The Double-Edged Sword of Being a Teacher During a Global Pandemic

Bobby Wilson | 02.15.2021

The following is an op-ed by Food First’s Vice President, Bobby Wilson.

When I think of teachers, I think of the role that they play in helping produce our national and global leaders. It confounds the mind to realize that none of our leaders would be where they are today without teachers. Now, as we are faced with a global pandemic, the very leaders who have benefited and who are benefitting directly from the commitment and sacrifice of teachers, are willing to put those very teachers’ lives at risk by forcing them to return to their classrooms without the maximum protection possible against a deadly virus.

It was a teacher who pulled me aside as a middle school student and encouraged me to straighten up, fly right, and think about my future. It was a teacher who put me in a car and drove me to the college campus, a trip that completely changed the trajectory of my life. It was a college professor (teacher) who encouraged me and showed me that I could do great things with my life. I am who I am today because of the guidance that I first received from a teacher in a small, rural town in Bay Springs, MS. Yes, I am an advocate for teachers.

During these unprecedented times of a global pandemic, the definition of “essential” or frontline workers seems to change according to the will of whoever is in power. The double-edged sword for teachers is that they are frontline workers when it is convenient because, without them, schools cannot operate. Yet, when it comes to protecting this group of frontline workers, the CDC and Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp say that although teachers are essential workers, there are not essential enough to receive the vaccine in round 1A unless, of course, they are 65 years of age or older.

Within this current educational dilemma, teachers are being subjected to the greatest degree of inequitable expectations. Teachers are experiencing in real time inequity even within local school districts. The exposure of classroom teachers is far greater than it is for upper-level employees—superintendents, principals, etc.—who are not required to share their workspace with several other people, especially students. Teachers, by the very nature of their job, must welcome any students, or as many, who opt for face-to-face instruction even though physical classrooms are not designed to maintain the “required” six-foot of social distance and may not have proper ventilation.

When the CDC decided that schools could reopen “safely”, they did so without soliciting input from the people most impacted by their decision. Despite their most recent recommendations suggesting that it is “safe” for teachers to return to the classroom, they offer no suggestions on how to limit exposure to a deadly virus, especially in marginalized or underserved communities, where districts cannot ensure proper safety measures are in place to protect them. Many teachers are using their own resources to purchase classroom cleaning supplies. Teachers are justifiably concerned about their own well-being because the CDC has no remedy for students who refuse to wear their masks properly or who fail to report exposure. With all due respect to our President, no place is completely safe from Covid-19 exposure and schools are less safe, not more.

The recent situation in Elberton, GA that is still making headlines today is, in my opinion, unjust and unjustified. An entire community is being denied additional vaccines because a decision was made at the community level to vaccinate teachers. According to local leaders, this decision was a move to prevent waste of a vaccine that is already in short support supply by administering the doses to its “frontline” workers—teachers. Who is better equipped to make decisions for the good of the local community other than its local leaders—the independent, community-based organizations such as the clinic that was charged to administer the vaccines?

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This example of the double-edged sword is that teachers are “essential” enough to be forced back into schools with our nation’s children, but not essential enough to be protected from a virus that puts their lives are at risk. With the more contagious Covid variant spreading rapidly across the US, how does the government maintain that schools can reopen if they do so “safely” without vaccinating the teachers? It is not the scientists, federal or state government who have their finger on the pulse of local communities, but rather it is the local community leaders themselves.

A national research project that focuses on justice, equity, and inclusion has shared strong data to suggest that ICBOs are better equipped to make decisions for their communities. After all, who knows the community better than the people who live in the community? Another example of the double-edged sword is a matter of inequity as it relates to teachers being included among essential workers. Vaccines are being administered to teachers, but only those who qualify as senior citizens anyway. If decision-makers and providers would listen to the voices of the local communities,  their procedure could be more equitable and there would have less reason to punish local communities for doing what is in the best interest of the community.

As a former educator, current independent community-based organization, and designated Covid-19 emergency relief center, I am deeply disheartened by what happened in Elberton, GA. Instead of being praised for making a sound, local decision, the entire community is being penalized because the Covid-19 agreement did not include the voice of the community. To add insult to injury, it seems clear that the policy is more of an “I know what you need”, power and privilege, more than it is about communities. The communication between policymakers and this local community seems to have been unclear and poorly disseminated. Otherwise, why move to raid the clinic rather than acknowledge inequity and marginalized communities, and how local leaders chose to work through those challenges by trying to save its teachers.

As a leader of a community-based organization, allow me to lend some ideas towards the solution. President Biden has declared a national emergency. I would like to suggest first that teachers be allowed to continue virtual instruction until all teachers can be vaccinated. Another option is that the government could consider allocating funding to create mobile vaccination units to help close the disparity gap between essential workers. These mobile units would be operated by retired school nurses and supervising physicians and who would travel from school to school within districts to administer the vaccine to its teachers. Mobile vaccine units would provide teachers with the protection needed alleviate some of their greatest fears, frustrations, anxieties, and concerns about not being treated equitably as essential workers.

The question of security and eliminating waste could be answered by school leaders who would agree to provide the exact number of vaccines needed for their staff. The vaccines would be shipped directly to the community’s medical facility who, in turn, would distribute to the community-based organization that would supply the mobile units according to the information received from the schools.

As the conversation continues and data continues to emerge on our response to Covid-19, showing respect to our frontline workers—the teachers, is critical. Forcing schools to re-open “safely” without vaccinating the teachers is only going to lead to more school closures and educational delays. The double-edged sword cuts both ways.

Cover image by Province of British Columbia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).