As the pandemic drags into its third calendar year, and its second school year, America’s educators are holding on by a thread.
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In fall 2020, at teacher Kolbe Ricks’ school in Texas, if you contracted COVID-19 and had to be quarantined for 14 days, you were still paid for those days; they operated separately from each individual’s paid time off. But the second week back from the holiday break in January 2021, Ricks got sick with COVID-19, right when the order had expired. “So I had to use all of my personal days,” Ricks says, explaining she didn’t have any additional personal days from January until the end of the school year. “What if I get COVID again? What if I have another emergency? I don’t have any more days off.”
Schools have been positioned as epicenters of overlapping issues throughout the pandemic. Starting last spring, there were calls to reopen schools even before vaccines were available for 5-11-year-olds, some in spite of pleas from teachers for a truly safe reopening. And schools being fully in-person was billed as a solution to the childcare crisis to a key to economic recovery. Meanwhile, opening of schools in some districts was met with deaths of students and staff members. Thirteen staff members in a Miami-Dade school died within the first month of reopening; a Texas school temporarily closed after two teachers died of COVID in the same week; Education Week runs a memorial gallery chronicling over 1,000 educators who have died of COVID, which they acknowledge doesn’t capture the tragedy’s full scope.. Meanwhile, school board meetings have become outlets for anti-masking debates; school bus drivers are quitting at high rates, some citing lack of full-time work with benefits. Within all of that, teachers—who were heralded as heroes and pillars of society throughout the pandemic—are still struggling along with patchwork paid leave policies, sometimes to the extent that they are going to work sick and using their own sick days to quarantine when there’s been a possible COVID exposure.
During 2020, Ricks says, you heard over and over how amazing teachers were. “You know, that whole big thing—they’re heroes,” she adds. Then, as conversations about reopening picked up speed, and questions around safety continued to go mostly unanswered, the narrative changed. “You could feel the flip in society, that all of a sudden teachers were being villainized for being concerned about their own health related to their job,” Ricks continues. Much of that, Ricks says, stemmed from the mentality that the economy is going to shut down if schools don’t reopen. Instead of giving educators time, and giving school districts and state government agencies the ability to create a sustainable plan, “you just want to put everyone back into the school and say ‘Well, that’s what you signed up for,’” Ricks explains.
When Ricks went back to work after her COVID quarantine, she was still sick. Ricks ended up with long-haul COVID, and she didn’t feel remotely normal until July 2021. She had major brain fog, was fatigued all the time, and was constantly out of breath. “It was just like, I’m back at work but like I don’t feel ready to be back at work; I’m not well,” Ricks says. But she didn’t have any more personal days. “I can either get my pay docked or just go back to work and sit in a chair and tell my students like guys, I’m just gonna sit here because I feel horrible,” she continues.
Educators not taking care of themselves is already a problem within the field, Ricks explains, because of feeling a responsibility to students. “With COVID, it’s just even worse because not only do you not have the benefits to be away from work for the time that you might need, but the students are going to have a sub, or they’re going to have no teacher and be split up, and then they’re not getting what they need, either,” she adds. “So it’s a lose-lose situation.”
Lily, who is going by a pseudonym to protect her privacy in speaking about her job, is in her fifth year teaching in a suburban, Midwestern school district. When a member of Lily’s household recently had to get tested for COVID, she had to use her own sick days until it was confirmed he was positive. Last January, Lily had COVID and opted to use all 10 “”COVID days”” teachers were given—once they were gone, they were gone, even if the district was requiring an isolation. Other teachers who got COVID taught live via Zoom (where the class was in person with a substitute physically present to assist with classroom management), but Lily felt that wouldn’t work well for her classroom. “”While I was sick, I spent at least two hours a day writing sub plans,”” Lily says. For a couple days, she attempted to record videos of herself doing lessons it’’d be challenging for a sub to replicate, but that wasn’t sustainable.
“It was so awful, feeling so sick but also feeling so incredibly guilty,” Lily adds. She was given the “option” to Zoom several times with her students, but she didn’t do it. She was already using sick days while doing several hours of work each day. “I wasn’t going to do more work when I was using sick time, with the possibility of having to take unpaid time if I got sick again,” she says.
On top of the pandemic stressors, Rick explains that the attacks on the profession are unrelenting. In Texas, the governor has launched investigations into library books. “It’s frustrating: The pivot from ‘teachers are heroes’ to ‘this teacher has a book by a Black author in her library, that’s inappropriate,’” Ricks says.
The stressors are coupled by limited resources and benefits. Teachers are expected to do more with less and lack of benefits that allow teachers to truly have work-life balance creates impossible expectations. “No one wants to live in fear of losing their job,” Ricks says. “You already don’t make that much money or have that good of benefits, or even really good working hours. “Nobody wants to deal with this,” Ricks says.
Amid two years of mass grief, devaluing of labor while simultaneously deeming it “essential,” and intersecting caregiving and parenting crises, economic crises, and public health crises, paid leave is still being debated. In fact, paid leave’s inclusion in President Joe Biden’s social safety net spending package is being held up by just one Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin. Over and over, the pandemic took elements of life that were already unsustainable and deepened the profound inequities within them: Before the pandemic, over 32 million people in the United States had no access to paid sick leave; 93 percent of low-wage workers and 94 percent of part-time workers have no access to paid family leave, which disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx workers. Disabled workers are also less likely to have access to paid leave.
For some teachers, even pre-pandemic, paid leave was piecemealed together. As a piece by the Hechinger Report outlined, whether or not a teacher has paid leave depends solely on whether their city, county, or state offers the benefits. If teachers aren’t covered by a state law, whether they have access to leave depends on whether they can collectively bargain for it, but certain states, including Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia, specifically prohibit public school teachers from collective bargaining.
Lily currently gets 10 days of sick time, for personal and family illness, and four personal days a year. If your personal days are unused by the end of the year, you get an extra personal day the next year. “There is a major guilt factor anytime most people take a day off,” Lily says. Sometimes, administrators try to tell teachers that they can’t take certain days off due to too many people calling out, but Lily says their union has had their back on that. “There are fewer subs and fewer people willing to accept instructional aid jobs for the meager pay,” Lily says. “Especially at the beginning when we didn’t know how this was spreading in schools, the positions went unfilled making for hellish days for those of us in school picking up the slack.”
Lily has several chronic and mental illnesses that flare without warning. “There have been stretches of time where I wasn’t sleeping at all, I was constantly in pain, and I felt like I was inadequate at my job,” she explains. In these situations, it is a catch-22: Powering through costs Lily her physical and mental health, but when Lily takes time off, it creates more work for her. And the sick days just aren’t there to take, anyway. She no longer eats lunch; she uses it to catch up on work. Her contract only covers the literal school year; she says that getting “summers off” is categorically false: She’s unemployed during the summers. “I have cried so much just trying to grind through, even when I’m sick or tired or in pain,” she says.
Rebecca, a 22-year-old high school teacher who is using a pseudonym to speak openly about her job, said that while she hasn’t had to quarantine yet, the fear looms over her most days. “Because we no longer get paid leave past our sick days if we contract COVID, I have been extremely cautious when using my sick days,” she explains. “I have shown up to school on days when I probably should have stayed home to take a mental breather.”
Like many teachers mentioned, Rebecca’s work follows her home. If she doesn’t spend her weekends lesson planning and updated grades, she says she feels guilty and panicked that she’s wasting time. She also thinks that, because teaching is a profession that is made up of a majority of women, it is more acceptable for teachers to be mistreated, citing instances she’s heard from teachers who attempted to negotiate their salaries at private institutions, only to be told they didn’t make as much as their male co-workers because of the assumption that their husbands had jobs to support their families.
“It is as if teachers who stand up for themselves and set boundaries between their professional life and their personal life are seen as selfish because doing it ‘for the kids’ should be a good enough reason to work countless hours outside of the school and pour our too-small paychecks back into classroom supplies,” adds Rebecca.
Accessible paid leave and sustainable wages to better support staff would help, especially given one in four educators was considering quitting according to some data. That also demands listening to educators themselves. “We get 12 days every year, and it’s not bad,” says Laura Fuchs, a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) teacher. “But in a pandemic, that’s not good enough.” Last year, when everyone was teaching from home, there was paid COVID leave from the government, Fuchs explains, and their union negotiated their return to school when that still existed. COVID leave stopped existing about a week after they signed the agreement; Fuchs doesn’t know whether the union was aware that was about to happen when they made the agreement. “We’re now on the hook for using our own leave,” she says.
As she points out, educators who are parents or caring for loved ones might be doubly impacted if a class has to quarantine, and there are plenty of people who are still getting sick. “That can have ripple effects through the community in different ways,” she adds.
Over the summer, the union wasn’t fighting the return to school; Fuchs says there was an acceptance that they were going back in person. But they knew that the school system was not going to provide everything it said it was going to do, and DCPS got upset when educators pointed out a long-standing lack of resources and a profound disconnect between what DCPS says in press conferences versus what educators saw in their own classrooms. They’ve been pretty consistently derided for pushing back and fighting for improved conditions, Fuchs says.
Currently, there’s a national teacher shortage, leading schools across the country to close due to understaffing. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, teachers and paraprofessionals are on strike, demanding a fair contract, better health care, and pay raises.
“It’s just it’s hard to try to balance: the workload is very high being back, and then trying to figure out how to continue to organize and hold DCPS accountable,” she adds. Under mayoral control, there’s really no avenue to organize a clear pushback if the terms of the agreement aren’t fulfilled. Their central office is still working from home while educators teach in-person. They’ve added even more standardized testing. Fuchs says she has to threaten to go to the media or start sending emails to get COVID cases reported.
“People are working incredibly hard, but a lot of people are really demoralized,” Fuchs adds. And yes: teachers deserve better pay, but that’s no longer enough, she adds. Neither are symbolic gestures and thank-you notes, as nice as they are. The Build Back Better plan, which was recently passed, included more funding for K-12 schools, including funds set aside to address shortage of teachers in critical careers, support of school principals, and career and technical education programs. But it’s not enough to bridge the gap, both in terms of wages and resources for teachers, as well as educator agency and support. “There are going to have to be larger systemic changes,” Fuchs says. “We need to give teachers much more agency, much more control, and back off them,” she adds. “ Let us do our job.”
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