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Opinion Teachers are vital public servants. Time for them to start acting like it.

Melissa Vozar sits outside of Suder Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 24. (Anthony Vazquez/AP)

It won’t be easy for President Biden to get America’s teachers back into public schools. Teachers unions are a powerful force in Democratic politics, and they’re resisting calls to return to classrooms where about half the nation’s kids ought to be sitting.

When asked about the issue on Monday, Biden seemed to back up the unions, saying the onus was on districts and governments to make the classrooms safer.

Behind closed doors, however, Biden’s message to the teachers should be straightforward and emphatic: You are vital, irreplaceable public servants. And it’s time you started acting like it.

You don’t have to be a parent to understand the growing perils of what’s euphemistically known as “remote learning.” It is basically a hollow and socially isolating echo of real school that has dragged on for almost a year now in scores of large districts.

According to Erica L. Green in the New York Times, a stunning 18 students in Clark County, Nev., committed suicide between March and December. Adolescence is hard enough under normal circumstances; navigating it alone, caught up in currents of social media and eddies of academic confusion, can be dangerous.

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In a recent Post piece, Lavanya Sithanandam, a pediatrician (and friend of mine) who runs a clinic serving minority families in Maryland’s Montgomery County, noted the disproportionate impact of online learning on her patients, who don’t have the same access to private tutors and high-end technology that richer parents do.

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African American and Latino children from low-income families in the county — Maryland’s largest — are failing classes at five to six times the rate they did a year earlier, compared with only minimal increases for White students.

These children are the most at risk, but any parent can tell you that the rising toll of teaching-by-Zoom is getting harder to calculate, even for those of us with all of the advantages. We’re spending untold hours counseling our kids through an emotional wasteland, Google searching late into the night so we can coach them through algebra or hydroponic gardening.

Last week, Montgomery County teachers rebelled against yet another plea from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to get back to school. The defiant district and its union claim that transmission rates are too high and that there isn’t time to put sufficient safeguards in place for teachers — although there is little evidence, to this point, that masked schoolchildren are actually spreading the virus in districts where they have returned to school.

If I were a teacher, I’d be worried too. None of us can seriously tell our educators that they wouldn’t be taking a risk by returning to school at this point, just as all of us would be by sending our kids. It’s definitely safer to be using Zoom from home.

What I keep thinking about, though, are all the times over the years I’ve asked leaders of teachers unions about some of the controversial reforms they’ve long resisted — merit pay, relaxed tenure, scaled back pension plans.

Every time, they’ve dismissed these ideas with the argument that teachers belong in a special category — that they are public servants, every bit as essential as soldiers and first responders, who forgo careers with higher pay and more prestige for the privilege of educating our children.

I actually agree with this. A lot of us do. We know teachers deserve more money and more respect, not less.

But all of those other public servants whom we can’t do without — cops and firefighters, nurses and National Guard troops, mail carriers and DMV workers, spies and bureaucrats — have been back on the job for months or never left. (Not to mention the workers at your local supermarket and drugstore.)

They show their courage and dedication every day, assuming some risk for themselves and their families. They were needed, and they answered the call.

Our teachers are needed, too. We can’t keep telling ourselves that online learning is almost as good, that there’s no incalculable cost to keeping a generation out of the classroom for a year or even two, that our schools are ingeniously fulfilling their missions under the most trying circumstances.

They’re not. They’re leaving parents — in many cases poor, stressed and ill-equipped — to fill in the educational gaps while also trying to stave off the loneliness and anxiety that stalks their children. The teachers in these schools have been forced to abandon their posts, and the unions are telling them to stay where they are and wait for the all-clear.

And so this is the message that I hope Biden will have the fortitude to deliver to one of his party’s most steadfast constituencies. Simply put: We believe that public school teachers are devoted public servants whose expertise and sacrifice are indispensable to the nation.

The time has come to show us that they believe it, too.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this column: Returning to classrooms is not as easy as some people think

Henry Olsen: Now is the time for Democrats to stand up to teachers unions

Rory Cooper: Fairfax County should open schools or stop vaccinating teachers

Helaine Olen: It’s time to admit it: Remote education is a failure

Emily Oster: Schools are not spreading covid-19. This new data makes the case.

Leana S. Wen: Most schools should close and stay closed through winter