You Are Not Essential

You Are Not Essential

If I had known March 12 would be the last day of teaching as I had known it for 18 years, I would have taken no nuance of that day for granted. The following day at noon, everything changed. Learning packets. Zoom meetings. Social distancing. Masks. My usual routine of teaching angsty, impulsive 5th graders in the spring quickly dissolved into scrolling for news updates in between remote teaching via Schoology.

As a teacher at high-risk for complications if I contract COVID-19, my life has been confined to my home and family for the past five-and-a-half months. Although the everyday trials of being an elementary school teacher take its toll, life has been eerily quiet and uneventful without a classroom full of kids and interactions with colleagues.

Whenever I wasn’t able to do something as a child because of my health, I would get mad and reiterate how unfair it was I couldn’t be like everyone else. I didn’t want to be “seen” wearing a Holter monitor to record my heart arrhythmia because it made me different and made it difficult to do the things I wanted to do. I tried to pretend I could keep up with my peers in PE, until fatigue and physical limitations caught up with me. I couldn’t outrun the truth - or my restricted airways. As I matured, it taught me that sometimes you have to do hard things to protect your health. Many things in life aren’t fair or fun, but it’s better to be alive than to face the alternative.

March 12 was the end of normal as I knew it for the time being. I don’t enjoy having to wear a mask and miss partaking in the social aspects of life as much as the next person (who’s hopefully distanced six feet away from me). However, as has been the case throughout my life, I understand the need to do inconvenient things if it means staying well and not potentially making others sick. Persevering through difficult times and focusing on what we can control was  something I talked to my class about during our Zoom meetings in the spring. Some things we go through aren’t easy, but in the end, they are worth it.

Fast forward to now. COVID-19 is still here and just as much of a threat as it was in the spring, in part due to those who weren’t willing to do the inconvenient things back when it first became clear this was not another version of the flu. Social distancing, stopping the virus by stopping our movement as much as possible, needs to continue. Lives have been ended or forever altered due to exposure of this virus. The most vulnerable populations deserve to be protected.

And yet, via a remote press conference, where adults don’t even want to be 20-30 people in a room, teachers are told schools must reopen to face-to-face instruction.

Full steam ahead. Although some states and school districts have decided to continue remote instruction into the fall, others are abiding by the underlying message of the Trump administration that schools need to open, business as usual, or risk losing funding. We are told kids need to be back in school so they can learn and we can get people back to work. Yes, schools must be the bearers of strengthening a staggering and stunted economy. Although the virus is just as deadly and possibly even more transmitted by children than initially thought, the “gig” of social distancing is over. Put on a mask, stay as far away from each other as you can, and get back to normal. Now.

After having experienced it, the limitations of remote teaching and learning are numerous. There are countless issues that have come to the forefront with accessibility and accountability. Child care and employment were seismically disrupted when learning from home commenced. Many services are offered to students through schools that they can’t get elsewhere. It has, in no way, been the easy thing to do, yet it has potentially saved lives and can continue to do so.

However, with a declaration from the federal government that teachers are essential workers and should be present even after potential exposure, the realization of the value of education to the infrastructure of our country seems too little, too late - and misguided at best.

I hail from a conservative state, where the 2nd amendment, pro-life, and “All Lives Matter” is the beat of the drum. Legislatures have proposed bills to put firearms in the hands of teachers for the sake of protecting their students in case of active shooters. In the event of an active virus, it appears teachers are being handed a mask and disinfectant (if they’re lucky).

What good is being fervently committed to supposedly protecting everyone’s lives, even prior to birth, if you aren’t willing to value the lives and health of those about to be put in the line of molecular fire in the classroom?

For too long, teachers have been preyed on due to the Martyr Mentality: guilting teachers to “take one for the team” because “it’s for the kids” and “isn’t that why you went into teaching?” To that I say teaching is a profession, with great rewards and contributions to humanity, but it is indeed a profession. And nowhere did I or anyone agree to put myself in the midst of a public health risk as economic salvation. Your abilities, good will, and dedication as an educator deserve to be commended all the time, not just when it’s politically convenient.

I’m here to tell you what you’ve been told for years by the public, just with an addendum. You are not essential - because you are not expendable. You are an educated, thoughtful human being that deserves to be valued and protected - not just during a crisis, but every day of your career. It is  disgraceful  it has taken a global pandemic to open eyes to the value of having a loving and intelligent adult present everyday to educate your child. A few years ago, many teachers went on strike to fight for their benefits and salaries. Now you’re going to have to fight for your life. Like most things worth having, it may be uncomfortable and involve some inconvenience, but in the end it will be worth it. You deserve to be here - healthy and whole.

Erin Sponaugle is a National Board Certified Teacher, NNSTOY member, and children’s book author-illustrator. She has taught for 18 years and is the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. Erin currently teaches art at Tomahawk Intermediate School in Hedgesville, West Virginia. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_sponaugle, Instagram @nextchapterpress, and read her blog at www.erinsponaugle.com



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