I’m a former teacher: Returning to in-person classes is risky and wrong | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

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If I were still an active public school teacher, my busy season would be starting at this time. I would be evaluating the first round of Honors English summer projects and, via their work, getting to know my soon-to-be-met in person students.

Lloyd E. Sheaffer (Capital-Star file)

I would re-read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice, works that speak clearly to our day’s tribalism and prejudice.

I would have out my worn-and-torn copy of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley along side current newspapers and news magazines identifying ways the Nobel Prize winning author’s experiences on his driving trip around the United States could apply to my students’ present world.

Were this happening this year, we would need to start with the occurrences with extreme, literally sickening (for Steinbeck) racism he observed in New Orleans compared to the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020.

I would be choosing vocabulary words to add to the infamous “Sheaffer Words” list that could help students speak and write cogently about the universal conflicts and challenges they face.

What I would not be doing, as many teachers must do today, is deciding if going back into my classroom to be with my beloved students is worth risking my life and/or the lives of my family.

That’s right. For a quarter of today’s teachers, theirs has become a deadly calling.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, just reported “… we find that one in four teachers (24 percent, or about 1.47 million people), have a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus.”

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For the record, 1.47 million people is two times the entire population of Alaska; it is more than the combined populations of Vermont and Wyoming. Were I still employed, I would fall into this high risk category, just as I would have years ago. Were I still employed, I think I could not continue to be employed.

The push by the current science-denying Trump/DeVos crowd to reopen all schools is a mortal assault on teachers, students, and entire communities. We have already seen how the push to reopen bars, beaches, and businesses has resulted in spikes of infections and fatalities. Profit-before-protection thinking has resulted in neither profit nor protection.

Don’t misunderstand.  For me the best way to teach—and the only way I ever taught—is in-person, face-to-face. Nothing can replace the relationships between students and teachers that lead to effective learning. Having served as my school’s director of dramatics for 12 years, I know that extracurricular activities encourage and enable social and emotional development as much as they develop creative skills.

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However, I believe firmly that returning to in-person education at this time is risky and wrong.

Whether full time or in stages or phases, by scaffolding, or via any other designation school boards have chosen, suffering will ensue.

Individuals who contract COVID-19, as some surely will, will suffer physically and perhaps endure lasting medical problems. The uncertainly and inconsistency engendered by the possibility or, perhaps reality, of switching back and forth between classroom instruction and at-home virtual teaching will lead to pupils’ emotional distress and insecure interpersonal relationships. Finally, education itself will be impaired.

This past spring’s sudden school closings and the resultant mishmash of approaches to learning led to measurable learning loss for many young scholars, for some to the extent they will not be prepared to move onward in the upcoming terms. In the interim, though, our myriad talented, creative teachers have become more skilled and experienced in virtual teaching.

Our educators want their charges to learn and succeed, but not to the point of risking their wards’ or their own health.

Consistency is an important factor in education The unpredictable nature and behavior of this coronavirus work against consistency in the educational process.

The various plans local school districts are publishing make it clear that administrators anticipate inevitable changes; they put in place options to move from in-school programming to at-home distance learning.

Each movement can lead to disruption in the lives of students, teachers, and parents; learning will ebb and flow, with ebbs receding further and flows abating.

If one of the vulnerable teachers becomes ill, the school must provide a substitute teacher for the position; finding qualified substitute teachers has been a long standing problem in this region.

Even if an interim instructor is available, the change will require modifications and adjustments in the classroom environment. If or when an infected teacher can return to her or his position, a readjustment for the pupils and the curriculum is likely.

As well, if a student or staff member contracts COVID-19, those with whom the infected patient has had contact also must isolate or quarantine; the effects of one positive test will have wide ranging effects.

Our school districts did not put themselves into this dilemma. But these educators and staff members must identify ways to respond to this epidemic which was exacerbated into a pandemic by incompetent, compassionless, ignorant, self-centered, federal flunkies.

I have confidence, though, that given the time and resources, our public school system will adapt and will again lead students to thrive.

Because of all the unknowns of this pandemic and the recalcitrance of so many people who still do not feel an obligation to consider the safety and well-being of others, I implore decision makers to focus upon offering remote  education for our children and grandchildren. I am aware of the difficulties such a move creates; however, I think the problems of having to adapt to the on/off days of in-school classes and to having frequent home life changes are just as formidable.

Teachers want what is best for their pupils. At this critical point in time, that desire means staying away from them, as painful as it might be.

Literally as I was finishing this op-ed, I received notice from my alma mater, Dickinson College, indicating that, despite having previously made the well-researched decision to return to on-campus learning in the fall, the college administration has reversed its plans and now will proceed remotely. The dangers are just too great.

As heartbreaking as it is for all involved, when the new school term opens this year, all parties should stay home, log on to virtual lessons, and keep everyone safer: students, parents, siblings, school staff, and school teachers.

Teachers are called to build lives, not risk them.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].