Many of the nation’s 3.5 million teachers found themselves feeling under siege this week as pressure from the White House, pediatricians, and some parents to get back to physical classrooms intensified — even as the coronavirus rages across much of the country.
On Friday, the teachers union in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, demanded full-time remote learning when the academic year begins on Aug. 18, and called President Trump’s push to reopen schools part of a “dangerous, anti-science agenda that puts the lives of our members, our students and our families at risk.”
Teachers say crucial questions about how schools will stay clean, keep students physically distanced, and prevent further spread of the virus have not been answered. And they feel that their own lives, and those of the family members they come home to, are at stake.
“I want to serve the students, but it’s hard to say you’re going to sacrifice all of the teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers,” said Hannah Wysong, a teacher at the Esperanza Community School in Tempe, Ariz., where virus cases are increasing.
School systems struggling to meet the financial and logistical challenges of reopening safely will need to carefully weigh teachers’ concerns. A wave of leave requests, early retirements, or resignations driven by health fears could imperil efforts to reach students learning both in physical classrooms and online.
On social media, teachers across the country promoted the slogan #14daysnonewcases, with some pledging to refuse to enter classrooms until the coronavirus transmission rate in their counties falls, essentially, to zero.
Now, educators are using some of the same organizing tactics they employed in walkouts over issues of pay and funding in recent years to demand that schools remain closed, at least in the short term.
It’s a stance that could potentially be divisive, with some district surveys suggesting that more than half of parents would like their children to return to classrooms.
Big districts like San Diego and smaller ones, like Marietta, Ga., are forging ahead with plans to open schools five days per week. Many other systems, like those in New York City and Seattle, hope to offer several days per week of in-person school.
Adding to the confusion, optional guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May set out ambitious safety precautions for schools.
But the president, and many local school system leaders, have suggested they do not need to be strictly followed, alarming teachers.
Many doctors, education experts, parents, and policy makers have argued that the social and academic costs of school closures on children need to be weighed alongside the risks of the virus itself.
The heated national debate about how and whether to bring students back to classrooms plays upon all the anxieties of the teaching profession. The comparison between teachers and other essential workers currently laboring outside their homes rankles some educators. They note that they are paid much less than doctors — the average salary nationwide for teachers is about $60,000 per year — but are more highly educated than delivery people, restaurant workers, or most staffers in child care centers, many of whom are already back at work.
Now, as teachers listen to a national conversation about reopening schools that many believe elevates the needs of the economy and working parents above the concerns of the classroom work force, many are fearful and angry. They point out that so far Congress has dedicated less than 1 percent of federal pandemic stimulus funds to public schools stretching to meet the costs of reopening safely.
The message to teachers, said Christina Setzer, a preschool educator in Sacramento, is, “Yes, you guys are really important and essential and kids and parents need you. But sorry, we don’t have the money.”
Earlier in the shutdown, Trump acknowledged the health risks to teachers over the age of 60 and those with underlying conditions, saying at a White House event in May that “they should not be teaching school for a while, and everybody would understand that fully.”
But this week, as the administration launched a full-throated campaign to pressure schools to reopen in the fall — a crucial step for jump-starting the economy — it all but ignored the potential risks teachers face. More than one-quarter of public schoolteachers are over the age of 50.
The CDC has advised against regular testing in K-12 schools, but Wednesday, Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said the Trump administration was exploring if testing being developed for other vulnerable environments, like nursing homes, could be used in schools.
Indeed, educators have had to process a head-spinning set of conflicting health and safety guidelines from Washington, states, and medical experts.
The CDC has recommended that when schools reopen, students remain 6 feet apart “when feasible,” while the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines suggesting that 3 feet could be enough space if students wore masks.