Jim Crawford: Looking at the task of getting back to school

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 9, 2021

We all want our children back in school. So why not apply an old Nike logo “Just do it”?

The case is straightforward for restarting school today. Kids learn better in the classroom; kids need the social contact that schools provide; parents are exhausted from double duty as workers and home teachers; kids mostly have less severe cases of COVID-19. So, bring on the buses, turn on the lights, send in the teachers and get back to “normal.”

The only problem, the only issue is…teachers. The teachers are the problem with restarting schools. And the teachers are union members, their unions fighting against reopening today. How do we force the teachers back to the classroom?

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Texas schools have reopened and have reported 120,000 COVID-19 cases by students and 65,000 COVID-19 cases for teachers and staff. Chicago forced its teachers back in February, but promised rapid vaccinations for staff and teachers.

But, elsewhere, schools are not fully back in session, and for good reasons. First, teachers are not the problem, they are just demonized by Republicans who despise their union membership and are prodded back to class by desperate parents seeking relief and help for their children.

But the pandemic has not gone away, it is still killing people, even teachers, custodians, bus drivers and kitchen staff. And while our children may fare mostly better (but not always) surviving COVID-19, they can transmit the virus to adults, including those at higher risk from preexisting medical conditions. COVID-19 now has demonstrated its ability to create “long-haulers,” victims with ongoing health issues after surviving the virus, a concern for children and staff in schools. It is far too soon to relax care.

There are other risks posed to schools that are lesser factors in the broader society. With younger students, masks simply do not stay on all the time; special distancing is impossible when a child cries or a fight breaks out. Many schools do not have the physical space to keep the students safely apart. In short, school is not like a restaurant with a 25 percent capacity.

We cannot protect everyone from everything COVID-19, but we can insist that school staff, exposed constantly, be equal to other first providers and be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. And we can make the schools safer, long term, by installing HEPA filters for better air circulation in the buildings and classrooms. We can use ultraviolet irradiation methods to maintain safer COVID-19 teaching spaces. Certainly, we can provide teachers and staff N-95 masks for their protection.

Regarding teachers and teachers’ unions, let us be fair. Teachers formed unions to earn fair wages and benefits and better books for their students. And, in America today, teachers are not as highly respected as in many nations. In a recent survey, Chinese teachers ranked at the top, and U.S. teachers ranked 16th in terms of respect by the community. In terms of pay, American teachers lag Canada and Germany in average pay. And starting teacher’s salary in several states is as low as $30,000.

But in case you think our teachers are not doing their jobs, in the respected U.S. News and World Report annual survey, our K-12 education ranks No. 1 in the world for the education of future leaders. Hardly an inferior performance.

Look, the critics of our teachers are simply political. Teachers, most union members, do not vote with Republicans who want to end unions that protect teachers. And education is a multi-billion-dollar industry that Republicans would love to privatize.

Let us not demonize the adults our children love and who have done a remarkable job of helping make America the greatest nation in history.

Make schools safe, invest in our teachers, their staff and our children.

Jim Crawford is a retired educator, political enthusiast and award-winning columnist living here in the Tri-State.