By Amanda Menas
After the switch to distance learning in March, Corrie Eickman worried that her middle son’s needs were not always being met despite the fact that she is an educator herself. Her 11-year-old has a sensory processing disorder, and the transition was hard for him.
“I set up work stations for the kids, and then he ended up choosing to work in my walk-in closet in the dark. That was the only place that he could find that he could concentrate,” said Eickman, a 6th-grade teacher and single mother of three boys from Colorado. With the help of school-provided Chromebooks and wifi, the changes were difficult, but manageable.
Now she faces another struggle: deciding whether she or her own children will return to in-person learning. Eickman isn’t alone in facing this terrifying choice as both a teacher and parent–nearly half of public school teachers have children at home, according to research by the Brookings Institution.
So far, the federal government has failed to provide the kind of support that many schools will need to reopen safely.
Return to school?
As a teacher in a crowded middle school with nearly 800 students, Eickman can’t envision how they can return to campus in a safe way yet. Adding to her fear, colleagues have recommended that she write a will, in case she contracts COVID-19.
“I could barely sit on my desk in my room,” Eickman said thinking about her cramped classes with 40 students on the starting roster. Because many of her students are English language learners, she had desks grouped with students facing each other so they can more easily speak and collaborate. While the desk layout could be changed, it would still not be enough to meet CDC-recommended 6-foot distancing guidelines.
Like many Title I schools, the building’s air ventilation was a concern even before the pandemic. “We had mushrooms growing in the carpet of one of our special education classrooms last year. That’s the kind of air we’re already breathing,” said Eickman.
All three of her sons have asthma, a condition that puts them at higher risk of getting very sick if they contract COVID-19, so Eickman plans to enroll them in virtual learning this fall to protect their health. But so far, neither the district she teaches in, nor the district where her own kids attend school have announced reopening plans.“I’d rather have my kids at home and safe regardless of what they’re losing out on at school,” said Eickman, speaking as both a parent and an educator.
She worries about her students and their families as well. For many of her students, their custodial guardian is a grandparent who still works to support the family. During the pandemic, those families also must make difficult choices: send students back to classrooms knowing they might bring the virus back home, or keep students home to learn virtually whether it means searching for childcare or losing the grandparent’s income.
According to multiple polls, including one conducted by the National Parents Union, more than 70 percent of parents of K-12 students say that reopening school buildings is a significant public health risk.
Eickman knows that being physically distanced from her students is not the ideal situation for anyone.
“I would love to be back in my classroom. I love my job and I love being in front of my students, and it’s going to be really difficult if we have to figure out how to make these connections online instead of in person,” said Eickman. But she is not confident schools can reopen yet safely, particularly given the lack of clear and compassionate leadership from key federal leaders.
Waiting on leaders in Washington
When Eickman heard that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said, “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous” on Fox News July 12, Eickman responded in shock.
Schools often struggle with virus outbreaks. Eickman recalls that in December 2019, her school was forced to close for a week due to Norovirus. “I don’t see how any data, taken by anybody, anywhere can say that this virus is not going to be dangerous in a school. That’s going to be the most dangerous place,” said Eickman.
With the Trump administration ignoring the concerns of educators and parents, Eickman says it is more important than ever for local leaders to be listening to them.
“A lot of people who aren’t in schools every day don’t understand the logistics of everything that we do. Schools like mine, we have sub shortages as it is. Teachers, last year, we ended up subbing during one of our two planning periods at least once a week, sometimes four times a week for other grades because we couldn’t get a sub,” said Eickman.
She also can’t understand how students would participate in required routines such as fire drills, active shooter drills or lockdowns when people are regularly moved into close spaces, less than the recommended 6 feet apart.
Eickman appreciates that her union is working hard to keep educators, and students safe, by advocating for a solid district-wide safety plan.
But considering how much Title I schools struggle with resources already, they will need help to follow through with the best learning options for all students, whether in-person or virtual. That makes federal legislation like the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act essential for reopening. That bill, passed by the U.S. House in May, provides nearly $200 billion that state and local governments can use to stabilize their public schools and save educator jobs.
“And Mitch McConnell is putting people in danger by sitting on the HEROES Act,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “If one more politician says, ‘Open the schools’ without saying how to open them safely, they’re gonna be hearing not only from educators but pretty angry parents.”
So far, NEA members have sent nearly half a million messages to members of Congress urging them to pass the HEROES Act. It will include funding to close the “homework gap” that affects as many as 16 million students by providing hardware and high speed internet access.
The HEROES Act would provide $1.3 billion for education in Colorado, including $866 million for public K-12 schools and $400 million to public colleges and universities.
However, Sen. Mitch McConnell said in April that there was no immediate need to act, and a number of his Republican colleagues–including Colorado Sen. Corey Gardner–have stood by without advocating for the much-needed funding for schools. That inaction puts 28,919 educator jobs at risk in Colorado alone, and nearly 2 million could be lost nationally over the next three years, according to an analysis by the National Education Association.
“What I’m seeing and feeling and hearing is that I’m not as important as the economy and my kids aren’t as important and my students and their families aren’t as important as the economy and it breaks my heart, said Eickman.
“I didn’t become a teacher so that I could save the economy. I became a teacher so that I could do what’s right for kids and help them in their lives.”
YOU CAN HELP: Email your senators and tell them to take action to reopen schools safely and save education jobs.