Rebecca Martinson is a teacher at Northwest Career & Technical Academy in Mount Vernon, Wash. This appeared in the New York Times, July 18, 2020.
I write often about the inescapable personal and professional dilemmas that each educator (including myself) confronts as we traverse our daily lives. Martinson expresses very clearly the stark dilemma facing her (and the choice she would make) if her district directs her to return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction during this pandemic.
But the fact is that for Martinson and other teachers there is no right answer on what to do. During these difficult moments when we face such dilemmas about how much risk each of us is willing to take for ourselves and loved ones, no one can say with any confidence that X, Y, or Z is the correct thing to do. Yes, we have learned to protect ouselves to some degree by wearing masks, keeping physical distance, washing hands, etc. but beyond that no one knows for sure whether opening schools for children and their teachers will lead to more infections and some deaths. Sure, experts state probabilities but health risks remain. Individual choices must be made between staying free of the virus and jobs, between losing a year of schooling and not contracting Covid-19. Regardless of what political leaders tell us, the persistent unknowns about the virus make decisions about what to do, at best difficult, and at worst, paralyzing.
Read Rebecca Martinson’s reasoning behind her decision and how a few teachers responded to what she wrote.
Every day when I walk into work as a public-school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that’s what the job requires. But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.
I won’t do it, and you shouldn’t want me to.
I became an educator after a career as a nurse. I teach medical science and introduction to nursing to 11th and 12th graders at a regional skills center that serves students from 22 different high schools in 13 different school districts.
My school district and school haven’t ruled out asking us return to in-person teaching in the fall. As careful and proactive as the administration has been when it comes to exploring plans to return to the classroom, nothing I have heard reassures me that I can safely teach in person.
More than 75 New York Department of Education employees have died of Covid-19. CDC guidelines say a return to traditional schooling with in-person classes would involve the “highest risk” for Covid-19 spread. But even in-person classes with students spaced apart and prevented from sharing materials are categorized as leading to “more risk.” The “lowest risk” for spread, according to the CDC, is virtual learning. I can’t understand why we would choose more risk than is necessary.
It’s impossible to hear about the way parties, day camps and church services have led to outbreaks this summer without worrying about what will happen if kids and adults gather in the fall. It scares me to think of how many more lives will be lost. It terrifies me that I could be among those who lose their lives.
I completely understand why parents and administrators want kids to return to school. When we first started online learning in March, it was miserable — pointless, even. Eventually, we established parameters, and I figured out how to teach kids across the northwest corner of Washington State virtually. During summer school, I’ve live-streamed my lectures into campgrounds, living rooms and bedrooms decorated with twinkly lights or festooned with posters. My virtual classroom includes pets and younger siblings.
Yes, it has been hard. Yesterday, as several really adorable teenage faces laughed through the computer screen at my use of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to explain the sympathetic nervous system and the feeling of impending doom it can cause, I thought, “I miss them.” I wished I was standing in my favorite place in the world, my classroom — because, frankly, that T-Rex analogy is much better when accompanied by my dino walk.
But it amazes me how fast students adapted to remote learning. I teach a particularly hands-on class. This summer, I’ve managed to teach them to type blood, to suture wounds and how the sensory system works. I’ve taught them all about infection control and epidemiology — they can not only tell you that you should wear a mask, but they can show you how to do it correctly. I used to put my hand over students’ hands to guide them through certain lessons. Now I use a GoPro camera. It’s hard, but they are learning.
Most important, we — students and teacher — are safe.
If I’m asked to return to the classroom as the pandemic rages, I will have to walk away. As deeply as I love teaching, I will not risk spreading this virus in a way that could hurt a child or a family member of a child. While children make up a small proportion of U.S. coronavirus cases and they are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, the virus might be linked to “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.” Plus, many of my students struggle with poverty or are from multigenerational households. I will not risk passing a virus to them that they might pass to their vulnerable loved ones. I won’t do it.
It isn’t fair to ask teachers to buy school supplies; we aren’t the government. But we do it anyway. It isn’t fair to ask us to stop a bullet; we aren’t soldiers. But we go to work every day knowing that if there’s a school shooting, we’ll die protecting our students.
But this is where I draw the line: It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment. I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.
I have also included two responses from teachers in other parts of the country to Martinson’s op-ed. These appeared in the New York Times Letters section on July 24, 2020.
To the Editor:
I am 62 years old and have been teaching in the New York City public schools for more than 20 years. I love my students, my job and my school. I believe that children belong in school, and I know that this period of quarantine has been incredibly hard for my sixth-grade students academically, emotionally and socially. I miss them every day.
I will not return to the classroom in September, which makes me extraordinarily sad. Unfortunately, I do not trust the system to take care of me (or my students). Our school’s ventilation system has not been working properly for more than 10 years despite custodians’ efforts to fix it. I spend many days dealing with students coming back from the bathroom to report that there is no soap to wash their hands.
Are you wondering if my school’s population is made up of Black and brown students? It is. Do you think these same scenarios exist in schools that are richer or whiter than my school? I do not know.
Nothing would make me happier than to be persuaded that I am incorrect — that it will be safe for a 62-year-old teacher to return to her classroom. But too much is at stake. I love my students, but I love my own children, my husband and my friends. I value the gift of my life. I will not look away from reality. This is my “teacher reality” right now.
To the Editor:
As a teacher, I very much appreciated Rebecca Martinson’s discussion of what is going through the minds of all teachers right now. Yet I can’t help but comment upon her great privilege in being able to write this.
Should she disagree with her state’s or district’s policies, she simply will not teach next year. What about teachers whose realities are much different? Single-parent teachers who rely on that income? Or my own situation, in which both partners are teachers in the same school district — in Florida! — where the governor has mandated in-class instruction five days a week? Where does that leave those of us who cannot give up our incomes?
Teachers all over the country are being put in the inconceivable position of having to choose between the health of their families and their livelihoods, and it is a terrible position indeed.
Fort Walton Beach, Fla.