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Frustrated And Worried Texas Teachers Speak Up: ‘It’s Scary And Dangerous’ To Return To School

by Angela Andaloro

There’s a serious dilemma plaguing teachers around the country. Many are grappling with whether or not to give up their jobs.

Teaching isn’t just a job, however. It’s a career that takes continuous effort, evolution, and an endless amount of compassion. Many of our own kids learn these qualities from the skillful instructors in their lives just as much as they learn them at home.

Yet teachers are walking away from years dedicated to educating themselves and, in turn, our kids. Faced with the possibility of going back to in-person teaching, many are choosing retirement when possible.

Others without that option are looking at career changes. So many are exploring any possibility that gets them off the hook this year. In some cases, they’re just quitting.

The reason is clear. Many teachers are uncomfortable with a return to in-person learning. They don’t feel it’s safe for themselves, their students, and the countless other people it takes to make a school operate from day to day.

Texas teachers are particularly feeling that predicament. In a state too large for a single plan to implement across the board, schools and school districts are scrambling to make things work. These teachers want to get back to classrooms where they’re able to truly engage their students. They want to get back to what they know. That desire comes with great risk, as old infrastructures and systemic failings have made it impossible for some schools to reopen safely in time for fall.

Texas teachers are frustrated with the state of their future. In a state where no one plan can possibly take all students in areas from rural to metropolitan into consideration, individual schools and school districts are trying to create plans to bring back in-person learning. In many cases, those with a say in the planning and decision-making process are not the educators themselves.

“It’s scary and it’s dangerous,” 30-year teaching veteran Louis Leal told The New Yorker.

“There are lives being played with. And no one is listening to teachers. We have to go to extremes to be listened to.”

Texas schools, like many across the country, first shut down in mid-March. While some will try to argue that teachers didn’t do a whole lot during that time, it was quite the opposite. As they often do, teachers were juggling multiple tasks, many of which fall outside their job description.

“We were putting in sixteen-hour days, calling kids who were not getting online,” Louis noted. As he struggled with keeping connectivity, so too did his students.

“We couldn’t go knock on doors. We couldn’t send our parent liaison. Some of these kids didn’t wake up at eight in the morning. Instead, they were e-mailing me at eight o’clock at night, and me, being me — they’re my kids — I’m going to help them.”

Louis teaches in his hometown of Brownsville, Texas. It’s one of the most impoverished cities in the United States, with 90% of the 40,00 students in the Brownsville Independent School District considered economically disadvantaged.

His students had already been hit hard with the unfolding events in the spring. When he heard Governor Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the schools with no mask mandate and optional health screenings, it felt like a slap in the face to both himself and his students.

“When you see something like this, something you know is not right, you have to say something,” Louis said.

Teachers in Texas banned together, feeling appalled by the idea. They organized themselves into Facebook groups, started anonymous social media accounts calling for action, and more.

Their message was clear. The work of teachers is far beyond the moments that students sit with them throughout a day. There was no way for them to meet the kids’ needs safely without putting lives at risk. It wasn’t fair to ask them to formulate a plan destined to fail under the most ideal circumstances. It’s for all these reasons that a return to in-person learning in a state where numbers are only just beginning to slow their increase.

Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, spoke with The New Yorker about the impossible predicament schools around the country found themselves in.

“Every school district across the United States made their first priority feeding kids,” she noted.

“And then you thought, ‘Oh, so this is actually what school is about. It’s about providing those services.'”

The services in question go far beyond free lunches. There’s medical care in the form of school nurses. There are social workers, psychologists, and therapists, who all work in conjunction with teachers to make things work. In places like Brownsville, where those luxuries aren’t guaranteed, dedicated teachers take on the tasks themselves.

“Teachers have long been the first responders in trying to address our kids’ needs,” Rob D’Amico, the communications director at the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said.

“If the kids come to school and they’ve forgotten their shoes. Or their parents have split up. Or if they’re moving. It hasn’t really been accounted for other than teachers trying to do what they could.”

Dan Hochman, who started a 40,000-plus-member Facebook group called Texas Teachers for a Safe Reopening, compared the situation to how the issue of gun violence in schools has been dealt with.

“No, we shouldn’t fix the gun problem; we should make teachers stand in front of bullets,” he said. “We shouldn’t fix the virus; we should make teachers be willing to die.”

With the odds stacked against them, teachers including Louis and Dan began organizing protests, which isn’t easy to do in Texas. If teachers strike, they can lose their jobs, their certifications, and their pensions. They can be formally reprimanded for speaking out online.

Though many teachers had begun taking those risks by joining Facebook groups and such, not everyone was ready to take that plunge. Still, more than expected were emboldened to speak out because of the dire consequences of getting reopening wrong.

The two have since joined forces with teachers in other states who are fighting for the same thing in an online protest called Drawing the Line. One teacher, Ali Baiza, shared her own frustrations.

“The undeniable truth is that teachers are in a position where they do not have a say,” she said.

“Teachers are in a position where decisions are made for them. Decisions are made not including them. Decisions are made by people who are not teachers.”

Organizing efforts are also being tampered with by other forces. Teachers are getting reprimanded for sharing opinions in social media groups, regardless of how private they may seem. Districts are going to court to force teachers back into the building before the agreed-upon pushed-back start dates, slated for some time from late September to mid-October. In making these moves, they’re chipping people away from groups that will give them the power to fight back.

Schools across the country have started reopening, but it’s hard to say how it’s going with no uniform process of reporting cases. So far, much of what we’ve heard is about outbreaks on college and high school campuses. The coming weeks will show what elementary and middle school experiences are.

Texas schools will help the health department get public data to determine what is happening in the schools. It’s unclear if that data will be made available to the public.

“We hope that it is both valid and reliable,” Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and the Texas AFT, told ABC13.

“The reason why I think this would be important for the state is because the state is in a position, in a macro-level position, to be able to look at this data, do some level of analysis and hopefully be able to pinpoint what practices that school districts are doing [that are working], and which ones may not be working.”

The AFT plans to launch its own in-school virus tracker using crowdsourcing methods. It would then vet the information before making it public to teachers, parents, and the public.

“I’m going to say it’s [not] so much a lack of trust, but a difference in interpretation about what gets reported and why it gets reported,” Zeph explained.

“We certainly want to make sure there is an option for parents and teachers to report and share information so they can actually take some level of control for their own safety and security.”

Teachers who don’t trust the process are looking at other options. In Louis’ district, 36 teachers resigned and 42 retired during the last two school-board meetings alone. The state has lost 4.3% of its total education jobs, according to a new analysis of federal data. That’s 75,000 jobs lost between June 2019 and June 2020, many since March.

That’s not even the worst of it. Delaware, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have seen the three biggest had the largest percentage job losses, at 11.8%, 11.2%, and 10.8% of their education workforces, respectively.

As desperate as teachers are to know what’s happening in their workplace, parents want to know what’s happening in their child’s environment.

“We want the information. We want to know exactly what is happening in our schools,” said Meagan Clanahan, who runs the Houston Moms Blog and has two children in the Katy Independent School District.

“As it relates to school, information is important, and knowing that it is accurate information. That’s the really hard part. We see so many numbers bouncing around so we really need accurate information.”