RUFFOLO: Don’t push teachers back into classrooms during pandemic

Currently+about+8.5%25+of+Wisconsinites+have+received+the+COVID-19+vaccine%0APhoto+via+Flickr.+

Currently about 8.5% of Wisconsinites have received the COVID-19 vaccine Photo via Flickr.

In the midst of the frenzy surrounding teachers going back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to listen to teachers’ concerns for not wishing to return to in-person teaching and prioritize vaccinations. 

Schools across the country, especially at the elementary level, have been debating on whether or not to reopen schools for in-person instruction. Teachers’ unions have expressed concern and doubted the certainty in which schools are able to keep both faculty and students safe. 

Milwaukee Public Schools are still continuing with remote instruction with plans to reopen in April. Transmission rates of COVID-19 in Milwaukee remain in the “substantial risk” category, in which there are 50 to 99 total cases per 100,000 persons. If schools were to reopen right now, it would have to be partial with social distancing requirements in place.  

Chicago Teachers Union, however, was pressed to agree to in-person instruction for Chicago Public Schools, and in a 2-1 vote, the union voted in favor for students to return to school Feb. 11. Two concerns about returning to in-person learning were that the daily case rates in January were as high as last spring at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and that the risk for potential infections of variants is also high. Others have highlighted that Chicago Public Schools did not delay openings so that teachers would have more time for preparations and vaccinations.

In particular, people worry about how underserviced and underfunded districts will cope once schools reopen, as access to resources and ability to comply with COVID-19 safety requirements are limited. Things like social distancing, proper ventilation and vaccination distribution may be difficult for districts that are facing budget cuts or struggling to accommodate the growing student enrollment. 

Prioritizing vaccinations for teachers is an essential component of reopening schools, which makes it necessary that the vaccine be widely accessible and fairly distributed. For example, in Baltimore County, teachers are having trouble getting the vaccine, causing some to seek their own means of getting the vaccine.  

It is also important to consider the needs of teachers who are immunocompromised or have close family members who are. While schools may be sympathetic to teachers who have preexisting conditions, they may not as be accomodating to those with close family members who are. 

In addition, opening schools will disproportionately affect low income kids, who face higher risks when it comes to the likelihood of a family member in their household dying from the coronavirus, as they are more likely to work a job in which they are at higher risk for exposure and have less access to health care services.

With that said, those who advocate for schools to reopen make a compelling point. Remote learning, frankly, is not the same as in-person learning, and it has proven to be a struggle for both children and educators to try to learn and teach completely online. Elementary years are formative and it is important for children to receive a consistent curriculum. It is also worth mentioning there are disparities present in online education, such as how 4.4 million households do not have consistent internet access. This disparity in technology access causes inequalities among education. Additionally, 7 million school-aged children with disabilities are also struggling, as they have lost vital services to aid in their learning by having virtual learning. In-person instruction is ideal, and teachers are well aware of the struggles that remote learning has brought about.

However, we are still in a pandemic, and people are still dying from complications of the coronavirus. In order for schools to resume in-person instruction, there has to be pragmatic considerations first, such as how vaccinations will be distributed, how classrooms will be organized and how schools will equip faculty with necessary resources. Without these considerations, reopening schools will just bring forth chaos, with perilous outcomes for both teachers and students.

Before we force teachers to go back to schools, it is vital to listen to their concerns before in-person education can be truly safe and effective.

This story was written by Lucia Ruffolo. She can be reached at lucia.ruffolo@marquette.edu