In a pandemic, a new school year is a source of panic, not relief, for parents. There are no good options, no way for anything to feel truly normal again. Some school districts are moving ahead with plans to reopen as normal; others are going all remote; and some are implementing a hybrid model. Each option represents a burden for parents. In-person instruction carries a certain amount of risk, especially in communities with high levels of viral spread. Virtual learning can bore kids and demands a level of involvement that working parents may not be able to provide, and the hybrid model may just double a parent’s responsibilities.
Circumstances being what they are, teachers’ unions — and many school districts — largely favor a virtual start to the school year. That’s an irritant for President Trump, who is fixated on returning children to classrooms. But Trump isn’t alone in his frustration. For some parents, too, teachers’ unions are an obstacle to their children’s education, a view articulated at length in a new piece for The Atlantic. Kristen O’Connell, who identifies herself as an intensive-care nurse married to a public-school teacher in New York City, writes that while she cared for COVID-19 patients in the spring, her husband “toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons.”
“He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too,” she added.
The idea that remote work and home education don’t qualify as doing one’s part for society is so pernicious that it nearly distracts from O’Connell’s core argument, which is both simple and widespread: If work is essential, it must also be sacrificial. That argument is worth examining, not least because it’s likely to reappear as parents cope with another semester at home. O’Connell has taken a view expressed most commonly in the pandemic policies of certain large corporations and extended it to teachers. The same thread is visible both in Amazon’s failure to get enough masks to workers and to ensure social-distancing in warehouses and in the insistence that teachers should head back into classrooms, whatever the risk.
To press her case, O’Connell embraces what she refers to as “military language.” The pandemic is a war, she writes, and teachers and nurses share an obligation to man the front lines. But she fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of a pandemic and thrusts teachers — and essential workers as a category — into positions they were never meant to fill. In doing so, she gives voice to a perspective that various commentators feinted toward for weeks. “Can someone explain why teachers aren’t considered essential workers?” Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera queried Twitter — the implication being, of course, that teachers ought to report to their job sites the way nurses and Amazon warehouse workers have done for months.
But the pandemic isn’t a war. When someone takes a job, they’re selling labor for profit, not enlisting to fight a deadly battle. Amazon workers, grocery-store cashiers, and fast-food cooks have all spent months protesting against that exact characterization of their pandemic-era lives. There have been walkouts, formal strikes, rallies, and whistle-blower cases — some involving nurses, members of O’Connell’s own essential profession. In fact, nurses are among the loudest voices decrying a lack of working protective gear, unsanitary conditions, and even the inadequate storage of bodies in hospitals. Some paid for their boldness with their jobs. The story of essential work during the pandemic is one of exploitation and struggle, context O’Connell ignores entirely in favor of urging teachers to fall into line. She doesn’t mention a single walkout or worker death and chooses instead to cast protesting teachers as victims of fear. The American Federation of Teachers, she writes, was wrong to threaten “safety strikes” over risky reopenings. “These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing,” she asserts, citing no evidence whatsoever for her point.
In fact, mask mandates are far from universal, and precise guidelines vary from state to state and district to district. Social-distancing will be difficult to enforce inside schools, and poor ventilation systems could spread the virus among students and teachers alike, according to experts interviewed by The Atlantic itself. Over 200 school workers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, have already been excluded from work over exposure or a positive test for COVID-19. Teachers face real and potentially deadly risks and not just because of the innate threat posed by the coronavirus. Local and state decision-makers endangered them further by pushing ahead with traditional reopenings or hybrid models, despite high rates of community spread, and by providing them with inadequate levels of protective gear. Ironically, O’Connell herself appears aware of that second threat, based on her own Twitter account:
O’Connell goes on to assert that 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.” Once again she cites no evidence, and, indeed, she can’t: Throughout the pandemic, teachers’ unions have demanded masks for their members, an indication that they do actually believe masks work. Their protests for safer reopening strategies aren’t really about mask-wearing either. They’re asking a different sort of question altogether, and it’s one O’Connell dodges: Can masks alone fully mitigate the risks posed by shambling school facilities or an inability to social distance? Teachers’ unions worry that the answer is no, and many have concluded that virtual learning, while flawed, is preferable to risking death in order to teach in person. At least teaching, unlike intensive-care nursing, can take place online.
That undermines O’Connell’s last strategy, too, which is to draw a direct comparison from her own work as an ICU nurse to the work performed by teachers. In both professions, she argues, workers accept a certain amount of personal danger because society can’t function without them. “What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on,” she said, which is true, and something teachers themselves have admitted in interview after interview after interview.
But the unsatisfying truth is that life can’t go on, not as it usually does, and teachers aren’t to blame for the situation. O’Connell ignores this; so does Trump, and so do the politicians and commentators who co-sign his call for reopened classrooms. There are obvious incentives for Trump and his allies to pit essential workers against each other. Workers themselves shouldn’t fall for the bait. O’Connell is right about this much: We’re in this together. What she doesn’t understand is that we have the same enemies, too. Legislators underfunded schools for decades, then failed, in many cases, to enforce safety measures that would have controlled the spread of the virus. They’re still failing parents — and teachers — now as Senate Republicans hold up rescue aid that schools desperately need. If parents want to know whom to blame for their plight, they should look to their own legislators.