As this new year begins, another variant of coronavirus is rampant and schools across America are reopening at or near full capacity in-person instruction. Again, urban school sites are seemingly chosen as spaces of social experimentation, placing Black and brown students, their families, as well as teachers (and our families) at risk.
Educators all over the United States have made clear their reluctance to return to in-person teaching due to COVID-19 safety and protection concerns, with some leaving the profession entirely. Although vaccination rates are increasing, concerns of infrastructure, shifting guidelines of student capacity allowed in classrooms and labor shortages remain properly unaddressed. And it continues to be infuriating to watch local and government leadership drop the ball again in ensuring that our schools and workplaces are safe places to be.
The ongoing debate about teachers having the right to teach remotely (or not) has quickly become a publicly polarizing topic, closely mirroring the bizarre targeting (and at times villainizing) of teachers in regards to vaccine mandates last fall. My time is not going to be spent on that though; I made the personal choice to be vaccinated, and that is all I have to say on the matter. Besides, it is another example of the onus of protection and preparedness being wrongly placed on the constituents of a community, the people directly on the frontlines and not the officials selected to guide/protect them.
I’m tired of witnessing the seemingly purposeful establishment of chaos and dissent amongst the frontline stakeholders, while the upper-level “leaders” sit high on a throne of inadequate social justice and social leadership. The creation of a divide between teachers who are willing to be vaccinated and/or teach in-person and those who are not is a distraction. It aims to remove the attention off the representatives who allowed for the continuation of overly inflated police budgets (proving summer 2020's “promises” of swift social justice reform to be nothing other than examples of gaslighting, false hope and performative social justice) instead of investing in infrastructure to make schools safe for teachers and their students, unvaccinated or not.
Similar to other major urban and majority Black populated cities, we teachers here in Philly, unvaccinated or not, know that students lost out on 500 plus days of in-person instruction since March 2020, further increasing the educational divide between Black and/or students living in urban areas. We know that the more days that students spend behind computer screens learning virtually, the more likely they are to not retain material — setting them further and further back in their educational development. We also know that Philadelphia has $4.5 billion of unmet infrastructure needs for our school buildings. We also know that the city of Philadelphia did not fulfill its performative promise to reduce the annual budget towards over-policing.
In addition, politicians are again trying to pull the wool over our eyes by distracting us with bickering over personal health choices instead of investing more in the very public health they deem to care so much about. Don’t believe me? Just compare nearly $960 million invested in police and prisons in the city to $176 million invested in education and human services. (No need to do the math; using the city’s proposed 2022 budget, I already did it for you.)
We as educators are consistently bestowed the responsibility for so many things. Even in this trying moment, there is talk as to who is deemed worthy to teach, with the vaccinated and those willing to "brave the storm" by teaching in-person (even if they test positive, like in Georgia) at the top of the totem pole. This methodology only pits those on the frontlines within school systems (i.e. teachers and/or parents) against one another. If teachers care about the safety and health of ourselves, somehow that means we do not care about our students, their families and the fact that some of them are truly suffering at home during any given shutdown. No, we cannot do that. It is up to us to put the responsibility right where it belongs. We have to call out and/or remove representatives who have failed in keeping us all safe. (And even that in itself is another added-on responsibility.)
It’s audaciously shameful that in all of this there continues to be local and national leadership waving their fingers at those of us who go to the mat every day. “Leaders” are attempting to sway the general public’s views by making reluctant teachers the villains while remaining visibly incompetent to lead us past the shadows that COVID-19, over-policing and under-protections (i.e inequitable accessibility to testing and personal protection equipment) has brought upon our schools, communities, and Black and brown families. For example, in New York City, instead of investing in sufficient ventilation systems last summer as promised, lawmakers changed the plan for the teachers there and mandated vaccines, sending the message, “prove to us that you want to be here.” In reality, it should be us (teachers) saying that to them (the officials). And words can’t express the direct fury I currently have for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Exactly how much more are Black/urban educators expected to endure? We already have to endure the concerns of our schools being willingly complacent to racist and inaccurate teaching, since the white-centered powers that be want to try and remove critical race theory from schools. And now they’re saying we have to worry (more) about whether or not our schools are safe too? What happened to the push to make schools the safest places for our students to be? Was that also full of false rhetoric?
To ask individual teachers to make decisions in regards to life or death — in turn somehow "proving their worth" as teachers during this public health crisis (while hypocritical leaders can have their own children learning remotely) — is a sickening example of a long, ongoing, and tiring game of the “powerful” few making all of the wrong decisions for the masses, then attempting to outsource the blame. Never mind that teachers, unvaccinated or not, have worked throughout the entire ongoing pandemic. Forget that the same teachers, unvaccinated or not, took time to distribute food and materials to struggling and under-supported families. And we do this while still being underpaid, underfunded and under-supported.
Better yet, no. Do not forget these efforts. Actually, I won’t allow you to forget.
I’ll be damned before I allow for "leadership" to get off scathe free. Local, state and national representatives have the blood solely on their hands. From the top with former “president” Trump, to Mayor Lightfoot — who is acting as if the Chicago Teachers' Union is asking for too much (take a look at their demands and you make the call) — as well as President Biden, who’s siding with the wrong crowd, I am putting the blame rightfully where it belongs: with the “powers,” hypocrites, liars, performers and gaslighters that be. Someone has to say it, or else this "battle" will never end.