Guest Column: Please don’t make me choose

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By Meredith Reinhart
Special to the Express

Twenty twenty has been one long exhausting course in values clarification. COVID forced us to pare down and focus one the happiness that remained when we had to shelter-in-place. We’ve had to confront once again the past due bill for racial justice and struggle toward our more perfect union. Then there were the fires. We’ve suffered setbacks, disappointments and losses. “I can’t breath” is the repeating theme. It’s no wonder that we want our lives back.

One expression of this is the desire to reopen school for in-person, hybrid instruction. I really want to be back in the classroom, but it’s complicated. I have asthma. With daily medication, it is controlled as moderate asthma. (I have submitted a letter to the school district from my doctor.) My husband is 70. Our other household member is 76 and has chronic leukocyte leukemia. (I have a letter from her doctor as well.) I am not sure that I would survive a COVID infection, but my biggest fear is bringing it home and killing my family. Seriously, I am shaking as I type this.
Adding to my conflict, the last months have only confirmed my love of teaching.

Emergency distance learning was hard. It was a sudden break of the school year, and I longed for the regular stresses of a day in the eighth grade classroom. After an anxious summer, our distance learning plan came together. Our current version of distance learning is much improved from the emergency distance learning of the spring. Teaching using Google classroom via Zoom has made every teacher in the district a first year teacher in a sense. Yet we’ve carried on. I know that I am a teacher in part because I am able to find the joy and zest of the classroom even via Zoom. There is happiness in this realization, but this knowledge intensifies my conflict.

Although approximately 80 middle school students want to remain in distance learning, the current middle school plan for hybrid instruction requires all staff to be on campus teaching in-person. Teachers lead hybrid classes in-person in the morning. After lunch we are to oversee those who are on distance learning and off track as well as evaluate student work and plan lessons. This is a tremendous increase in workload. Hybrid is sure to present challenges which we haven’t even considered.

But the biggest issue is that there are no distance teaching positions. This is a problem. There are staff members (besides me) who have comorbidities and/or household members with comorbidities. I believe there should be designated positions for teachers who lead distance learning classes or oversee a distance learning program at all school sites.

The elementary has two distance learning positions. At least some of the teachers at the elementary school will have an option that the middle school teachers do not. This is an issue of justice. I realize that some will say requiring all the teachers to teach in-person is fair and reasonable. But we don’t all face the same degree of risk.

At 59 my level of risk is much greater than if I were 29. Justice doesn’t mean treating everyone the exact same. To require all teachers to teach in person or even do distance learning from school ignores the very real health consequences that different people face.

We recognize that students have different needs. We don’t require students with different physical, mental or psychological disabilities to do the same work as other students. To do so would lack empathy. Staff should be accorded the same level of empathetic support.

Forced back to in-person teaching while we are still at widespread or substantial levels, I will have to forgo many of the comforts of home life — the same comforts that have been getting me through this difficult time. I will, at minimum, be masked at home when in the common areas and sleep in the guest room. I can’t run the risk of breathing COVID virus on Mark, my husband. This would put an end to shared meals until the weather warms up enough to allow for outdoor meals.

At three and a half decades of serving the community, I very much want to continue doing so. This isn’t just a job to me. But when I weigh my love of teaching against the lives of my household and myself, I am once again forced into the painful values clarification of 2020. I want the district and the union to work together to provide distance teaching positions to those staff members who need them. Please don’t make me choose between the health and lives of my household and teaching.

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