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If Teachers Are “Essential”, Shouldn’t They Have the Appropriate Support and Supplies?


If Teachers Are Deemed "Essential", Shouldn't They Be Treated & Protected As Such?

Schools across the United States are reopening while COVID-19 continues to spread. Many teachers have expressed fear for their safety and for the safety of their students. There have already been schools close their doors again within a week of opening. This was the direct result of the high number of coronavirus cases. Nearly 1,200 students and school staff were quarantined in an Atlanta, area district. This forced a move to remote learning for everyone.

The Trump administration labeled most school staff and teachers essential workers on August 18. Vice President Mike Pence said the directive, issued by the US Department of Homeland Security, is advisory and not a federal mandate. However, declaring teachers “critical infrastructure workers” means districts could require exposed staff to return to work after exposure to COVID-19 without quarantine.

Are teachers essential workers?

Lisa, an experienced teacher shared, “I do not accept the designation that teachers are essential workers. I can do my job from home. Medical personnel, grocery clerks, etc. cannot. We teachers are absolutely essential to families, the economy, and the future of society. However, today the term ‘essential’ implies the necessity to report somewhere to work, vs the ability to do your job from home.”

Many argue teachers have the ability to do their jobs from home

The Department of Homeland Security defines essential workers as those essential to the continuation of critical infrastructure operations on their job site because there’s no other way to do them. We are all so appreciative for police, firefighters, medical staff, grocery store employees, city workers, and all the other people keeping us safe, healthy, and fed during the pandemic. They can’t do that from home. Teachers, however, are able to do their jobs from home.

Concerns on declaring teachers essential employees

Quarantine may no longer be required. One of the main issues with declaring school staff essential employees is that exposure to COVID-19 no longer requires a 14-day quarantine. Critical infrastructure workers can be required to continue working after exposure if they aren’t showing symptoms. It’s possible to have and spread the virus even without symptoms, which means it could quickly spread through schools if quarantining isn’t required. 

Some worry teachers and school staff will be bullied and threatened

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is concerned declaring teachers essential workers is a way to “threaten, coerce, and bully” teachers into returning to school when they don’t feel safe.

“If the President really saw us as essential, he’d act like it. Teachers are and always have been essential workers — but not essential enough, it seems, for the Trump administration to commit the resources necessary to keep them safe in the classroom.” 

Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers

Most teachers lack the resources other essential employees have

Teachers and other school staff didn’t sign up to be on the front lines of a global health crisis. They don’t have the necessary training or supplies. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals have access to extensive training. They have hazmat suits, gloves, masks, face shields, and proper sanitation and cleaning supplies. Yes, there have been PPE (personal protective equipment) shortages in the medical field. But priority goes to medical facilities, as it should. Pediatrician Dr. Dimitri Christakis told CNN last month all teachers should have access to medical-grade PPE. He listed PPE and following CDC guidelines as crucial in order for schools to reopen safely. However, few teachers have access to PPE. 

Teachers across the U.S. report pay cuts and fewer resources while being expected to step up even more

In addition to training and PPE, many critical employees have received additional sick time, hazard pay, and bonuses. Corporations like Home Depot and Aldi stepped up employee compensation. This included extra sick days and pay increases as a result of COVID-19. Many stores have also put new policies and procedures in place, such as requiring all customers to wear masks. This shows an effort to keep employees safe.

According to Vice President Pence, “When you’re declared an essential it means you’re going to be prioritized for things like PPE and support.” However, lots of teachers are dealing with pay cuts and work environments that are ignoring CDC guidelines for schools.

Here’s what many teachers are seeing instead:

“They actually reopened a ratified 2-year contract in my district and revoked our raises.” – Amanda

“I have not heard anything about hazard pay but I do keep hearing about budget cuts, potential pay cuts, halting salary step-ups, and rescinding recent pay raises.” – Laura

“I’m not impressed with a roll of paper towels, a box of kleenex, disinfectant spray, and a disposable face shield for my PPE with 123 students in person.” – MT

“As for PPE, I was given one mask and one bottle of sanitizer. In Alabama, I am not allowed to use any of my allocated classroom money to purchase cleaning or sanitizing supplies because they don’t count as instructional materials so anything else I need has to be out of pocket. Oh, and we just got hit with a 30% budget cut.”  – Sara

“Our kids are not back at school but our school district is offering a child care program for school-age kids. The program has not been given adequate PPE, hazard pay, appropriate cleaning supplies, or staffing to make it safe and sane. Declaring school staff and teachers essential workers, but not treating us that way is insulting and unfair.” – Erin

“We routinely fund our own classrooms, and the economy has lined us up for budget cuts. We’ve been given no PPE and purchasing it on our own is a financial hardship for most teachers.” – Darcy

And a bit of silver lining…

Leah, a Florida math teacher says, “We don’t get extra sick time, are at increased risk of catching the virus, have had our salary cut, and are lacking the CDC suggested supplies and procedures, but at least we will be eligible for essential worker discounts as Starbucks, etc. now.”

If teachers are essential workers, they should be given the appropriate supplies and support to return to the classroom in a safe way. This includes PPE, sanitation and cleaning supplies (and appropriate staff to maintain it), accessibility to testing, sick pay, and solid policies and procedures to keep teachers and students safe and healthy in the classroom. Increased cases of the virus spreading at schools will mean more cases throughout communities. This will put those who have been on the front lines all along at increased risk with an even heavier workload and drain on resources. This issue impacts everyone – not just teachers.

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If Teachers Are "Essential", Shouldn't They Have the Appropriate Support and Supplies?

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed., an editor at Bored Teachers, is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She's been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga. Connect with her at [email protected]
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