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The case for treating teachers around the world as essential front-line workers

Instructor Chablis Torres reads to children in a preschool class, wearing masks and at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions, at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, Calif., on July 9. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers are essential. Yet during the novel coronavirus pandemic, they have not been designated as or treated as essential front-line workers in the United States.

Why not?

Essential workers are just that: People who do jobs that are considered essential by government officials to maintain public health and safety and keep critical infrastructure operations working when parts of the economy have been shut down.

In some countries, including Britain, some teachers and teaching assistants as well as social workers were deemed essential when the coronavirus hit this past spring. When Britain shut down to try to stem the spread of the disease, schools remained open for vulnerable students and for children whose parents had essential jobs outside their home.

But not in the United States.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), sectors deemed “essential” by federal and/or state guidelines include energy; child care; water and wastewater; agriculture and food production; critical retail, such as grocery stores, hardware stores and mechanics; critical trades, such as construction workers, electricians, plumbers, etc.; transportation; and some social service organizations. While at least 28 states labeled child-care providers as essential workers, teachers weren’t, according to the NCSL.

For one thing, local and state leaders deemed it more important to keep schools closed, even for the most vulnerable children, to avoid what could be significant spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. When the pandemic began, it was not clear how to keep people safe from the contagion when at close proximity, as they are in schools.

And during the spring shutdown of schools throughout the country as covid-19 spread, teachers did work — from home. While the remote learning did not compare to what students receive in class, school still happened on some level for most kids as the new disease spread around the world, and health experts raced to learn about it to create treatments and, potentially, a vaccine.

Not everybody agreed with the closure of schools, especially for students with disabilities, English-language learners and other students deemed to be at risk, but that was the decision made by school districts and states from coast to coast.

This post makes the case that teachers should be treated like essential workers not just in the United States but around the world, and it explains what they should expect to get when they are asked to return to schools even while the pandemic is still with us.

This was written by Alice Albright, chief executive officer of the Global Partnership for Education, and David Edwards, general secretary of Education International.

The Global Partnership is a multi-stakeholder partnership and funding platform whose goal is to strengthen education systems in developing countries. Education International is a global union federation of teachers’ trade unions consisting of more than 400 member organizations in more than 170 countries and territories that represents over 30 million education personnel from preschool through higher education.

It is worth noting that according to a report on essential workers by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit Washington-based think tank, many essential workers are not receiving basic health and safety measures, and some are dying from covid-19 as a result.

From EPI, here are some facts about essential workers:

  • Women make up the majority of essential workers in health care (76 percent) and government and community-based services (73 percent).
  • Men make up the majority of essential workers in the energy sector (96 percent), water and wastewater management (91 percent) and critical manufacturing (88 percent).
  • People of color make up the majority of essential workers in industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services (53 percent).
  • Nearly 70 percent of essential workers do not have a college degree. Three in 10 essential workers have some college (30 percent) or a high school diploma (29 percent). One in 10 have less than a high school diploma.
By Alice Albright and David Edwards

Schools around the world are slowly reopening, or preparing to, as part of a gradual easing of restrictions to curb the spread of covid-19.

Reopening in an unpredictable and stressful new reality brings a raft of challenges. How will schools protect children and teachers from the virus? What equipment and procedures need to be in place to make schools safe, and who will pay for these?

Every country will face these challenges. But the difficulties are magnified tenfold in developing countries, where the incidence of coronavirus infections is on the rise and the existing infrastructure is often fragile. Even before the pandemic, schools struggled to deliver the basics. According to UNICEF, nearly half of schools in least-developed countries lack clean water; nearly a third have no usable toilet.

Moreover, many schools in developing countries face extreme overcrowding, which is especially dangerous given the highly infectious nature of covid-19. Issiaka Coulibaly, who teaches math and science at N‘Gabacoro Secondary School in Mali, said: “In my class, there are more than 100 students. Under these conditions, both students and teachers are afraid of contracting covid-19.”

Coulibaly is not alone. A recent survey of member organizations by Education International reveals concerns about governments pushing schools to reopen too early. Asking teachers and students to return to school must take into consideration their health, safety and academic concerns.

Let’s be clear: Keeping schools closed indefinitely is not an option. The longer schools are closed, the harder it is for children to stay engaged and the greater the risk that the poorest and most marginalized will drop out altogether. This has lifelong consequences: The World Bank estimates that the cost of lost learning for this generation of students may already exceed $10 trillion in lost future earnings.

A hybrid in-person/virtual model, which many education systems are considering, has severe limitations in the poorest countries where only 1 in 7 people have access to the Internet and up to 1 billion people live without electricity.

Beyond book learning, schools also serve as a lifeline for the most vulnerable children — girls, poor students, children in remote areas — providing hundreds of millions of nutritious meals each day, safe spaces to play and access to psycho-social and health services. For millions of adolescent girls, staying in school protects them from teen pregnancy, early marriage and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

When schools reopen, teachers and school staff will become the new front line in our fight against the pandemic. For them to succeed, we must stop treating teachers as peripheral to this crisis. They are, in every sense, essential workers.

That’s why, first of all, teachers should, like every front line worker, get priority access to covid-19 testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and, eventually, to a vaccine.

Second, teachers like Coulibaly need to be involved in every step of planning and preparing to reopen schools. This starts with providing them guidance and health information and then helping them adapt solutions to the specific realities of their classrooms.

Only sustained consultation and collaboration among school systems, teachers and their unions and public health authorities, as set out in Education International’s “Guidance on Reopening Schools and Education Institutions,” can provide the confidence teachers and parents need to resume classroom-based instruction.

Third, schools — especially in poorer districts — need adequate funds to buy PPE, disinfectant and implement protective measures, and education ministries should seek efficiencies wherever possible, such as by centralizing contracts for the procurement and disposal of PPE.

It is important also that schools in developing countries have the resources to ensure there is clean water, soap and toilets for students and teachers alike. A covid-19 emergency fund established by the Global Partnership for Education is providing grants to more than 45 developing countries to support the safe reopening of schools.

Finally, teachers who are at high risk from the virus should be allowed to stay home and, where possible, enabled to teach remotely. Schools also need to have plans in place for future closures, and, to accomplish this, governments would do well to continue to invest in distance learning and in training teachers to use technologies that allow remote instruction.

For months now, teachers have been doing whatever it takes to keep students learning. If we expect teachers to step back into their classrooms, we need to prioritize their safety, involve them in decision-making, and empower them with the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves and their students safe.

Nobody wants to go back to school more than teachers. Just like students and their families, teachers want to go back safely. But teachers, like other essential workers, have the right to return to a work environment where occupational health and safety standards are being met, and those who are at high risk from the virus deserve to be protected.

To that point, Education International has identified five essential areas that governments need to focus on to ensure a safe transition back to on-site education and to mitigate the impact of the prolonged closures on students and educators. They are:

  • Engage in social and policy dialogue
  • Ensure the health and safety of education communities
  • Make equity a top priority
  • Support physical and emotional well-being and recovery
  • Trust the professionalism of educators

The challenge is enormous and complex, but the calculus is simple: We can’t invest in our children’s futures if we ignore the well-being of their teachers.