A photo of a white woman with blonde hair taking the temperature of a kid with blonde hair. Both are wearing masks.

Dan Gaken/Flickr


Dan Gaken/Flickr

How Teachers and Students Became Collateral Damage

School shooting after school shooting thrust teachers and students into America’s gun rights debate. Now, they’re pawns in a deadly pandemic.

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Over the summer, school districts across the U.S. grappled with how or if to hold in-person classes in the fall amid a still uncontrolled pandemic. Many schools have started the year with fully remote instruction. But others, following calls from the president and his administration to return to brick-and-mortar buildings despite a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, have reopened only to reverse course to near-immediate quarantines after students and staff fell ill. According to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 500,000 U.S. children have had COVID-19, and since schools began re-opening in mid-August, pediatric cases increased by 16 percent.

This disregard for teachers’ and kids’ safety feels familiar. For decades, instead of valuing the lives of students and the staff who teach and care for them, legislators have prioritized the rights of Americans to access and carry guns. And as a result, gun violence, and school shootings in particular, have become an almost routine part of American life; in 2019 alone, 25 school shooting incidents occurred, which left eight dead and 43 injured. As a result, students and teachers prepare, through choreographed drills multiple times a year, for how they might die when a gunman barrels into their school. Now in 2020, the pandemic has families and teachers evaluating a new, potentially deadly risk of going to school.

When President Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic early on and called it a “hoax,” he laid the groundwork that not only allowed the virus to spread, but also fueled the kind of anti-mask and you-can’t-make-me-stay-home selfishness that resulted in COVID spikes all over the country and made a truly safe return to school impossible. We should collectively understand that kids’ and teachers’ immediate health is more valuable than keeping the economy afloat. And similarly, the U.S. should have been able to agree, long ago, that kids’ lives are more important than gun rights. Instead, students and teachers have become partisan pawns in both battles.

Just as there is no evidence that active shooter drills make students markedly safer, most in-person, back-to-school plans aren’t fully science-based either because of a lack of national cohesion and funding to do so safely. Instead, both active shooter and pandemic plans are based on a risk assessment that feels palatable. In other words, they’re based on going through motions that make us feel reassured. My child’s school, for instance, has proposed a tiered return that will begin with remote learning and initially allow 50 percent capacity in school buildings. By comparison, that’s double the capacity limit grocery stores are allowed in my state. Six-feet social distancing in too-small classrooms and hallways is nothing more than an illusion, and expecting students to be fully compliant with mask-wearing is unrealistic.

Ironically, it took the pandemic to get active shooter drills cut from my kids’ district budget. Not because we care about limiting the trauma we inflict on teachers and students, but because this year, districts simply don’t have the time or money to support it. Last year, parents in our district spoke out in opposition to these drills when we were informed that students would be exposed to drills that involve realistic enactments. A parent told the school board that their seven-year-old came home from one and reported running erratically around their classroom so that they’d be difficult targets for bad guys. My son told me that at his high school, a table that had been stacked against a door fell on students.

Teachers have been sounding the alarm over active shooter trainings that they have been required to endure. But in the absence of real gun legislation, teachers have been asked to be mercenaries and medics in enactments and in real-life school shootings. Now, they are asking us to listen to their concerns about safe working conditions during a pandemic. Teaching shouldn’t be this risky of a profession. Considering that teaching as a profession is barely sustainable, it makes the risks teachers are required to take even more unfathomable. Teachers have reported spending hundreds of dollars a year of their own money on school supplies; some of those teachers make as little as $35,000 per year. Now, they’re being asked to lay their lives on the line in order to get the economy moving, with language that refers to their role and obligation as though they are some sort of patriotic, duty-bound soldier.

While it would be easy to blame each school for its unsafe decision-making, districts work with limited budgets and resources, and legislative requirements often leave them with little ability to utilize and implement evidence-based solutions. It’s why, for instance, instead of staffing schools with enough counselors trained in de-escalation and conflict resolution, we have cops patrolling hallways. It’s why, without enough consideration of the pre-existing trauma students already come to school with, we have accepted realistic active shooter drills as the norm. And, it’s why, in the midst of an uncontrolled pandemic, schools are grappling with how they can modify their school day to accommodate students and teachers, even if there is a near-guarantee students and teachers will get sick. Some have already died.

Similar to accidents that happen during active shooter drills, soon, we’re going to hear stories about pandemic mishaps happening in schools across the country. How many small children are going to constantly touch and remove their masks to sneeze or cough or take an unfiltered, deep breath? How many kids will come home with swapped masks, which has allegedly already happened. How long until students and teachers test positive for COVID-19 and everyone is learning virtually, after all?

Students shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when they go to school, and teachers shouldn’t have to worry about getting shot or contracting a potentially deadly virus when they go to work. But, the reason that the debate over whether children and teachers should be sent into buildings under these risks is because we’ve become accustomed to downplaying disaster in our schools for decades.

There are a lot of reforms across American systems that will have to be evaluated as we assess the cracks exposed by the pandemic. When we look at schools, we’ll have to not only look at how our public schools are funded; we’ll also have to reckon with how and why we’ve come to view kids and school staff as disposable.

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