I have not posted recently. I have many posts in my mind’s queue – the public health crisis of racism that necessitates the Black Lives Matter movement, how white people can talk to other white people about racism, some guest posts, and 27 intangible wishes for myself for my 27th birthday (which was over a month ago – whoops). But today, I need to say this real quick because it’s a fire in my bones. I write this as an ally to teachers, parents, and students.
I started the year 2018 by learning that I’d contracted the dreaded hospital-acquired infection C. diff from one of my patients while working as a chaplain. Someone on my patient list that night hadn’t been tested for it before I worked with them, meaning that I hadn’t known I needed to take extra precautions. It probably happened when I held his hand.
I was put in quarantine. I felt like Pigpen from The Peanuts. C. diff wreaked havoc on my digestive system and eventually made it impossible for me (permanently?) to eat many different foods I used to love. Nobody I lived with would touch any of the surfaces I touched before bleaching them, and I was emotionally messy and feeling isolated and sad while I stayed home on-and-off for a month and my friends and family members went on with their lives.
I was lucky, however, because C. diff can be deadly. 15,000 Americans die each year due to C. diff. I bear the long-term pains of greater likelihood to get it again, as well as some slight trepidation when working with patients who have it, but I am alive and, overall, pretty well.
Who could ever have guessed that my practicing quarantine in 2018 would be practice for 2020? And that it wouldn’t just be me – it would be everyone who was (and STILL IS) paying attention to public health guidelines about preventing the spread of COVID-19? As of writing this, 158,000 people in the United States have died. It’s completely unfathomable.
As someone who works in a hospital, I always know that there is a risk I’ll meet patients who might make me sick. I do not regret holding that patient’s hand as he cried, even though I hate what happened to me likely was a direct result of that moment of solidarity. I wonder how he fared, not just emotionally, but physically as well with his own bout of C. diff. I hope his was also non-lethal. I don’t know.
I work in an environment that is well-known to be riskier than the average workplace, and we take as many precautions as we can. We have for a long time. The United States government has failed us spectacularly during this pandemic, though, and we’ve faced personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages since the beginning of the crisis, even though we could have had a two or three-month headstart to prepare for COVID’s arrival in the United States. Almost a thousand healthcare frontline workers have died since the start, and it didn’t have to be this way. These deaths are especially concentrated in hospitals that primarily serve communities of color, communities that have been experiencing race-related health disparities throughout their lives that are now known to complicate COVID-19 recovery, communities whose members often work “essential” jobs that cannot be done remotely from home, communities whose members often live in multi-generational households. Communities that serve as the backbones of America are having their backs broken even more than they already were by systems of oppression.
Healthcare professionals had a tiny bit of a headstart, compared to teachers, with the mental reckoning that we could die by going to work, even when weren’t experiencing a global pandemic. That’s part of how I chose to return to hospital work once I was well again, even after suffering for many months from C. diff symptoms. I always knew that there was a chance that at some point in my career, I would face something like that. And I could face it again with COVID.
Before COVID, my teacher friends and I always remarked, jokingly, that they had more colds than I did because they were around germy kids. That is not news. But a pandemic is. Teachers are facing a whole new reality with almost no warning, training, funding, assurance, or choice in the matter.
My educator friends’ futures are being imposed upon them, and they are at the mercy of their school boards’ decisions. If their leaders vote to do in-person schooling, teachers either have to show up or quit. And school openings have been disastrous so far. Positive tests are soaring. Overcrowding is continuing. Some people aren’t wearing masks because of “personal liberty,” sacrificing to the American god of individualism that’s killing people left and right.
Teachers are being encouraged to write their wills and are buying PPE with their own money because they rarely were given enough money for basic school supplies, anyway.
Even in the best-funded schools that have the ability to offer smaller classes, proper HVAC systems to filter the virus, and hand sanitizer and masks, this is an absolute nightmare. It’s so much worse in underfunded schools, which often serve many students of color. And who is going to pay for the exceptional uptick in costs – about $1.8 million per school district – that it would require to open schools as safely as possible?
We have no national guidance about what to do except from occasional tweets from Trump like “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” (while not sending his school-aged son to do in-person learning himself) and messages from the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose belief that children are “stoppers of COVID-19” is patently false and who does not seem to care about the potential deaths coming our way.
And children don’t live alone; they live with others, including higher-risk populations, and they’re spending hours and hours each day with teachers, who go home to their families and school-aged children, too.
Let me make my message clear:
PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE ECONOMY AND “GETTING OUR COUNTRY BACK TO NORMAL.”
OUR TEACHERS DESERVE TO LIVE.
OUR STUDENTS DESERVE TO LIVE.
OUR STAFF MEMBERS DESERVE TO LIVE.
I don’t know how else to say it. I really don’t.
WE NEED TO STAY HOME AS MUCH AS WE CAN. And virtual learning, despite its enormous snags and heart-wrenching disparities for already disadvantaged students, can be done at home with the right support for teachers, students, and families.
We NEED to realize that sending students, teachers, and staff members back is the equivalent of sending them to the slaughter. The school building truly is the perfect environment for COVID to spread.
We NEED to let go of the ideas that this will be a normal school year and that our children are going to fare significantly better if they get to be in-person with their friends. It will not be normal. Not even a little bit. Do you think they haven’t noticed that?
We NEED to let go of what we’ve done in the past. From what I can see in many people’s nonchalant and science-ignoring attitudes about the pandemic, the United States is not going to be ecsaping this hell anytime soon.
I have no sweeping policy proposals for how to make this happen. I am not personally facing a childcare crisis. I am not a member of a schoolboard. I am a severely concerned citizen and friend. So what will I do? Here are my ideas, and I implore you to join me in them and share your ideas with me, too.
I’ll keep writing, tweeting, talking, and praying about this.
I’ll find fundraisers in my town to pay for internet, technology, school supplies, and childcare support for low-income families.
If I disagree with my town’s school district’s decisions about when and how to return, I’ll show up to a town hall (even if it’s in-person) and make my voice heard.
I’ll call and write to my senators and congresspeople and beg them to keep advocating at the highest levels for people to receive the economic support they need in order to be able to have their children safe at home with them.
I’ll look closely at local officials’ policies and make them work harder for my vote than I used to ask them to.
I’ll vote in November and hopefully serve as a poll-worker so people with children and higher-risk conditions can stay at home. (And encourage people to apply for mail-in ballots instead.)
I’ll sign petitions about education and vulnerable population-related policies, such as the HEALS Act not doing enough to support people with disabilities.
I’ll look for opportunities to tutor or offer childcare to disadvantaged students and families for cheap or free.
I’ll keep showing up for my teacher friends and student mentees regularly to ask them how they’re doing and offer my love and solidarity in words and deeds.
These acts aren’t extraordinary. They’re necessary. JOIN ME. Teach me what you know, too. People’s lives are literally in the balance.