Why teachers aren’t going back to school: a physician’s take

All across the United States, elementary and secondary school teachers are refusing to go back to school. Before you join the growing lynch mob that’s going after these teachers, you may want to consider why they’re staying home.

For starters, many school boards make their decisions based not on what is best for students, teachers, or the community they’re supposed to serve, but on the vested interests of the individual school board members. In too many instances, school boards across the country have voted to reopen schools despite COVID-19 outbreaks because the board members who also run the bus services make more money when students are being bussed to and from school than when their buses are parked; the board members who also provide either food, fuel, or school supplies to the district make more money when students are in school than at home; and the boards’ members who also own the companies that provide services that maintain the school buildings and grounds make more money when school is in session than when schools are vacant.

When their school boards order the administrations to open their schools and keep them open despite COVID-19 outbreaks, certain administrations have resorted to tactics like significantly underreporting the number of cases of COVID-19 in their schools to minimize concern. They have also attempted to circumvent safety regulations by moving desks to within three or four feet of each other rather than the recommended six feet to squeeze more students into each classroom.

Many teachers who have witnessed the school boards and administrations’ legerdemain have refused to return to school while acquiring COVID-19 remains a threat. They have seen their colleagues become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, and they have seen how seriously ill many children can become when they acquire COVID-19 or its potential aftermath, multisystem inflammatory disease.

There have been various reports about the unlikelihood of COVID-19 occurring in the school setting. Such reports are misleading, misinformed, and misguided.

Through all of this, teachers have wondered why they have not been among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. They’ve wondered why grocery clerks, postal workers, and various ancillary personnel have been considered critical workers and offered vaccines while teachers who come into contact with hundreds of people daily have not.

Many teachers who have returned to the classroom after an absence have been disappointed by various substitute teachers’ lack of educational continuity. In many cases, their carefully constructed lesson plans were not followed by the substitutes and their classes were turned into glorified study halls.

In many school districts, qualified substitute teachers have been difficult to find, and even unqualified personnel have been unwilling to enter a facility where COVID-19 was still being spread. One rural school district has even resorted to hiring individuals without college degrees from a secretarial temp agency, and despite offering to pay $150 a day, still been unable to find glorified baby sitters to enter their COVID-19 infected facilities.

The biggest educational failure of school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic has been their inability to mix and match in-school instruction with home instruction via the internet. Going to school for a half-day, then being sent home because of reported COVID-19 cases, then trying to resume a lesson the next day with online learning, then returning to school the day after to begin the progression all over again has been a confusing and highly ineffective way for students to learn.

Considering the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic this past summer, most school districts would have been better off canceling in-school instruction for the entire 2020-2021 school year and moving on to full-time internet instruction. When they became familiar with such instruction and were not given any other options to continue their education, most students would have adapted to online learning and benefitted from it.

Before I wrote this article, I interviewed two medical couples who decided to home school their children until there was no risk of their children acquiring COVID-19 in school. Each couple has two elementary school children.

In the cases of both families, their children exceeded their educational goals and surpassed expected standardized test scores following the first semester of full-time homeschooling. In both families’ cases, their children kept in touch with their schoolmates and engaged in multiple social activities by phone, internet, and small live gatherings where masks were worn at all times and social distancing strictly enforced.

It has been difficult for the average American to understand exactly what has been going on during the COVID-19 pandemic and whether children belong in school during this time. Politically motivated newscasts and televised reports by several misinformed members of the medical profession have made it difficult for many Americans to get a firm hold on the truth and act accordingly in their families’ best interest.

As more Americans get vaccinated and become immune to COVID-19, the intense, but frequently unrecognized, pressure of living during a pandemic will cease. When it does, there will be plenty of time for everyone to look at the pandemic in retrospect and gain a clearer understanding of an extraordinary time that was difficult for everyone to endure.

There are times during their busy and complicated lives when most physicians feel unappreciated. Having taught at the high school, college, and medical school levels, I can honestly say feeling unappreciated as a teacher occurs much more frequently.

So, instead of throwing stones at teachers working in conditions most other professionals couldn’t begin to understand, the time has come to vaccinate them and allow them to return to their classes when it is safe to do so. Thanking them for all they do might not be a bad idea either.

Bernard Leo Remakus is an internal medicine physician. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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