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.


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?

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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!

27 thoughts on “The Teacher Trauma of Repeatedly Justifying Your Right To Life During Covid

  1. No surprise. I taught for 30 years (1975 – 2005) and often felt like I was like an appliance like a blender or vacuum that could be unplugged and stored in a closet until I was needed again. Also, I was replaceable if I didn’t like it.

    Imagine what it must be like to be a citizen in a country that values all of its citizens, not just the billionaires and millionaires that don’t care what happens to the rest of the people that are nothing but numbers to them.


  2. You’re totally right, of course. But you are lucky. In Florida, the state demanded all schools in the state open fully, 5 days a week and any child who wants to come to school can. Most teachers teach to virtual an in person students at the same time, all day. Teachers were forced back into schools. Pandemic classes are larger than non pandemic ones due to staff cuts due to funding cuts because half of students are choosing to remain virtual. To add to that, there’s no social distancing or cohorting or testing. Contact tracing is a farce the depth of healths cannot keep up. My district has had over 1,000 infections and the only ones tested are HS football players … so they can keep playing. And, the governor will not allow teachers and school staff to receive priority for the vaccine. We cannot strike – it’s illegal. Any job action also illegal. They know it is unsafe but they refuse to do anything.


    • I am so sorry you are having to deal with that, FL. You’re right. I have it better than many educators. None of us should have to put up with any of this. If we all somehow survive this, the trauma we will continue to suffer will be long lasting. It will take so much to heal from the wounds that have less to do with Covid than the reckless response of our so-called leaders. I hope we can hold them all accountable then for what they are doing today. Stay safe.


    • Utah is in the same boat. The hospitalization rates for people 15 and younger in Utah with Covid has risen 5000% (really), but the state legislature demands we all be open and parents are threatening to sue if we close. I wish more people would realize what’s happening in Utah, because bad education decisions seem to always happen here first before they spread.


  3. Your post is very one sided. What about all of the data stating the other side of the story? What about the long lasting affects and trauma the students will endure from not having the opportunity to be in school and have socialization? What about all of the students taking their lives from depression and being isolated at home? What about the kids who are not learning, being sexually abused at home, beaten, starving? School is a safe place for a lot of children. How do they come back from this? If we don’t get kids back in schools soon, the risks for our youth far outweigh anything you state in this article.

    You do have an option….find another job or take a unpaid leave. You live in a fantasy world. So many people have been working since the first day of the pandemic, but you think you are above that? Do you eat everyday and provide your family with three nourishing meals a day? How would our world survive if the grocery store workers, meat plants, farmers, and cooks at restaurants shared your same sentiment? We would all die from starvation.

    I am sure there are hundreds of eager, young teachers who would be happy to teach our children in person.


    • Tax payer, you have quite a laundry list of concerns for children during the pandemic. The problem is that most of these issues are not worse than death or suffering a disease with potentially life long consequences. Nor are they worse than suffering the loss of a parent or family member when a child brings the virus home. Lack of socialization or depression is important but it pales in comparison to reduced lung capacity or heart disease. As to starvation, schools are still providing free or reduced meals for pick up during the crisis. I’m surprised you don’t know that given your high level of concern in this post. I wonder if you were ever concerned about the effect of these social ills on children before Covid-19. Your nom de plume gives away your true concerns – money.

      But to return to the issues you bring up, some children do have terrible home lives. It’s a pity that we ask our public school teachers to serve as social workers, mentors, psychologists and saviors instead of as educators. This is an issue that will not be solved even if we open our schools to in-person learning. Moreover, getting sick and potentially dying will not improve the situation for anyone. As to school being a safe place, you seem to forget school shooters. With the pandemic there have been no school shootings for the first time in decades. There is also less bullying and racism. Unfortunately schools are not always safe places for every student as much as we try to make them so.

      How do kids come back from this? Students ARE learning in remote instruction. It’s not perfect but they are making academic gains. If their parents were paid to be home with them, kids would have more structure and support so they could learn even more. And on-line they do get to socialize – maybe not as much as in person, but they are not completely isolated, either.

      Tax payer, all I am asking for is a safe place to work. That should not be too much. It is a human right. It makes me sad that anyone would take the time to write what you did to deny me that. We were in a teacher shortage before the pandemic. It is worse now. There are not hundreds of people waiting to take my place. Many schools where decision makers want to open can’t do it because they don’t have the staff.

      There are some jobs that society cannot function without being done in person. Doctors and nurses for example need to be there in the ICUs. But teachers can do their work remotely. Every job that can be done that way, should be. And anything that is not necessary to keep us alive should be forgone until the danger has passed. Our government can pay trillions for endless unnecessary wars and tax cuts for billionaires, it can afford to pay people to stay home and contain the spread of Covid. We pay our taxes in return for services from our government. It’s time we get a return on that investment. Thank you for commenting.


  4. Here in the Houston area, the positivity rate has topped 20% and is increasing. Hospital beds and ICU’s are almost full but face to face instruction must go on.

    The short-sighted governor of Texas has put a system in place that when the positivity rate reaches 15% then a rollback of openings occurs. Bars close, restaurant capacity decreases to 50% and yet there is not provision for schools. It is absolutely absurd. It makes some sense when you know that he is just a trump parrot.

    If they truly want schools to open for face to face instruction, the daily instant result test must be part of the routine. No, we can’t do that, we don’t have the money. Yes you do, you keep giving it to charter schools.

    With this new strain, it is truthfully time to shut school buildings down for the remainder of the school year. With “gathering in groups” being one of the main factors in the spread, then gathering at school is a bad idea. Here in Texas 20% of all the people, kids and adults, are tied to schools. Keep 20% of the people at home and you will help slow the spread.

    Something to remember, people can recover from lost instruction. People can’t recover from being DEAD.


  5. Great perspectives one and all. Now let’s go about putting some great solutions into place. Mahalo from Hawai`i island in the state of Hawai`i.


  6. […]  I don’t love having my health concerns about Covid-19 ignored as the school board votes to make our buildings mask optional while their children are quietly quarantined in greater numbers. I don’t love explaining to my administrators or principals about how useless standardized tests are and being told that my opinion is wrong. I don’t love how my educated viewpoints based on decades of classroom experience are always silenced by charter school operators, think tank goons and newly minted principals fresh out of prep schools funded by billionaire philanthropists who make money off the standardized testing industry. I don’t love being called a hero if I put my life on the line to keep children safe during a shooting or emergency but vilified if I ask for reforms to make sure it doesn’t happen (again).   […]


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