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Listen to the teachers

We've put them in an impossible position. The least we can do is hear them out.

A teacher in Mississippi checked a child's temperature before she entered her classroom for the start of school on Aug. 3.
A teacher in Mississippi checked a child's temperature before she entered her classroom for the start of school on Aug. 3.Janine Vincent/Associated Press

For a long time now, we’ve been asking schools, and the teachers who make them run, to make up for our failures as a society.

That’s truer than ever now, as we contemplate sending kids back into classrooms while the country is still gripped by a pandemic.

Because we have failed as a society in so many dimensions, we depend on schools to feed millions of children whose families can’t afford to put food on the table. Because we have failed, we rely on schools to provide stability to kids left homeless or housing insecure. We require schools to provide child care for those who can’t get parental leave, or sick days, or pay for care when they need it. We leave it to schools to counsel and nurture kids who are dealing with trauma, and have trouble getting access to health care.

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And now this.

Because we have failed as a society, we let a pandemic spin out of control, utterly avoidable infections and deaths rising to levels that are beyond unconscionable in a country this rich as. Some among us have turned basic safety measures into the stuff of pitched political battles, and lethal misinformation into an art. Instead of getting on top of the catastrophe, using the time the lockdowns bought us to beef up testing, emergency supplies, and planning, we are beset with continued shortages, and a patchwork of plans that turn “Which state do you live in?” into an existential question.

Because we have failed as a society, some kids have access to the tools and technology and support they need to learn at home, and others languish, beyond the reach of the only adults who can keep them on track.

Now we are contemplating dropping these failures, too, at the feet of teachers and others who work in our schools.

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We’re doing better here than in other states, after the dark days of the spring. But our coronavirus case numbers are starting to tick up again. And teachers are rightly concerned that bringing their students back into classrooms, even part time, puts them in an impossible position.

“Lawmakers expect schools to be the place where we solve all of a community’s problems,” said Merrie Najimy, head of the 117,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association. “Now they’re asking us to put our lives on the line.”

Most education officials have not made final decisions on whether there will be in-person learning in schools come September. But the pressure to send kids back into classrooms is immense, given the gaping inequalities revealed by the spring’s remote learning, and the imperative to get parents working and the economy out of its nosedive.

Najimy and her members are rightly alarmed at the prospect of a return, however. In addition to educating kids and tending to all else, it will fall to teachers to police safety measures. They will have to keep kids away from each other, make sure they wear their masks all day, spot concerning symptoms, and stay away from their colleagues. Anyone who has met a person under 18 knows how hard that will be.

And too many teachers will be attempting it in buildings that, far from providing adequate ventilation and space for distancing, are themselves crumbling monuments to failure — ancient relics, often concentrated in cities and towns that have also been hardest-hit by the pandemic.

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Back in April, as we struggled at home to fill their shoes, we were in awe of teachers. But, now, for too many of us, their pedestals have gone the way of hazard pay for grocery store clerks. Some parents are angry at teachers for trying to put the brakes on in-person instruction.

Their eagerness to get their kids back into classrooms is understandable. Remote learning is hard to make work, even for those with more advantages. Of course teachers want to see their students in person again — especially those who need their help the most.

But teachers know better than anyone the weight that reopening schools will put on them. Right now, they see it as too great a risk — not just for them, but for all of us.

Because of all the ways we have failed, we’d better listen to them.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.