A Commentary: “As Omicron Surges, Schools Battle Pressure to Stay Open”

A fundamental flaw of journalism is the illusion of objectivity. When I was a journalism major at the University of Maryland, we were taught to get all sides of the story in search for “truth.” But journalism is as wrought with privilege and bias as any other field. So when I saw Ilima Long’s tweet a few days ago and then read the article, “As Omicron Surges, Schools Battle Pressure to Stay Open” by Catherine Gewertz, I was especially sensitive to the sources named.

As a teacher, the conversations me and my colleagues have about going virtual are full of diverse opinions. However, this article reflects the cruel reality that that little to none of the people making decisions on our work are listening to our voices. We teachers are the ones exchanging stories of profound trauma both of our students and of each other. But it is district, state, and national leaders who are supposedly speaking for us, as if they have ever actually spoken to us.

“In the second year of the pandemic, public pressure to keep K-12 schools open has mounted, based on the advice of public-health experts, and pressure by parents and political leaders, who argue that closing K-12 schools is more likely to hurt children, academically and emotionally, than keeping them open and managing the virus.

Those sentiments turn up the agony levels for superintendents as they watch children fall ill, and employee absences or shortages render them unable to staff classrooms or operate cafeteria lines.”

– Catherine Gewertz, “As Omicron Surges, Schools Battle Pressure to Stay Open”

If one only takes the perspective of Gewertz’s article in the leaders and experts interviewed, students should be the only consideration in whether schools should go virtual. But it is hard to believe that they actually care about student welfare when educators have been saying since before the pandemic began that schools need fundamental change to better provide care.

The reality of the situation is that COVID is not the only villain here. Staff shortages in the wake of underpaid and overworked education workers remains an issue. Curriculum that was flawed before COVID has gone largely unmodified. Testing remains in place as if it has done more good than harm. Going virtual should not be just about infection rates, but also about the social-emotional care that districts have made a focus in education.

What is missed in not sourcing teachers for a story like this is the multifaceted nature of what solutions for COVID can and should be. Absences and shortages should be recognized outside of just test results– leaders should be interrogating how COVID policies (or lack thereof) are pushing educators to take leave or quit from being overburdened and ignored. The care of students should be seen as more than whether they can get into a school building. Decisions on what to do given this Omicron surge are presented as binary when educational leaders should be as innovative with this issue as they force teachers to be on a daily basis.

These leaders are looking for solutions to COVID as if the pandemic is isolated from a deeply flawed culture of American education. In return, what many teachers see from outside of the decision-making process is leaders creating and passing on problems that we must then resolve in the classroom. In these hurried decisions, we see ourselves erased as if we are not suffering from the same issues as our students and their families.

“I get the pressure on heads of school and superintendents, since Omicron is so much more transmissible,” she said. “But to think we can control a highly transmissible respiratory virus by shutting down, especially with Omicron, is like trying to control the wind or the sun. I’d hate to think our default position is to close schools, because the mental-health effects are real.”

Monica Ghandi, a professor of medicine and an infectious-disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco

The mental-health effects of the pandemic and the spread of COVID are not just concerns for students–we teachers are human too. But the reality of our needs does not fit with this educational system. Both students and educators are a part of an institution that classifies learning as work and supports a labor system that squeezes people dry. So while it would have been informative for Gewertz to frame this article with the perspective of teachers, the fact is that if educational leaders are not listening to us, why should anyone else?

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