxieties and fears, years of advice, counsel and friendship – is this all I’m worth to the community?
I chaperoned field trips with school directors and their children, I’ve taught board members kids and sat across from the adults at parent-teacher meetings regaling them with tales of mischief and academic triumphs. Will they now callously decide that I need to put my life at risk or else step down?
How many times did I joke and laugh with administrators, how many times did I try my best to do what they asked, how many times did I go above and beyond – and now have they no qualms about making my wife a widow and forcing my daughter to navigate the rest of her childhood without her daddy?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A sane society wouldn’t reopen school buildings when Coronavirus cases are spiking. A rational country wouldn’t politicize safety precautions, undermine scientists and disparage facts. It would pay people to stay home, suspend rent payments, provide everyone with personal protective equipment (PPE) and universal healthcare.
And it’s not too late.
By the end of August, we can continue the distance learning initiatives we began in the spring.
To be honest, there were a truckload of problems in April and May. But at least we know what they are and can do better a second time around.
We can make sure all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.
I’m not saying it would be perfect. On-line learning will never be as effective as in-person learning.
But any education attempted under the shadow of a pandemic will be less productive than under normal circumstances.
Distance learning is the safest way to go. Any academic shortfalls could be made up in subsequent years. But you have to survive first.
My life would certainly be at risk in the physical classroom. But so would every other staff member, children’s families and even the students, themselves.
The same people advocating for a full reopen of schools like to cite studies showing young people are immune or mostly asymptomatic. But kids were the first group to be quarantined.
As we have opened summer camps and daycare centers, an increasing number of children – especially those 10-19 – have gotten sick. And even the younger ones have been known to bring the virus home to their parents.
If my life has no value to you, what about your own? What about your child’s life?
Being a teacher kind of commits you to a sort of optimism.
To dedicate your life to young people, you have to believe the future can be better than the present and the past.
I let out a deep breath and went through the letters in my mailbox.
My assignment wasn’t there.
It may arrive tomorrow or the day after.
The uncertainty is hard, but it’s better than some certainties. I still have every hope that my community will not sacrifice my life.
But if it does, I will not go quietly.
I can’t be here for your kids, if I’m not here.
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