Who Gets the Blame When Schools Shut Down?

Somehow, it is teachers who are held responsible -more than government failures or even COVID-19 itself – for pandemic-era school closures.

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad – The New Yorker

On Wednesday, January 5th, the Chicago public-school system shut down classes for all of its three hundred and forty thousand students, amid a surge of Omicron cases and a deadlock between the city’s administration and its teachers’ union, the latter of which is demanding a more comprehensive COVID-19 safety plan. Later that day, Leana Wen, a former Planned Parenthood president and Baltimore health commissioner, who is now a professor of public health and a frequent pandemic-era television commentator, tweeted a video clip of her latest CNN spot, filmed from her living room. She wrote, “Would it be ideal if all schools had daily tests & great ventilation? Sure, but that’s not reality. . . . Schools must be open.” She also pointed out that bars, restaurants, and sporting arenas had not closed down. Among those who replied to her tweet was the comedian Judah Friedlander, who asked Wen why she did not use her public platform to urge the government to close down restaurants and other venues (and make payments for business owners’ lost revenue), as that would slow the spread of the virus and improve schools’ chances of operating safely. Wen answered, “Lack of political will and public backing. Public health policy needs to be practical. Don’t call for something that’s not going to happen.”

What is “reality,” in this context, and what does it mean for an event to “happen”? These questions can be usefully applied to schools on Chicago’s West Side, which is reporting a thirty-five-per-cent COVID-positivity rate, with individual school buildings missing a dozen or more staffers and forty to sixty per cent of their students. (A teacher who works at a school in northwest Chicago told me that forty-three faculty members, out of approximately two hundred and twenty-five, were out on Tuesday, January 4th.) Can school be said to “happen”—can you “call for” it—if more than half of the students and a critical mass of staff are absent owing to positive tests, COVID symptoms, other quarantine protocols, caregiving responsibilities for COVID-afflicted loved ones, and (in some unquantifiable proportion) fear? Wen said that a “lack of political will” would doom large-scale mitigation efforts, and thus presented preëmptive capitulation as pragmatism—a venerable tradition among American liberals. Meanwhile, the shutdown of the Chicago schools was itself the result of at least two acts of political will: one by the Chicago Teachers Union, seventy-three per cent of whom voted to pivot, temporarily, to remote learning; and another by the Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who, in response to the union vote, cancelled all instruction.

Many public-school parents in New York City, who were relieved when the system returned to full-time, in-person classes last September, have been following the debacle in Chicago with some foreboding. (Many of these parents, of course, are also teachers.) In the days before the December holiday break, as Omicron swelled, several schools urged families not to send their children to school. During the break, eleven teachers filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court asking to switch to remote learning until January 18th. Immediately after the New Year, the principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn, facing what she described as catastrophic understaffing with no guidance from the city’s Department of Education, took the extraordinary step of shutting her school down, a decision that is officially reserved for district superintendents. Many other local schools seem to be teetering on a similar precipice. Since mid-November, I have spoken with dozens of teachers and principals across four boroughs, and most of them told me that their schools had seen shortages of special-education teachers, a near-total void of substitute teachers, and frequent COVID-related absences. “Looks like I’ll be a humanities / Phys Ed / Reading / Math teacher today!” a Brooklyn middle-school principal tweeted, on Thursday, January 6th. The same day, a teacher at an elementary school texted me that most of their kitchen staff was out with COVID, so their assistant principal spent the morning in the kitchen making sandwiches. As I was writing this piece, I received letters from my children’s school regarding at least seven newly confirmed COVID cases.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the COVID fires spreading through countless classrooms, the keep-schools-open refrain has only become louder in recent days. “The safest place for our children is in a school building,” Eric Adams, the city’s new Mayor, said on Monday, January 3rd, echoing many of his previous remarks. On Tuesday, President Biden said, “We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That’s why I believe that schools should remain open.” These comments remove adult educators from the picture; the emphasis on children’s safety isn’t entirely apt, given that classroom and school closures are, at this point, largely the result of staff shortages. (When the Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery pointed out this mundane fact, on Wednesday evening, the prognosticator Nate Silver responded by comparing school closures to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which suggests the tenor of this discussion in some corners.)

The erasure of teachers from these considerations of school safety is all the more striking given how present teachers become when the finger-pointing begins. “Teachers unions: Please stop the delays,” Wen tweeted, on Tuesday. “We need all schools to be in-person, now.” For many of the most emphatic critics of school closures, it is teachers, not the Omicron variant of COVID-19, who have thrown schools into this latest round of upheaval; teachers, not a governmental failure to address matters ranging from classroom sizes to H.V.A.C. maintenance to the distribution of tests and masks, who have wrenched a public-health crisis into the shape of an ugly labor dispute. Prior to the fall of 2020, in an effort to reopen school buildings, some school districts formally classified teachers as “essential workers,” that emblematic label of the pandemic, which at once valorizes the individual while stripping her of any agency: the essential worker simply must go to work. That label has largely been applied to low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color. Unlike many essential workers, however, teachers have a union, and all the possibilities of self-determination that go with it. They have been able to insist on different conditions for their work, and to force negotiations over those conditions. As a country, we have grown less used to such conflicts.

The United States, in the twenty-first century, is not good at providing public services, or at acknowledging the diversity of the needs of its public. There are teachers and children whose loved ones endured awful, solitary deaths in the first COVID waves, who are traumatized by those memories and who are not reassured by reports that Omicron is a mostly harmless variant. There are teachers and children who are immunocompromised, or who live with immunocompromised people, with similar misgivings. There are also children who rely on the free breakfast and lunch provided at school as their only guaranteed meals of the day. There are children who are legally entitled to special-education services through the public-school system and who cannot meaningfully access those supports across a Zoom link, or who can’t access them at all because they don’t have a reliable home Wi-Fi connection. There are teachers who, if schools go remote, will somehow have to instruct their students and facilitate their children’s learning at the same time. There are students who suffered terribly due to the social isolation and learning loss induced by as much as a year and a half of remote learning. And there are teachers who have been pushed to their limits—mentally, emotionally, and physically—by the apparently intractable “reality” of school understaffing, which forces them to teach enormous groups of children, or outside their specialty areas, or all day without a break, as their colleagues recover from COVID at home.

I am the single parent of a seven-year-old and a four-year-old. Like most children, they are not temperamentally well suited to six hours a day of watching YouTube and muting themselves on Zoom. For many students, remote learning was a disaster across school systems and socioeconomic strata. If school shuts down, it ruins my life; if school were to go remote indefinitely, as it did in the spring of 2020, I would walk into the sea. But I would do so with the understanding that it shut down because teachers were ill, quarantining, exhausted, scared, and largely unsupported by a government that is putatively charged with safeguarding their welfare. I would not want that to be the “reality.” But reality is not up to me.

Written by Jessica Winter for the The New Yorker ~ January 7, 2022

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