2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Teachers are dragging their feet on a return to classrooms

Some are getting vaccinated, but union applies pressure to keep instruction virtual

There is no doubt that in recent weeks, public opinion on teachers has shifted.

At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers were the recipients of praise and commendations. Overnight, teachers developed online lesson plans and prepared to delve into the less-traveled world of virtual teaching.

Parents sang their praises, especially after getting an inside view of what a teacher’s day was like. For the first time, teachers were starting to get the respect that their profession has long deserved.

Now, however, a year into the pandemic, teachers — and their unions — are becoming a source of great frustration and deep disappointment as schools remain closed for in-person learning. And many teachers are wondering why.

Teachers: You have an optics problem. 

On the one hand, we hear that it is too risky to bring students back into the classroom. Yet, there are educational and equity hubs operating in school buildings across Maryland that are available to those with lower incomes or who can afford the $1,000-per-month price tag.

In addition, private schools have been providing in-person learning throughout the state.

In-person education is possible, but only to those who can afford it. For a state that prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, this seems wrong on so many levels, as in-person education is now becoming a luxury item available for a cost.

The optics problem, however, extends further. Some public school teachers and staff members send their children to private schools, where there is in-person learning available, although they insist it is not safe for teachers to be in the classroom.

One teachers union official from Chicago even tweeted her support for the need for virtual schooling while at an island resort.

We know teachers are getting vaccinated. In Maryland, teachers have been prioritized for vaccines as members of group 1B, over other essential workers who have been working in person since the onset of the pandemic.

These include grocery store workers (Maryland group 2), postal employees (Maryland group 1C), public transit workers (Maryland group 2), and even those scientists who helped to develop the vaccines and ensure their safety and efficacy (Maryland group 1C — “essential lab workers”).

Montgomery County follows a slightly different set of guidelines for eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines than the state.

Teachers are the only members of Montgomery County’s group 1B who have been prioritized on the basis of employment who have not been providing in-person services during the pandemic.

Moreover, in Montgomery County, public school employees, most of whom have been virtual throughout the pandemic, initially had access to a vaccine program specific for them. However, shortly after this program was opened up, private school teachers who have been providing in-person services throughout the pandemic were added. They were not initially included.

This prioritization of public school teachers occurred without any guarantee that they would return to in-person learning.

The vaccine rollout was designed to ensure those most at risk have access first.

However, many public school teachers have not provided in-person services in nearly a year. And  despite teachers getting priority for vaccines, union members make statements suggesting that even more is needed before they can return to the classroom.

Accepting a vaccine with zero intent to return in the near future is disingenuous at best and a blatant violation of an unstated moral code at worst. This is literally protecting yourself at the cost of protecting others. It is no better, and frankly worse, than refusing to wear a mask while perusing the aisles of Target or Home Depot.

This is not all teachers, though. There are certainly teachers who have genuine concerns about returning to the classroom and whose actions are consistent with this messaging.

There are teachers, such as in Fairfax County, Va., who want to get in the classroom immediately, with or without a vaccine in their arms.

However, those are not the teachers we see that often. Instead, we see Sarah Chambers, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union Executive Board, vacationing in Puerto Rico while saying it is simply too dangerous to return to the classroom.

Or we see Jennifer Martin, the president-elect of the Montgomery County Educators Association (MCEA), write that there must be a plan to distribute vaccines to students and teachers, implying that students will need to be vaccinated before schools reopen. Since there is no vaccine approved for children under 16, this request pushes out the return to school even further, possibly until the coronavirus is nearly eradicated.

More recently, the MCEA and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, regarding working conditions for teachers upon return to the in-person classroom.

However, the same day that Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight signed the MOU, the MCEA issued a vote of no confidence in MCPS’ plan to return to school. Clearly, these two messages conflict, leaving parents to wonder: Which is it?

Teachers: Please get your message straight, so we know where you stand. If you intend to remain virtual until the end of the pandemic, let parents know.

And if you do want to teach in person before the end of this academic year, speak up. Correct the record, and restore the optics.

Jessica Hasson of Gaithersburg is a licensed psychologist who has been conducting in-person psychological assessments in Maryland on children, adolescents and adults throughout most of the pandemic. She is the mother of two children, including one who attends MCPS.

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