Under heavy pressure from parents and local political officials, and over the objections of several teachers within the districts as well as the teacher’s union, two adjacent school districts in the Phoenix greater metropolitan area made the decision last week to fully reopen classes, despite the fact that data metrics prescribed by the Arizona Department of Health to allow safe reopening had not been met. In one of those districts, the decision was greeted with “thunderous applause” by parents, who doubtlessly felt the issue was now resolved, their kids would be back at school despite the pandemic, and life would magically bounce back to normal.
But that applause has since died down.
The reaction from teachers and staff to these districts’ decisions was immediate, with dozens of teachers resigning from the Queen Creek district, including several over the weekend, and over a hundred teachers and staff from the J.O. Combs district, which includes seven schools, staging a sick-out for next week, when classes were to resume. As a result, Combs district parents were notified on August 14th by the Combs superintendent of schools that neither in-person nor virtual classes could proceed in the district, having “received a high volume of staff absences citing health and safety concerns.”
In all, as of late Friday, nearly one fifth of the Combs district certified staff employees had advised they would be absent Monday. This “sick-out,” a strategy to fight these reckless, mostly politically-motivated decisions to reopen schools, was supported by the teachers’ union, the Arizona Education Association.
Meanwhile, in Queen Creek, school officials are still pushing forward with reopening, despite the mass resignations. One chemistry teacher, the president of the Queen Creek teacher’s association, spoke to Good Morning Arizona about his decision to resign, submitted Friday of last week:
“Safety,” he explained. “The plan we have to go back is not safe.”
“It was a very heartbreaking decision,” he added.
In response to parents who criticize his decision, he said “I do have a duty to provide a safe learning environment for my students. But Queen Creek Unified School District won’t let me do that. That’s their (district) choice. Not mine.”
“Putting people in a room for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “If we had a hybrid option and masks required, I’d be still be there.”
On Tuesday, the Queen Creek governing board voted 4-1 to reopen schools, which resulted in raucous applause from parents gathered at the meeting.
It was an emotionally-charged meeting, where approximately 20 parents, teachers and students addressed the school board, with the majority urging the board to reopen.
Those parents who pushed for the schools to reopen often couched their opinions in vehement terms, extolling their “personal freedom.”
Most of the parents arguing for schools to reopen centered their arguments around wanting the freedom to choose between online or in-person classes. Joel Anderson, a Queen Creek resident, called Queen Creek a “freedom loving town.”
“All we are asking the board for is the freedom to choose in-person education,” Anderson said. “Let the teachers and parents have a choice. We know that the group that is trying to deny the freedom of others is a vocal minority.”
At the Queen Creek meeting, Braydon Cluff, a physics teacher, raised the point that teachers would have insufficient time between classes to thoroughly disinfect and sanitize their classrooms. His objection was met with derision by the school’s baseball coach, Mikel Moreno, who expressed the view that teachers had plenty of time to do that, saying “If you can’t do it in that time, then get another profession brother.”
But the minority of parents who came out against the school’s reopening described a school district that was “tone deaf” to their concerns. For example, one parent, Robert Camunez, whose wife also teaches in the district, said the couple had applied eleven times to allow Ms. Camunez to teach from home, since she has a heart condition making her particularly susceptible to COVID-19 infection. The district denied all of her applications, making it clear to Camunez that remote teaching would not be allowed under any circumstances.
According to the Arizona Republic, none of the state’s counties meet the required health metrics for schools to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, Arizona’s Republican Governor, Doug Ducey continued last week to push the state’s schools to open their doors. As reported by the Guardian, this relentless push to reopen schools has devolved to the point where some school boards are now debating whether to set “casualty rates” for teachers:
Elsewhere in Arizona, the debate over when to reopen schools remained at a standstill. In Lake Havasu, Arizona, the local school district pushed back the discussion of when to reopen schools to this coming week, the local paper reported.
“At some point, we are going to have to come up with an acceptable casualty rate, and nobody wants to have that conversation,” one school board member said during last week’s discussion over reopening schools, a comment the editor of Today’s News-Herald, the local paper, called “chilling”.
The pressure by Ducey and other Republican governors has, of course, come directly from the top, with Donald Trump and his billionaire heiress, non-educator, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos alternatively threatening, cajoling, and blaming those schools who refuse to fully reopen. Despite these hamhanded efforts, most public schools in he country have now decided they cannot safely reopen and are proceeding with virtual instruction only. Those that have already tried to reopen are facing the same opposition from teachers and staff that is occurring in Arizona.
Teachers have been routinely maligned by this administration. In speeches by Trump himself, in baseless accusations and condescension from his Secretary of Education, even in crass comments by Trump’s children, there has been a deliberate push to devalue teachers’ worth in the eyes of the public. The entire push to fully reopen schools without regard to the safety of teachers (or their students) is just the latest reflection of this dismissive attitude towards teaching and the teaching profession.
And this mindset, unfortunately, isn’t simply limited to Republican politicians. When those Arizona parents were cheering on their local school boards for ordering the schools to reopen, they weren’t thinking about the teachers and staffs in those schools. Some of them may have been thinking about their “freedoms,” or some other ideological nonsense, but most of them were probably thinking of their own situations, and the unwelcome prospect of their kids staying home indefinitely. The fact that teachers are being asked to risk their lives and the lives of their own families by reopening doubtlessly registered, but only dimly, in comparison to their own needs.
But teachers did not sign up to the job of risking their lives, and—as many Americans are realizing with discomfort–their jobs are considerably more critical than the so-called “essential” worker who drives the Amazon vehicle to deliver your packages, or even the Home Depot clerk who rings up the purchases that permitted you to do those home repair projects this summer. Nor is their job akin to that of a nurse or doctor who simply must be physically present to perform it. Teaching can be done remotely, virtually, or online. No, it’s not as effective, and yes, it does create inconvenience, sometimes hardship, among parents, but that is not the fault of the teachers—it’s the fault of our elected government officials, and most specifically the ones in this administration—who failed to formulate and implement uniform strategy to keep both teachers and children safe.
As Kareem Neal, Arizona’s 2019 Teacher of the Year explained in an op-ed published this weekend in the Arizona Capitol-Times:
[A]s students, teachers, and families agonize over what the next few weeks will bring, President Trump and Betsy DeVos have offered no leadership and no clear guidance on how to safely reopen our schools. Instead, Trump and DeVos have made reckless threats to cut off federal funding from our already-underfunded schools unless we give in to the administration’s demands to reopen — even as Arizona surpasses over 4,300 deaths due to COVID-19.
Arizonans are grappling with the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes — and the Trump administration’s failed leadership has only exacerbated an already dire situation. To make matters worse, the responsibility of caring for kids has fallen on working parents, who are being forced to choose between going back to work and jeopardizing their children’s safety. In Maryvale, where I teach, families of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and paying the price for the President’s incompetence with their lives and their livelihoods. It didn’t have to be this bad.
Teachers are not simply replaceable service providers that parents and school boards can “order” back into the classroom, without providing adequately for their safety. To the contrary, in educating our children they perform what is probably one of the most important and irreplaceable functions in our society, although many Americans have been conditioned to take them for granted, just as the parents did in these Arizona school districts did.
That’s a harsh lesson that some people are still going to have to learn.