The Teacher Trauma of Repeatedly Justifying Your Right To Life During Covid

I am a public school teacher and my life has value.

That shouldn’t be controversial.

But every few weeks in 2020-21 as the global Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread unabated, I have to go to a staff meeting and justify my right to continue breathing.

Administration and the school board want to stop distance learning and reopen the school for in-person classes.

Yet the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends all schools be fully remote in any county with a substantial level of community transmission of Covid-19. As of today, that’s every county in the whole state.

Allegheny County – the area near Pittsburgh where I live – has averaged about 600 new cases a day since the beginning of December. More than 1,100 people have died – 149 just in January, alone.

Meanwhile, teachers and other frontline workers have to wait to get vaccinated because UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the vaccine, is giving preference to its own office workers who do not come into contact with infected people.

Meanwhile, hospital beds in local Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are filling up. On average in the state, ICUs are at 81% capacity, slightly higher than the national average of 79%. That means UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside is at 104% capacity, UPMC East is at 94% capacity, Allegheny General Hospital is at 92% capacity, West Penn Hospital is at 91% capacity – heck! Even Magee Women’s Hospital, which mostly focuses on births, is at 81% capacity.

Meanwhile, the last time our district was open for in-person classes – a period which only lasted about 8 days – at least 30 people (both students and staff) were diagnosed with the virus and more than 70 had to quarantine. Covid-19 spread throughout our buildings like wildfire including an entire kindergarten class and almost every single adult in the high school office.

Yet it’s that time again!

Time to justify keeping things closed up tight!

It’s insane! They should have to justify opening things back up!

But, no, that’s not how things work in post-truth America.

So my life goes back on the scales with student learning, and I’m asked to explain why my employer and community should care more about me than their kids chances of increased educational outcomes.

It’s not even a valid dichotomy.

Risking teachers lives does not mean students will learn more.

People complain about student absences and disengagement online – issues that we can certainly improve if we focus on them with half the vigor of figuring out ways to reopen school buildings when it is not safe to do so. But swinging open the doors won’t solve these problems.

No matter what we do, these will not be optimal learning conditions. Even if students and teachers meet in-person, it will be in an environment of fear and menace – jury rigged safety measures against the backdrop of mass infections, economic instability and an ongoing political coup.

You may see it as a simple calculus – teacher vs. students – but the world doesn’t work that way.

You need teachers to teach students. If something is bad for teachers, it’s also bad for students.

Sick teachers don’t teach well. Dead teachers are even less effective.

But every few weeks, we’re back to square one. And nothing has changed to make in-person learning any safer.

In fact, scientific consensus has undergone a massive shift away from it.

A study released this week from the Université de Montréal concluded schools are spreading the virus in Canada and reopening would undermine any benefits from partial lockdowns.

We’re seeing the same thing in the US where Massachusetts schools reported 523 students and 407 staffers tested positive for COVID in just the last week.

We’ve seen similar outbreaks in Georgia and Mississippi, but the reason they have not been reported nationally is due to two factors. First, the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos refused to keep track of such data, though being a central repository for education statistics is one of the main functions of the job. Second, many students do not show symptoms of the virus even when infected. That means nearly all contact tracing studies show merely the tip of the iceberg and are potentially concealing massive infections.

And this is evident when we take a more national view of the facts. The Covid hospitalization rate for children has increased by 800 percent in the last six months.

More than 250,000 students and school staff contracted the disease between August 1 and the beginning of December, according to The COVID Monitor, a US News database that tracks Coronavirus cases in K-12 schools. That doesn’t even factor in the surge of cases since the Christmas holidays. Add to that the American Academy of Pediatrics report of more than 1 million child cases in the US.

The fact that the disease can go undetected but still be infectious is exactly the factor driving its spread according to a report from the beginning of January from The Guardian:

“A key factor in the spread of Covid-19 in schools is symptomless cases. Most scientists believe that between 30% and 40% of adults do not display any Covid symptoms on the day of testing, even if they have been infected. For children, however, this figure is higher. “It is probably more like 50% for those in secondary school while for boys and girls in primary school, around 70% may not be displaying symptoms even though they have picked up the virus,” says Professor Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”

However, the most comprehensive national study was done by US News and World Report. It concluded:

-The high school student case rate (13 per 1,000 students enrolled for in-person classes) is nearly three times that of elementary school students (4.4 per 1,000). 

-The higher the community case rate, the higher the school district case rate.

-Case rates for school districts are often much higher than case rates in the community. Meanwhile, these schools are often under reporting the cases of students and staff.

-The more students enrolled for in-person classes, the higher the case rate in the school district. Likewise, reducing in-person classes can reduce the case rate.

Despite all this evidence, many local districts act as if reopening is a fact free zone. Everyone has an opinion and each is equally as valid.

Wrong!

This time around, even some teachers have internalized the illogic.

We don’t have to behave like lemmings, all jumping off the cliff because the person in front of us jumped.

I understand that this is all being driven by economic factors.

The super rich want the economy to keep chugging along and taking the kind of precautions that would put the least lives in danger would hurt their bottom line. That’s why Congress has been unable to find the courage to pay people to stay home and weather the storm. It’s against the interests of the wealthy.

As usual, teachers are being forced to pay for all of Society’s ills. Schools aren’t adequately funded, so teachers are expected to pay for supplies out of pocket. Districts can’t afford to hire enough staff, so educators have to try to do their jobs in bloated classes and work ridiculous hours for no extra pay.

I knew all that coming into the job. But demanding I put my life and the lives of my family at risk because the government refuses to protect its citizens during a pandemic!? I didn’t sign up for that!

And the worse part is that it’s the same thing every few weeks.

We try to reopen, it’s a fabulous disaster, we close and then the clock starts over.

This isn’t good for the kids, the parents or the teachers.

How will I ever trust my administrators again when they force me to ride this merry-go-round?

How will I ever respect the school board when they can’t put petty politics aside for the good of their own kids?

How will I continue to serve the community when, as a whole, it can’t agree that my life matters?


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

What I Told My Students About Yesterday’s Attempted Trump Coup

The moment I had been dreading happened.

Student names started popping up on my screen waiting to be admitted into this morning’s first Zoom meeting.

What was I going to say to them?

Yesterday in Washington, DC, thousands of Trump supporters charged into the Capitol Building at his urging in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying his Presidential defeat.

What would I tell my middle schoolers?

What COULD I say?

We can’t offer you equitable resources. We can’t stop judging you with biased standardized tests. We can’t desegregate your schools. We can’t protect you from gun violence. We can’t even give you in-person classes because of a global pandemic the government has given up even trying to control!

And now I’m supposed to say that even the semblance of our democracy is up for grabs?

I started clicking on their names.

I only had a few moments before I had to speak.

I cleared my throat and began welcoming them, one-by-one as always.

And then it was time.

I stared at all these empty black boxes, and began.

“We’ve got to talk about yesterday,” I said.

“Not yesterday in class. That was fine. Everyone did an outstanding job on yesterday’s assignment.

“We have to talk about what happened yesterday in Washington, DC. Does anyone know what that was?”

And I waited.

Eventually I saw a few messages that individuals had their hands raised.

A few kids said that people had charged the Capitol. But that they didn’t know why.

So I explained it to them.

I told them how Trump was refusing to accept the results of the election. That he had lost, but continued to challenge it in the courts. Both Republican and Democratic judges had turned him down saying that he had no proof. So Trump spoke outside of the White House yesterday telling his followers to march on the Capitol, which they did.

At this point I noticed something strange on my screen.

The rows of empty boxes had turned into windows. No more memes or messages or generic names. Most of my kids had turned on their cameras and were meeting my eyes – in some cases – for the first time.

So that’s what Kelsey looks like, I thought. Wow! Marquis is really built. Is that little kid in the grey hoodie really Caulin?

I got flustered and stopped talking, but the students took up the narrative for me.

Some of them mentioned watching videos on-line of the riot. They saw a guy with horns in the President’s chair?

“No, I said. “That was the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate.”

“Wasn’t there someone at someone’s desk?”

“Yes, that was Nancy Pelosi’s desk,” I said. “A rioter broke into her office and put his feet up. She’s the Speaker of the House.”

And so it went on for a few minutes. They brought up things they had seen and I either clarified or supported them.

As a whole, they were wealthy in details but poor in meaning.

Most of the white kids seemed to be taking it ironically. The black and brown kids were more quiet and subdued.

A white boy wrote in the chat that it was “Civil War 2: electric bugaloo.”

I said, “Yes, you’ve hit on an important point. Some of these folks may have been trying to start a new Civil War.”

I tried to put the event in historical context.

I told them how nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. That the last time people broke into the Capitol Building like this was during the War of 1812 when the British tried to force the US to become a colony again. However, that was a foreign power invading our country. Wednesday was our own citizens seeking to overturn the results of an election, trying to overwrite the will of the people.

That’s when the first black student spoke up.

“Mr. Singer, why were they waving Confederate flags?”

“Yes! That’s true, Jamal. Many of them DID have Confederate flags and that’s really important.”

Before I could say more I got a series of rapid-fire questions from the same group who had been silent up to this point.

“Why didn’t the police stop them?”

“Why’d they steal stuff? I saw some guy walking away with a podium.”

“Why they so mad?”

I smiled and said that these were all excellent questions.


I asked if any of them knew who George Floyd was.

No one responded.

I told them he was a black guy who was murdered by police when an officer knelt on his neck.

After that happened, there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and others in several cities including Pittsburgh. The police showed up in riot gear. As these protestors demonstrated almost entirely peacefully – certainly more peacefully than what we saw in DC yesterday – more than 14,000 people were arrested.

“How many people do you think were arrested yesterday?” I asked.

“Didn’t someone die?”

“Yes, a woman was shot in the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies. How many people were arrested?”

“None,” said a student of color who hadn’t participated before.

“Why none?” I asked.

“Because they was white.”

I told him that he right and wrong. Out of thousands of rioters who broke into the Capitol, thirteen people were arrested. And the reason there were only 13 was because they were white.

I told them that this whole affair needed to be investigated. That we needed to know how and why the police responded the way they did. That we needed to hold the rioters accountable. That we needed to make sure those who instigated this violence were made to pay for it, too.

“Is Trump still President?” Someone asked.

“Yes,” I said. “For about two more weeks. But there are a lot of people who think he should have to step down sooner.”

So we talked about how he could be removed from office. We talked about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. We even talked about how Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook – how he couldn’t post or tweet but still could send a nuclear missile anywhere he wanted.

And then it quieted down.

I asked them if there was anything more they wanted to know or if there was anything else they wanted to say.

They were still.

A few cameras clicked off.

I told them that I was there if anyone needed anything, that their teachers were here if they were feeling anything and wanted someone to talk to.

And then that was it.

I made one of the most abrupt and inelegant transitions in my career and we returned to our normally scheduled lesson.

Did it help any?

I don’t know, but I told them what I could. I told them the truth as I saw it.

There was a time when I would have been more reticent about it.

But the day after domestic terrorists try to steal our system of government isn’t the time to hold back.

As a teacher, sometimes I feel so helpless.

There’s so much I’d like to do for my students.

I want them to get the resources they need. I want to stop the unfair testing, integrate their schools, keep them safe from gun violence and control Covid-19 so we can return to the classroom.

I want to live in a country where majority rule is cherished and protected, where no one thinks the collective will should be trumped by white privilege.

But when all those things are out of reach, I still have one thing left to give.

The truth.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!