I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?



It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

I’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


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28 thoughts on “I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

    • I wonder. The district where I live, McKeesport, has had multiple outbreaks and they just ignore the CDC guidelines and keep going. It may take multiple terrible tragedies to bring people to their senses.


    • That would be mighty fashionable, Lloyd. Unfortunately the gas mask is sold separately. I couldn’t imagine trying to teach in that. But who knows? It may come down to such a thing.


  1. Yup, same — but with the only two options being teach 100% in person or resign.

    While all the public schools here are either 100% online or hybrid due to rising case rates, private, tuition-funded schools’ survival depends on keeping up appearances and giving parents what they demand.

    So, like almost all private schools in my area, my former school will continue to operate in 100% in-person mode until the government requires them to do otherwise.

    My governor told the press last week that he was gobsmacked by how well the private schools have been working lately, with zero reported cases among them.

    He really thinks these schools are *reporting* their cases, bless his heart.

    It’s full-steam ahead, contact-tracing and public health be damned.


  2. Well, I used to teach welding and auto repair. And I must say, if I was still teaching, I would wear the Hazmat clothing. And I live in Arizona, where many crazies live, but I think the state will turn blue by November 4th, watch for it.


  3. Good luck. I feel for you. I teach in a small town and we’ve managed to teach in person and keep numbers down, but that’s not true everywhere. If you do decide to go back, I hope they’ll require masks. In any case, wear yours, and possibly a shield as well. I wear a microphone to help students hear me. I have plexiglass barriers for reading groups. We wash desks daily. Get kids to wipe them down as they come in the room. I hope your district will fund the supplies. Wishing you the best.


  4. Mr. Singer,
    I watched your 2018 Ted talk this morning. I don’t know if there is a transcript available online to read yet.
    While I am not a fan of Standardized tests, I mathematically Translate them into what I describe as the American Standard English version for interested parties. Nor do I support an unjust use of a single snapshot of academic knowledge.
    Your comment as I interpret it (in my own words) about the powers that be, who want a less than stellar education for a significant portion of the population…is one possible interpretation of my work.
    And while I could run with that interpretation, I also know what we learn for life is more nuanced than the story of a single voice.
    And I currently hold that position because I am a student of the field of education, its history, and several interrelated disciplines. Also, in part, because I have tried to follow Thomas H. Huxley’s advice to investigators:
    “Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”
    Respectfully Submitted


    • BKendall, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you found my TED Talk interesting. I thought about putting up a transcript but never did. I do have an article about the whole process though: https://gadflyonthewallblog.com/2018/04/30/burning-down-the-house-at-tedxccsu-speaking-truth-to-power-with-a-boom/

      When it comes to high stakes standardized testing, my voice is by no means alone. It is the overwhelming consensus of classroom teachers. It is an opinion shared by a huge number of parents, students and community members and an increasing number of researchers, historians and academics.

      I look at it kind of like medical leeches. In the dark ages some so-called medical professionals kept prescribing them to make sick people better. After a while the people knew this was the kiss of death in many cases, but it took the so-called doctors longer to understand – to overcome what they’d been taught by using simple empiricism. Judge standardized tests by what they actually do, by their effects. Judge them by their history, where they come from. Judge them by the people who keep pushing that they be used. The emperor has no clothes. Stop being a tailor for folderol.

      Thanks again!


      • Mr. Singer,

        Thank you for the link.

        Please, let me rephrase. The anti-test supporters have a single voice narrative with various nuances of the trope.

        The question I ask of anti-testers, “Do you understand the test results without having to be told what to believe?”

        I used to be one of them. I took educational authorities at their word as to the test results. Until I acquired a legislative responsibility to understand the measured consequences, and when I asked those who were supposed to be experts who understood the results, they could not answer my questions. So, I worked out how to translate them for myself and interested stakeholders.

        If I were to ask you or anyone who reads this, “What does a, “1132 combined SAT score” mean?” And they could not provide an answer the general public understands, then all they can do is read the numerical label. And are ignorant of the contents inside the can.

        Not only can I explain the label so a fifth-grader can understand it, but I can also open the can and do a thorough mathematical autopsy of the contents and explain the results to the same fifth-grader.

        And if the fifth-grader has all of their fifth-grade level mathematical faculties in Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division, I could teach them how to translate standardized tests. And yes, it is just that simple.

        And none of my comments are meant to tell someone to change what they want to believe.

        In some regards, I am an investigator who followed where the mathematical facts took me. My initial goal was to understand the results. Then I wanted to know why one group wants to eliminate testing, and another group wants to continue testing.

        Want to know what I discovered?

        Respectfully Submitted


      • BKendall, I’m a public school teacher. We are inundated by reports about what specific test scores mean. I get reports about my students CDT scores, PSSA scores, StudyIsland scores, scores on THIS diagnostic or that summative assessment or this formative one. It never ends. And somehow administrators think we can digest all this useless data and use it to educate with. It’s insane especially when this data really is useless. It doesn’t tell me a thing I don’t already know. I teach Language Arts and I know whether my students can read and write. You know how? I listen to them read. I watch them write. I talk to them. I ask them questions about what they read and write. I’m there every day in the classroom. These standardized tests are so many degrees removed. They measure from so far away when I’m right there with these kids every day. I know what a bad question is. I know the assumptions that go into a question and the limits of its answers when you’re limited to multiple choice. It is madness that we have mechanized assessment and put our fingers on the scales. I know standardized tests, all right. And knowing them as well as I do is what turned me against them.


  5. Mr. Singer,

    Read your April 2018 post, and I hope your health is still improving. And I could sense your excitement from the Ted experience, and I wish you the best of luck.

    Respectfully Submitted


  6. I’m in the same boat, except that there is no one qualified to teach my class. Instead the instructional coach at my school “teaches” my class, but does not supervise them while I sit at home on paid leave. So, essentially, one person is “teaching” remotely while another person babysits the students in person in the classroom. But for me to teach remotely would be too much of a burden. I’m at extremely high risk, but my district doesn’t care. I’ve never been so demoralized.


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