Usually, this time of year is about the excitement of a fresh start. At this point in the summer, the anticipatory butterflies unfurl their wings and I begin planning for the first weeks of school, thinking about my new students and ways to engage them.
In March, West Virginia was one of the few states with fewer than 30 cases of the novel coronavirus when our schools shifted to remote-learning. This week, cases exceed 5,000, and we lead the nation in person-to-person contact transmission; our governor banned gatherings of more than 25 people to ensure public safety. My district is planning for some form of five-day-a-week, face-to-face instruction (though our superintendent has emphasized that safety is our first concern, and that the plan could change before September). My high school English classes range between 20 and 30 students, and classrooms in my school district can have upward of 35 students. When I think about resuming in-person instruction, all I can think about is the danger we’re all in.
Remote learning this spring was challenging, to say the least. Students with access to broadband and the necessary devices, and who had parent support, seemed to navigate it fairly successfully. In my city of Martinsburg, however, some students have neither — and we’re just an hour outside of Washington: More rural districts have almost no access to broadband or even cellular service. Some of my students share a laptop or tablet among several siblings. A few, who worked part-time jobs at Wal-Mart and the grocery store, were told that they were now “essential employees,” and should report for daily 9-to-5 shifts, leaving little time for class Zoom calls.
Navigating an unwieldy digital environment, trying to be flexible while also holding kids accountable for their responsibilities, and helping our own children with their schooling, proved overwhelming. A colleague called what we were doing “triage teaching”: Our days are consumed with providing the basic necessities of instruction, attending to the most critical needs of our classes. We ended the school year without real goodbyes — holding drive-through graduations and desperately hoping that somehow, things would improve by the fall.
The pandemic has only intensified over the summer, and yet as ICUs across the country fill with coronavirus cases, federal and state officials are calling for schools to reopen, on the grounds that this is critical to economic recovery. The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are pushing states to “reopen fully” — even threatening to withdraw federal funding from states that do not open schools for in-person instruction. Devos has offered little guidance for a safe reopening of schools. In interviews, she’s insisted that “working families need to have their kids in school,” while extolling the virtues of the private sector and voucher systems.
Well, teachers in America are “working families,” and, like everyone else in this country, we know that it would be ideal for schools to reopen. In a normal year, I spend more time at the school than I do in my home. I love my classroom. I miss circling up shoulder to shoulder with a group of students to discuss Crystal Wilkinson’s “Water Street.” I miss seeing kids light up when they’ve written something really beautiful. I miss feeling the electric energy of “poetry share-out” days, when they read their verses aloud. I miss even little things, like seeing kids high-five each other in the hallways. I miss every part of my job. But I absolutely do not want to return to it until schools can reopen safely.
When I put a call out on social media for teachers in my county to share their concerns, within minutes my phone started ringing, and it didn’t stop. By the end of that day, I had been messaged, emailed or called by over 100 teachers from my district, sharing a flurry of questions. In the past two years, we had two statewide educator walkouts over inadequate funding: How can our state afford to make schools safe enough to return? Will our district provide regular testing for staff and students? Our governor just mandated that masks be worn inside all public buildings, but will masks be required at school in the classroom and during instruction? How will that be enforced? We already have a shortage of substitute teachers and over 700 teacher vacancies statewide — what if there is an outbreak and subs refuse to work? Over and over teachers asked: What if I get sick? What if my family gets sick? What if my children get sick?
Everyday interactions are suddenly colored with danger: passing through a crowded hallway, children mingling in the hallway, holding hands, sitting together in the lunchroom, sharing food, passing their phones across the table, sharing desktop computers, pencils. My school serves approximately 1,300 students. Each morning they surge through the halls after getting off the bus, greeting one another with hugs and handshakes, swapping books, sweatshirts, sips of coffee. Even with masks and gloves, contact is unavoidable.
Many of my colleagues who are usually purchasing new markers and crayons and classroom decorations this time of year are spending their back to school supply money on face shields, scrubs and hand sanitizer. Several educators I work with are creating living wills. Teachers are entering the school year preparing for the very real possibility that they won’t survive it. Since Columbine, I have known there was a chance I could die in a classroom, but I never imagined it would be like this.
The waves of recent teacher strikes, in West Virginia and across the country, have drawn national attention to the plight of public education — to low wages, inadequate health-care coverage, overcrowded classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, gun violence, the diversion of public funds to private and charter schools. For years, teachers have been asked to feed the 5,000 with only five loaves and two fishes, and we have. We have worked miracles with GoFundMes and bake sales to pay for classroom projects and field trips. We have faced the threat of school shootings. We have shouldered our mountains of student loans while buying classroom supplies out of our own pockets.
Now, for the sake of the American economy, we are being asked to endanger our lives, the lives of our families, our students, their families and our communities, with little sense of how we can possibly contain viral spread. This is irresponsible and dangerous — creating an environment ripe for further spread of a disease that still presents so many unknowns.
I have always been prepared to put myself between my students and a bullet; I am absolutely unwilling to be the gun.