What has this pandemic taught us?

This op-ed was written on January 29th and published on February 20th in the Florida Times Union through the “USA Today” news network as a guest columnist. The Times Union edited the op-ed down, softening what I feel were some tough truths, but the general message remained. We are horribly letting our teachers and ourselves down. I have included both links to the published op-ed and the text of the original essay.

The same day my op-ed was published, the New York Times published a story about the National Guard being called in to substitute teach in New Mexico. This story is being shaped as something good. It is the opposite. It illustrates how teaching has morphed into a thankless frontline almost first-responder job, and as a result, states are losing teachers and can’t find substitutes. The only way New Mexico could fill the jobs was to call in the National Guard. This is a national embarrassment, and it will only get worse. Only half of the open teaching positions around the country are receiving qualified applications, and only half the jobs are being filled. Every month we are losing more and more teachers. Why? Because teachers are not soldiers, nor are they babysitters, nor are they covid sacrificial pawns, and we’d best start treating them as the highly educated professionals that they are or suffer the consequences. If you think public education is expensive, consider what a country without it would be like.  

“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” — Maximilien Robespierre

Here is a link to the published essay / op-ed.

Here is the original unedited essay (01/29/2022)…

“What has this pandemic taught us about our public schools and ourselves?”

This pandemic has pulled the curtain back to reveal the ugly truth of what vast numbers of people think about public school teachers, and what they think is inhuman. As the spouse of a public school teacher, what has been revealed makes me weep for our humanity lost.

My wife has three advanced degrees, decades of experience, and is rated in the top percentile of all teachers. There are far too many states where this highly educated talented person’s salary would be about half of what the average person with a four-year degree earns. In our country, money is the way we measure respect for a profession.

My wife teaches because she adores children and is a natural-born teacher. It is her calling. She is obviously not in it for the money. She is in it to make a difference in the lives of her students and the community at large while we try to ruin her profession.

She has been further disheartened by the intensifying repeated unconditional calls for schools to drop mask mandates. These simplistic calls to action often include dubious claims that children are safe from severe illness and should not be made to suffer wearing masks. Suffer? Really? Medical and other workers in numerous varied occupations have always required masks for safety. Have they been silently horribly suffering for decades? Based on all these claims of suffering, you would think medical masks were designed by someone who hated children and worked in a medieval dungeon.

All these calls for freedom from masking ignore many inconvenient truths such as most children are not vaccinated (let alone boosted), and that the safety of all the teachers and staff would be put at greater risk, and that there are vulnerable people everywhere and in every home from the immune-compromised to children who are not eligible to be vaccinated. 

All these calls for freedom from masking also ignore the embarrassing truth that almost 12,000,000 children have been diagnosed with covid, over 100,000 have been hospitalized, and untold numbers suffer from long-covid. In normal times, this reality would have led to widespread horror.

Ignoring safety for a moment, is this self-centered message about freedom from masking what we really want to teach our children? Do we really want to reinforce a message that we should not care about our fellow humans if it inconveniences us in any minor way? Wearing a mask not only protects the wearer and those around them but also teaches empathy and responsibility for others. Based on what I am hearing and seeing, this is a lesson far too many people never learned.

This pandemic could have taught us so many valuable lessons, such as cooperation is far more important than competition. Other countries that learned that lesson long ago have prospered as a result. Japan has suffered 15 covid deaths per 100,000. In America, we have suffered 272 deaths per 100,000. The significant difference between how Japan and America dealt with the pandemic was cooperation, and as a result of their far greater level of cooperation and respect for each other, Japan never had to institute drastic measures, such as lockdowns. If we had done as well as Japan, we would have lost “only” 50,000 people instead of 901,000 people. This clearly indicates our failure to cooperate greatly contributed to the death of at least 851,000 Americans and the avoidable suffering of countless millions more. We should all take a moment of silence to think about those 851,000 avoidable deaths and their grieving families.

In the face of all that could have been learned and done to help our public school system, what exactly have we done? Where are the serious real calls to improve ventilation in schools, the calls to reduce class size and overcrowding, the calls for rapid testing, the calls for student vaccination, the calls for an option to participate virtually or in-person, the calls to treat teachers and others with basic human respect? At best, all I hear are strangled whispers.

As the spouse of a teacher, all I ask for is basic human respect for all teachers. This coronavirus is not turning into the common cold any time soon, and there will be more variants. Schools should not be transformed into the frontlines of our battles with any virus or each other. Masks should not come off until covid vaccination of students are required the same way a myriad of other vaccinations are required, fresh air and HEPA filtered ventilation is provided, rapid testing is ubiquitous, and virtual or in-classroom attendance becomes a personal choice, which could also help with overcrowding. Now is the time to vote with our money. Do we want a healthy safe public education system or a growing warzone? I fear far too many want the latter.