The Atlantic ran an opinion piece by a nurse arguing that teachers who have expressed doubts about returning to school in the coming weeks are deserters who are shirking their duty and threatening to bring about the collapse of American society.
As if this piece of garbage article deserves any attention at all, I am going to fisk it – to examine each problematic claim, one by one, to expose the flaws in the piece. Because why not.
I’m going to ignore the introduction, so let’s skip ahead to the big W.
We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way.
Wrong. Here in Georgia, the government has managed to control the outbreak – 206 active cases right now, about 6 new cases per day, and only 17 deaths in the entire country for the entire pandemic. The government just announced that in-person classes would resume on September 15th, but only if the epidemic situation allowed it. They also announced that there would be plans for school safety, but they did not specify what those plans would be except in a very general way. In some other countries that had controlled the pandemic, like Hong Kong and Israel schools were reopened but then had to be closed again. So, in these countries – countries that controlled our outbreaks – there is uncertainty.
In the US, there is no such uncertainty. If schools are opened at any point in the next month, people will die. Teachers will die. Family members of students and staff will die. Despite a low mortality rate, even some children will die. The US is in the midst of a completely uncontrolled pandemic, worse now than it has ever been, and opening schools will kill people. Of that, you can be dead certain.
Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses. What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July.
Two problems here. The first: Supporting “campaigns” but not “safety strikes” is a non-starter. Any teacher who follows education news in the US knows that striking is the only way teachers can ever get any leverage for needed changes. Without strikes, the government – which you’ve already admitted has completely mismanaged the virus – will just open schools without adequate safety measures. Oh, look, they’ve already started doing just that. Here’s a picture of a high school in the state of Georgia that opened yesterday:
Notice anything? No masks, no social distancing. And just for fun, here’s a picture of a graph of that Georgia’s daily new coronavirus cases:
And that brings us to the second problem. There have been literally thousands of new cases every day for a month in Georgia-the-state, including a spike of almost 5000 cases just twelve days ago. You can’t just hand-wave this away by saying “any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut”. They won’t. They haven’t. Hence the talk of strikes. The entire US is experiencing a spike in cases.
And to be even more precise – it’s not a “spike” in cases that we should be worried about. Localities that are on a high plateau also should not open. In fact I would argue that schools should not open until objective, numerical benchmarks are met with regard to a combination of indicators, which might include community transmission rate, test-and-trace capacity, positive test rate, and/or the overall reproduction rate of the virus in the community over a specified time period. It’s important to be precise about this because otherwise people will say “a nurse said in the Atlantic that a city can open as long as it’s not having a spike in cases”, but that’s not what the CDC says and even the CDC’s recommendations are, in my humble opinion, inadequate.
These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing.
As we saw: no, they’re not. Instead, they’re fine-tuning their infection and quarantine protocols. Schools in at least four states have already opened and then had to close or quarantine students and teachers because students tested positive, sometimes on the literal first day of school. In Indiana, one school shut down after a staff member tested positive, while another enacted its infection protocol on the first day after a student tested positive. That’s not “fine-tuning social-distancing measures” – that’s a revolving door for students and teachers brought about by woefully inadequate measures to prevent transmission in schools in communities where schools should not be opening yet in the first place.
Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The evidence on mask-wearing is as follows: There is solid evidence that mask-wearing protects other people, but the evidence that mask wearing protects the user is mixed, and the authors of the first paper point out that the primary public policy purpose of recommending mask usage is to improve “source control” – that is, to stop people from transmitting coronavirus to others. Cloth masks are also somewhat less effective than surgical masks, which are somewhat less effective than N95s, but fitting N95s is difficult enough that the general public won’t get much benefit using them over surgical masks. The effect of risk compensation is unknown, but the likely truth is that being in a crowded place without a mask is more dangerous than being in a crowded place with a mask which is in turn more dangerous than just avoiding crowded places altogether – so if wearing a mask causes you to feel safe and go into more crowded places your net risk may increase.
Therefore it is not ridiculous to believe that wearing a mask only protects other people. Surgical masks were originally developed to protect patients, not surgeons and, as I said above, this remains the primary function of masks in a pandemic from a public health perspective. It makes sense for public health officials to communicate this and thus it makes sense for this to be the public’s takeaway from public health communication.
The author calls social distancing a basic, effective health measure – and it is – but when teachers suggest that we ought not return to school, that is precisely what we are advocating. What do you think social distancing is? It’s not just standing six feet apart – but even if it were, even that extremely basic measure can’t be accomplished in a school without drastically reducing the number of students in each classroom and building; districts which do not have plans to reduce student attendance somehow are not planning for social distancing. In other words, teachers actually are being asked to work without precautions: without social distancing, without better ventilation, sometimes even without students having to wear masks.
Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time.
Correct. Which is why we should have had specific, actionable plans in place months ago for a safe reopening of schools or for a resumption of distance learning should it remain necessary. This pretense that we could get back to normal in September fooled approximately zero teachers, and rather than telling us what kinds of units and lessons we should plan to deliver in the absence of a normal semester, we’ve been told that we are going to lose what little funding we have if we don’t go back to full in-person instruction at the height of the pandemic. So yes, we have been thinking about how we can best support children and their families. Unfortunately, the answer is not “by preparing a form letter to be sent to parents in the event of a student or teacher death” nor is it allowing children and families to think that they and their loved ones will be safe if they come back to school.
It turns out that the best way that we can support children and families is by using our education, status, and position in society to advocate for a reasonable, safe, data-driven approach to reopening schools, and for mitigation measures when we can’t reopen schools. We need to make sure that our students have access to computers and the internet, to reading materials, to healthy food, and to safe places to study. Teachers can’t do that ourselves, so, again, the best we can do is advocacy. Which is why we’re advocating that we delay in-person reopening.
Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.
Education is essential to the functioning of our society. Homeschooled students get education without schools. If the author were concerned with education, she might consider ways to deliver education safely when in-person, indoor classes are not feasible. But it’s telling that the author said “schools” because what “schools” provide is not education – teachers provide that – but a place to keep kids while parents work.
So now we’ve reached the core of the author’s point. Parents need to go back to work, so students need to go back to school, so teachers need to show up and babysit. The author later says:
What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.
“Life as we know it” – that’s what this is about. The author thinks that we can go back to the pre-coronavirus version of normal – which we probably never will – and furthermore that we can do it yesterday, if we just stop whining and get down to it.
How can the author – a nurse – be so deluded about reality? Well, as we’ve already established, she is not able to speak precisely about epidemiology (remember she said to reopen unless there’s a “spike” rather than reopen according to objective benchmarks, or according to the CDC’s advice about community transmission levels) or to offer a fair characterization of the evidence on masks or the public health communication about masks. Despite being a nurse, she does not seem to know very much about coronavirus, and that’s fine, because nurses are not infectious disease specialists, or epidemiologists, or public health policymakers. But I’m afraid people will gloss “nurse” as “medical professional” and believe that she is writing from the standpoint of a solid, accurate, and precise understanding of how coronavirus behaves, and that is simply, demonstrably, not true.
The truth is, we cannot go back to normal. The school openings in the US already show this. Hundreds of teachers have already been put into quarantine due to contact with infected individuals. Who is going to sub for those teachers? What happens when subs run out? What about the kids who have to be quarantined at home for a 14-day period? Who is going to watch them? What happens when – not if, but when – teachers die, or students’ family members die? Do schools have enough counselors to deal with that slow-burning mental health crisis? With the survivors’ guilt of the kids who brought coronavirus home and killed grandpa? There is just no scenario in which this upcoming school year could ever possibly even approach “life as we know it” and anybody living on the planet Earth ought to be aware of that. This entire article is, therefore, a shameful exercise in wishful thinking.
“I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good.
Wishful. Thinking. That’ll have to change? Who’s going to change it? I wonder, after wiping down every surface in our classrooms with disinfectant wipes, and going around to every bathroom and refilling the soap dispensers with hand soap, and doing all the other health and safety maintenance work that needs to be done that the schools aren’t hiring more people to do, when we’ll actually have time to teach.
So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed.
Do I need to explain to grown adults the difference between a grocery store and a school?
Supermarkets can stand customers six feet apart. Can make them wait outside and limit the number of people inside. Are better-ventilated. Can switch to a delivery-only model. Can refuse entry to people not wearing masks. Etc. Schools… well, just look at this picture again:
I don’t mean to minimize the risk to grocery store workers. They were often not given adequate protection, when they should have been, and that was a problem too. And instead of demanding that companies pay their workers hazard pay, install shields at cash registers, provide PPE, and mandate masks, we just called them “heroes” and honored the ensuing “heroic” sacrifice. And we did the same to nurses, and that was wrong as well. We made them show up at work wearing garbage bags on their bodies and old t-shirts on their faces, and we didn’t get them hazard pay, PPE, or the other protections they deserved. And as a result many of them died. And now that we’ve had an opportunity to learn from what has happened to nurses, to store clerks, to bus drivers, to meat packers, to Amazon fulfillment center box fillers, and every other “essential” worker, we’re about to make the same damned mistake with teachers, when it’s long past time we should have learned our lesson.
When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.”
Again, not to minimize the threat to cashiers, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to frame this as courage. They were putting their parents’ lives at greater risk than their own, and that suggests they were doing it out of personal necessity – that their income was more of a life-or-death priority than not bringing home coronavirus. Courageous, sure, but it’s a sign of a deeply dysfunctional society that high school students were put in the position to make that choice in the first place.
He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”
Striking isn’t “bowing out”. Quitting would be “bowing out”, and many teachers have quit – they’ve retired, or changed careers, or just moved to teaching English online to kids in China. Striking is – and forgive me if this is obvious – a goal-oriented activity aimed at making one’s working conditions better. Safer workplaces are not an uncommon demand for people who go on strike, and in fact the labor movement, aside from just striking, was once able to generate enough political power to actually get laws passed mandating safe work spaces and creating government agencies to monitor workplace safety.
Striking in order to make schools safer for students, teachers, and families is exactly the kind of example we should be setting for our students. I’m trying not to be political here, but forgive me for saying that it is some kind of twisted neoliberal ideological nonsense to think that striking is the act of a person who doesn’t want to work.
In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.
Wait… read that again?
I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic
Huh. Well then I guess you must have accidentally left them at your hospital, because that is literally all that teachers are asking for.