What educators know about children and the prevention of harm

As schools across the United States plan to reopen this fall, decision-makers should follow teachers' lead on how to keep kids safe.

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The job of being a doctor or a nurse is to save lives. The job of a teacher is different. Our job is to prevent harm to lives. This is fundamental.

We also develop the hearts and minds of the children placed in our care. We share the best wisdom and pass along the best tools of our societies to those who will be the future.

But first we anticipate; we prevent harm.

Parents give us their children at the beginning of each day, and they expect to see them back, safe and sound, at day’s end. We are constantly counting children, observing them, guiding them, taking guidance from them: to prevent loss, fear, confusion and harm. We create rules, we warn about problems, we share difficult information. If Johnny’s mother gives him an aspirin and sends him to school with a fever because she needs her job, we compassionately but firmly feel his forehead and send him home for the good of the class.

Our schools have no secrets from us. Most elementary school teachers keep a roll of toilet paper in our closets for the day when the custodial staff runs out of supplies. We know how hard they already work, and that no new staff have been put on to do the custodial “deep cleaning” that this COVID-19 crisis calls for, always promised but rarely delivered by the politicians who insist that it is safe to return.

We know the food service workers, many of whom are elderly yet worked for six weeks at the height of the pandemic (at least in New York City, where I serve as a Pre-K teacher), serving food to the families who needed it after the schools were closed. They worked without protective gear, forgotten. Even though indoor dining is still forbidden in restaurants throughout the city, now teachers are being asked to supervise indoors lunches for groups of young children, in our classrooms this Fall.

We know that our principals, without surprise, were often the first educators last Spring to get sick and die. As everyone ran into their offices asking for information, guidance and direction — as some of them worked 24/7 with little sleep or a chance to catch up with their own health needs or the contradictory directives they were asked to follow or communicate to the rest of us — it was predictable that they would be among the first to contract high viral loads of the disease. We mourn the loss of the at least 89 New York City educators who died directly of COVID-19 as our schools delayed closing. We mourn the loss of the relatives who died because we unknowingly, without access to tests, brought home and spread the disease.

We know that there is an army of unpaid grandparents at high risk, who routinely provide much of the aftercare and support for our children and families, especially those who cannot afford after-school or professional childcare.

We know the secrets of every corner and crevice of our failing buildings, the ones that have unfixed ventilations issues, over-crowded classrooms and so many other problems.

We know how public education has been cut this year and over the past 10 years: of privatization, for-profit charter schools, misappropriations and inequity. There has been no money to hire anywhere near the number of extra teachers which Italy recently decided to hire, in order to make their re-openings scientifically safe, in order to ensure that each teacher sees at most 10 children per week.

While children under 10 years old might be at lower risk of death, or get the virus asymptomatically, educators’ jobs are to safeguard against preventable risks.

We know we do not have the nurses hired yet who might be expected to do our contact tracing, to make those difficult decisions about when a child gets sent home. No one knows or is being clear about if or where the money will come for those who would supervise our children while isolated and waiting for the busy family member, maybe that elderly grandparent, to drop everything and pick them up.

We know that our current plan — hybrid learning — will push educators to either work many extra hours because we are expected to do the planning (at the same time) for both the children at home as well as those in school. Or else it will cause, because we have no more hours to give, an increase in putting everyone on screen simultaneously, to save time despite potentially losing quality. We know there is no plan for money needed to hire the two teachers necessary for coordinating the kinds of hybrid learning which would take us through this crisis in fresh and appropriate ways.

We know that hybrid learning as currently planned lowers a certain type of exposure to an individual student in a small and socially distanced “pod” of 10. However, because too few if any additional educators are being hired, these pods still exposes each individual educator to roughly the same number of total students over the course of each week. In turn, therefore, through contact with their “pod teachers,” our children are indirectly but nevertheless exposed to all the people their teachers have interacted with. It is better than overcrowded classrooms, but it is still not safe. This current hybrid plan might slow down direct, immediate contagion. But as our math teachers know all too well, with the vectors and connections into our communities, the indirect risks drawn out over longer periods will stay essentially the same.

We know that the money in our society is out there to open more safely than it is currently being planned.

While children under 10 years old might possibly be at lower risk of death, or might get the virus asymptomatically, educators’ jobs are to safeguard against preventable risks. There haven’t been enough studies yet to measure what this might mean. We ask ourselves: will New York be the guinea pig? The summer camps which contracted mass COVID-19 outbreaks are not encouraging.

We know that in Germany, children and teachers will be required to take COVID-19 tests once a week. This helps prevent the asymptomatic spreading which can’t be diagnosed through all the temperature taking in the world!

While New York overall maintains a good rate of new COVID-19 infections, this is an average. Different neighborhoods and populations have higher or lower rates. This means going back is safer in the neighborhoods that have fewer people per apartment, safer overall health conditions and more wealth.

We know, perhaps most importantly, that the money in our society is out there to open more safely than it is currently being planned. But it is not available in too many poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous and working-class communities. In one elite district outside of New York, there is an extremely low rate of infection despite it being a popular tourist destination. Why? Because the CEO of mega-pharmaceutical Quest Diagnostics, who has a summer home in that community, arranged for the area to have free contact tracing and testing, even of asymptomatic out-of-state contacts, whenever a potential case came up.

Safe schools are an achievable goal. 

Everyone going back into a school building this Fall should bring a doctor’s note, with a negative COVID-19 test taken within the prior two weeks. We are now being urged to voluntarily take a single test before returning. But when I first became a teacher years ago, my tuberculosis test was not “voluntary and recommended”; I had to prove I had taken it before I could get a license and enter a school building! My certification in child abuse training and awareness was not “recommended” — and should not have been.

Likewise, everyone going on a class trip during school hours must have a consent form for basic safety. Now COVID-19 tests should be done after most or every break and family trip, and all staff and students at every school should be tested at least every month. We don’t have enough tests and labs to service our whole school population right now. Basic safety and historic mandated protocols have gone out the window in the rush to reopen. 

Public schools and critical education are the backbone of democratic societies. Where is our backbone? While the New York private schools and some semi-public charter schools received hundreds of thousands of dollars in small business bail-outs from the federal government, what money has been invested in our public schools, which must face this crisis in much larger numbers? Is the answer part and parcel of the privatization of our most needed institutions? Is U.S. Secretary of Education Betty DeVos our own version of U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, sent to destroy the operations they allege to lead?

Why haven’t the super wealthy been equitably taxed, especially those who profit from the welfare of the government by sending their children to the now-government-granted private schools? Why was the New York Police Department budget increased, at a time when millions of New Yorkers demanded their defunding? Why does the United States have the most inflated military budget in the world, while our schools are dangerously at risk? It is not that we, as a society, do not have this money. We have it; we have just not been given a choice as to how to use it fairly, universally, and for the good of most of the people. This includes, and — most educators would say — starts with the children.

If New York is going to be the U.S.’ great example of how we flattened the curve and went from epicenter of disaster to best in the nation, let it be a real example. Let it be an example which all people can be proud of — from the elderly and health compromised grandmother, to the curious and inquisitive second grader, to the hard-working principal, custodian, cook, and all the teachers. Let us be an example which could actually serve and help the rest of our beleaguered country. 

Let us keep our children safe.

Teachers care for and about our future. Yes, we want to “serve.” But right now, the best way we can do our job is to alert our communities about the preventable crisis preparing to unfold this Fall.

Let us fund, plan and prepare for reopening and a post-COVID-19 world where the decision-makers follow what teachers have been doing all along. Let us prevent harm to our children.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search

Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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