In spite of most of the US public being supportive of public education, our schools, and our children’s teachers, a small but vocal minority has been growing increasingly rambunctious about reopening schools. Recently, Dr. Ben Linas, a physician in Brookline, MA, added his apparently cranky voice to this debate, penning a piece for Vox titled, “I’m an epidemiologist and a father. Here’s why I’m losing patience with our teachers’ unions”.
According to Linas, “we have accumulated a massive amount of data about how to keep schools open safely,” and he points to evidence from Scotland, Singapore, and France to suggest that schools can be reopened, even without teachers receiving vaccines–a step he doesn’t believe is necessary to safely open up schools again. He goes on to say that while masks are a good idea, social distancing isn’t really a big deal…
One sticking point, for example, has been the union’s early and continued insistence that desks remain at least 6 feet apart at all times. This requirement mathematically determines whether there is enough space for learners in the building. Distancing is absolutely critical to COVID-19 mitigation, but there is no magical threshold that makes 6 feet the “safe” distance and 5 feet “dangerous.”
Curiously, Dr. Linas doesn’t include any “data” from Sweden. And there may be a reason…
A careful analysis of health data from Sweden suggests keeping schools open with only minimal precautions in the spring roughly doubled teachers’ risk of being diagnosed with the pandemic coronavirus. Their partners faced a 29% higher risk of becoming infected than partners of teachers who shifted to teaching online. Parents of children in school were 17% more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those whose children were in remote learning.
So while I keep hearing that “the data” are telling us it’s safe to reopen schools, I still have 2 questions:
- What data?
- Safe for who?
Because depending on what “data” you choose, it doesn’t sound too “safe” to reopen schools for teachers or their families.
At its core, Dr. Linas’ argument seems to be that he’s bored. He’s bored having his kids home all the time. He’s lost his patience. And instead of putting the blame where it belongs, on COVID-19, he’s decided to blame…teachers’ unions?
Well, who hasn’t lost our patience, doctor? We’ve all lost our patience. With staying home. Not traveling. Not seeing our friends and family members.
I had to watch my nephew get married on Zoom the other day.
Still haven’t met my niece’s newborn daughter.
We missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years celebrations with our families, and I haven’t seen my mother in almost a year.
My son lost the last part of his junior year in high school, and will do his entire senior year online.
I’ve been teaching virtually since last March, and miss my students and my colleagues every day.
We’ve all lost our patience, doctor.
But it never occurred to me to blame doctors or nurses–because it was clear that they were on the frontlines of this pandemic, and were doing their best to help their patients and their communities. And because I don’t have any expertise in medicine or health care, why would I choose to blame them for my loss of patience?
I also didn’t blame grocery store workers, or truck drivers, or restaurant workers, all of whom were being negatively impacted by COVID-19 but were still doing their jobs.
And even though neither of my sons particularly enjoyed virtual schooling, it never occurred to me to blame their teachers–maybe because as a teacher myself, I knew that teachers don’t have much power in the policy realm to make any decisions about whether or not schools should be open or not, and I knew there was nothing their teachers wanted more than to be back in school with their students.
But I also knew that many teachers were terrified of going back to school during the pandemic, and I understood those fears.
For many teachers, their schools weren’t safe places to work before COVID-19. The ventilation systems were dilapidated or broken down. Air filters hadn’t been replaced in years, and the heat either couldn’t be adjusted, made their classrooms hot in the summer and cold in the winter, or didn’t work at all.
Even before COVID-19 school bathrooms were scary places. Broken toilets, stalls with no doors, sinks that leaked or didn’t drain, mold growing on the walls. Adding a contagious virus to that mix spells disaster.
In too many schools, the windows wouldn’t open, or close. Or there weren’t any windows in teachers’ classrooms, period. The idea of teaching in windowless classrooms crammed with too many bodies was bad enough pre-COVID-19; during a pandemic, it’s panic inducing.
As for Dr. Linas blaming teachers’ unions for not allowing schools to reopen, I only wish that today’s unions were as powerful as Dr. Linas and the reopening lobby seem to think they are. In Michigan, Betsy DeVos took care of that years ago, knee-capping unions with her “Right to Work” legislation. In many other places around the country, teachers don’t even have unions to protect their rights.
Because that’s what unions do–they protect their members and their rights. They don’t make policy; they don’t decide how instruction is delivered; and they don’t decide when schools move to virtual learning.
In fact, in my 40+ years in education I can’t think of a time when teachers’ unions were more important or more needed than they are right now; during a global pandemic in which a small minority of extremely vocal community members have seemingly made the decision that their loss of patience is more important than the health and safety of thousands of their neighbors; neighbors who have dedicated their professional lives to taking care of their community’s children–often with low pay, diminished benefits, and especially now, an appalling lack of community support.
So, Dr. Linas, I’m sorry that the pandemic has caused you to lose your patience–a deadly virus will do that to you. But understand that the nation’s teachers are losing their patience, too.
And as a physician, I’d hope you’d be more willing to lose a little patience than to lose any more patients to this horrible plague.