Governor Charlie Baker won’t issue a mask mandate for Massachusetts, instead leaving it up to individual cities and towns to make that call. But he has no qualms about mandating in-person learning for all school districts.
During a visit to a Salem school on Monday, Baker repeated the mantra that school must go on in person for 180 days, and not remotely. He’s not alone; that’s the consensus in Washington and across the country. As The Washington Post reported, the drive to keep schools open is based on research that shows “the less in-person instruction students received during the pandemic, the worse they performed academically, particularly lower-income students and students of color.” Yes, that’s a valid worry. But it’s hard to escape the corollary. If some teachers get sick as a result of an in-person teaching mandate, so be it. Meanwhile, a privileged swathe of white-collar America has been working from home since March 2020, and every COVID-19 surge and variant pushes back our office return date.
The pandemic continues to highlight America’s deepening class divisions, and where we are headed — “to a society of servers and the served,” as one reader recently e-mailed me. Teachers are falling into the server category, like workers who stock grocery shelves, drive buses, provide take-out food, ring up sales, or otherwise keep the rest of us as comfortable as possible during these uncomfortable times.
Many parents want schools open so they can either go to work or work from home, without pestering from needy, noisy children. That makes teachers essential workers, without the status that goes with the medical profession, or the clout that goes with law enforcement. Yet if teachers express health concerns and ask for schools to close, they are accused of laziness and wanting more vacation time. Remote teaching doesn’t get the same respect as remote journalism, or remote legislating.
In Massachusetts, this professional class divide is also driven by longstanding hostilities between Baker and the teachers unions. Beth Kontos, the president of the Massachusetts affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, acknowledges that some rancor toward teachers springs from the perception that unions are reform-killers. Politicians are always wondering, “What are the motives?” behind union demands, Kontos told me. And while cynics will disagree, she insists, “The motive of all educators is to fight for a better classroom environment.” From her perspective, bad feelings also linger from the fight over a 2016 ballot question that would have allowed more charter schools in Massachusetts. Baker backed the question, but unions waged a successful campaign to stop it. “We want to be partners with our governor, but he’s not interested in being our partner,” Kontos said.
The AFT Massachusetts, which represents public school employees in cities that include Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, Lynn, Peabody, and Salem, suggests a two-week return to online teaching, to give the Omicron surge a chance to peak. But in Salem, where he touted a state effort to deliver COVID-19 tests to public school employees, Baker said “The rules are pretty simple.” Only in-person learning will count toward the 180 school days that are required under Massachusetts law.
Through it all, Baker has insisted he’s motivated only by his concern for Massachusetts school children, and especially for their mental health. He also routinely cites the low COVID-19 positivity rates among students and staff. However, he’s relying on the most recent data released by the state Department of Education — before Omicron took hold — and some public health experts say he’s spinning the numbers to make his case. That makes it hard for teachers to argue that in-person learning endangers their health. On the other hand, some health experts say there’s nothing particularly risky about working in an office. Yet in Boston, many offices remain empty, and those work spaces are well ventilated and allow room for social distancing.
Now think of a teacher, especially one who presides over an elementary school classroom. Think of all those little faces in their face, all those little hands reaching out. Even with masks, how comfortable would anyone of us be, given the state’s skyrocketing positivity rates? A little more respect for what teachers do every day for other people’s children — along with options triggered by changing conditions — might bridge the gap between Baker’s mandate and union resistance to them.