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“I’ll start my 28th year teaching in a few weeks. But will I survive it?”

Teacher standing in front of a classroom of children.
As COVID-19 cases climb in Michigan, many teachers are wary of returning to in-person learning this fall.

Last week, the state’s largest teacher’s union said it would stand behind any teacher who didn’t want to return to an in-person classroom setting. Many teachers have expressed concerns about health risks, both for kids and for themselves, as well as the lack of funding to create safer conditions at schools.

Keith Kindred is one of those teachers. He teaches social studies in South Lyon and wrote this essay for Stateside.

Credit Courtesy of Keith Kindred
Keith Kindred is a social studies teacher in South Lyon.

I’ll start my 28th year teaching in a few weeks, but will I survive it?

I know that sounds dramatic. Silly, even, in a typical year.  But these are not typical times.

I’m in pretty good shape for 54, but I also have asthma.  That puts me at high risk if I catch the virus.  Several of my colleagues have elderly parents or family members who live with them and have health concerns that make them a much higher risk than me.

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you some are terrified they will bring the virus home.  Kids may not be as susceptible to the virus as older people, but studies show they are potent carriers of COVID-19. 

And there are a lot of kids in a school.

We live in the midst of a slow motion catastrophe, vacillating between scenes of apparent normalcy punctuated by the surreal. I looked up at the grocery store the other day and was unexpectedly jolted by all the masks, plastic dividers, one way traffic lanes, and the like. It felt like a dream.

I’m still not used to the new normal.

I’m also grappling with my new found status as an essential worker.  We teachers—no, our very profession—has been under attack for so long.  The debate about defunding the police brings a weary expression to our faces, half grin, half scowl; we’ve been defunding schools for decades!

But now I’m valuable, a front-line worker.  The economy must function.  Parents need to be able to work, for goodness sakes!

Most teachers don’t disagree with this reasoning.  But must we be thrown into this pandemic fire without reasonable protections?  Six months into this crisis and we are repeating the same mistakes we made with doctors and nurses at its outset.

Can’t we learn from those mistakes?  The lack of leadership at the federal level has put states in a bind, and wishful thinking seems to be spreading faster than the virus. Opening schools and opening them safely are two very different endeavors.

We are doing the former, folks, not the latter.  And it won’t just be educators and support staff who pay the price.

I love my district and the students I serve, but so far it looks like all we are going to get is masks and halfway measures.  We surveyed our community and close to 90 % of parents and guardians want to return to in-person schooling, five days a week.  Many adults won’t wear masks, or just as important, wear them properly, for 20 minutes in the grocery store, but I guess a class of 25 third graders will all day.

Well, teachers can figure that out, right?

Sadly, this is not the first time in recent years teachers faced the prospect of serious risk at work, even death.  School shootings mean I’ve been trained how to confront an intruder with a high powered assault rifle and take a bullet, if necessary. 

And you know what?  I would do it.  You may think that’s bravado, but I know I would.  I know most teachers would. Some already have.

But this is different. Billions of dollars have been spent on school safety in recent years, from cameras, to locked doors, to training and more. But state and federal governments have provided limited funding, at best, for making sure schools can operate safely. Other countries who opened schools have limited class sizes for social distancing, provided plastic dividers, extra funding for teaching remotely, testing that is widely available, contact tracing, and more.

But not in America.  Good luck educators.  Here’s a mask, some rubber gloves, and an alcohol solution for cleaning the desks between classes.  Oh, and guess what?  Pay cuts and layoffs are coming soon.

One of the things that has struck me about this pandemic is that we are getting a lesson in the crucial role of workers who haven’t traditionally been treated in a way that reflects their real value. If I had to choose right now between a grocery store clerk and a stock broker, it wouldn’t take me a nanosecond to decide.

Teachers don’t want to be called heroes.  We aren’t asking for pay raises and better benefits, or to have our profession treated with more respect. It’s not unreasonable to ask for those things, but not now. It’s a pandemic, a crisis like none we’ve seen in our lifetimes. 

We get it. 

But it’s ironic we are being told now that schools are critical to the functioning of our society and that we are essential workers. We’ve been telling you that all along, and it didn’t seem to resonate.  We’re so glad you now see the light.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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