January 12, 2022

Jessica Winter: Who Gets the Blame When Schools Shut Down

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Writing for the New Yorker, Jessica Winter looks at how, despite many failures in many quarters, it’s teachers who get the blame for school closings.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the covid fires spreading through countless classrooms, the keep-schools-open refrain has only become louder in recent days. “The safest place for our children is in a school building,” Eric Adams, the city’s new Mayor, said on Monday, January 3rd, echoing many of his previous remarks. On Tuesday, President Biden said, “We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That’s why I believe that schools should remain open.” These comments remove adult educators from the picture; the emphasis on children’s safety isn’t entirely apt, given that classroom and school closures are, at this point, largely the result of staff shortages. (When the Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery pointed out this mundane fact, on Wednesday evening, the prognosticator Nate Silver responded by comparing school closures to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which suggests the tenor of this discussion in some corners.)

The erasure of teachers from these considerations of school safety is all the more striking given how present teachers become when the finger-pointing begins. “Teachers unions: Please stop the delays,” Wen tweeted, on Tuesday. “We need all schools to be in-person, now.” For many of the most emphatic critics of school closures, it is teachers, not the Omicron variant of covid-19, who have thrown schools into this latest round of upheaval; teachers, not a governmental failure to address matters ranging from classroom sizes to H.V.A.C. maintenance to the distribution of tests and masks, who have wrenched a public-health crisis into the shape of an ugly labor dispute. Prior to the fall of 2020, in an effort to reopen school buildings, some school districts formally classified teachers as “essential workers,” that emblematic label of the pandemic, which at once valorizes the individual while stripping her of any agency: the essential worker simply must go to work. That label has largely been applied to low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color. Unlike many essential workers, however, teachers have a union, and all the possibilities of self-determination that go with it. They have been able to insist on different conditions for their work, and to force negotiations over those conditions. As a country, we have grown less used to such conflicts.

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