What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand washing, not touching faces, and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.
My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”
I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.
I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.
In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, “No, I can’t just chump out!” Chump wasn’t the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.
The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn’t my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed.