As millions of COVID cases spread across the US, teachers and parents have been thrown into chaos as some school districts revert to remote learning, leading to rising tensions as families try to limit exposing loved ones to the virus.
Without universal childcare in the US, many parents rely on schools and are exhausted by the prospect of balancing at-home learning responsibilities on top of careers or other caregiving. Teachers, meanwhile, fear they can’t provide effective instruction with so many students either at home with illness or kept from schools by their parents.
And then there’s the disarray for teachers who are also parents, a group that is struggling to protect the health of their students and that of their own children. BuzzFeed News spoke to multiple teachers who are parents, many of whom have made the difficult choice to keep children home given how much the coronavirus is spreading in schools — a frustrating move for educators who believe that in-person learning is always better.
Some are taking lessons home for their kids or making them up independently while also leading their classes and volunteering free time to support unions. They’re more burned out than ever and afraid they’ll be the ones to bring home the virus.
“It feels unfair,” said Andrea Keller, a teacher at PS 96 in the Bronx and a parent of 4-year-old twins. “We, as teachers, have to sacrifice the health of our own children to accommodate other people’s children.”
Keller used one of her sick days Wednesday to stay home with one of her children who has croup, a side effect of COVID that’s essentially an infection of the upper airway, but she said her classroom was practically empty that day anyway. In addition to her own family, Keller said nearly half her students tested positive for COVID over the holiday break.
Her school’s attendance has been lagging since classes resumed Jan. 3, Keller said, and for people like her who are teachers and parents, they face additional complexity as the new year begins — teachers don’t want to go to work at the expense of their family’s safety.
“I’m just biding time until I can get a good lesson or a good amount of kids,” Keller said. “The school has to open so other people can have free childcare, but now my kid is sick because I went to school and I brought home the virus. And now I have to stay home and lose a sick day so that you can send your kid to school for babysitting because they’re not getting an education right now.”
For teachers who are parents like Keller, she said it feels like the decision is made without any concern for what teaching in person would risk for her own children, who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID.
“It starts the domino effect of now, you insist that your kids have in-person schooling, so now I have to show up to teach your kids, but that doesn't address my own children and their needs,” Keller said.
School districts in cities including Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cleveland have opted for temporary virtual learning, citing health and safety concerns.
Parents across the country responded with outrage and a sense of hopelessness at the prospect of once again balancing full-time work or childcare with homeschooling — and their reactions reflect a situation in which there are few good options. But the worst option, experts say, is to further hollow the divide between parents and teachers.
“I don’t think we want to set up or exacerbate potential conflict between parents and teachers, when so many parents are teachers as well,” said Dan Ehlke, associate professor of health policy at SUNY Downstate School of Public Health.
The pandemic has stressed the issue of inaccessible childcare in the US, Ehlke added. A side effect of this is tension between teachers unions and parents. In Chicago, students missed a second day of school Thursday after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and school administrators failed to reach an agreement. Some Chicago Public School parents responded to the union’s vote to switch to remote with frustration, saying they were not prepared and couldn’t afford to miss work.
“I don’t think it’s easy for anyone involved in this,” said Lori Koziana, a teacher at Mather High School in Chicago who told BuzzFeed News she was home sick with COVID. “I just want us to find a middle.”
Koziana said she isolated for a week and tested negative before returning to classes on Monday, when 32 of her students were absent (CPS ceased testing students before they came into buildings).
“I go to great lengths to make sure I’m healthy,” Koziana said, adding that she distances from her own students and only walks in the school’s hallways during specific low-traffic periods of the day.
But by Wednesday she had the virus.
“It’s very difficult at the high school level to social distance in any meaningful way when you have thousands of kids in hallways moving from one class to the next,” she said, adding that she supports the union’s vote for a temporary switch to remote learning to allow local healthcare systems to catch up with demand.
Her sons, one a high school sophomore, the other a senior, are isolating at their father’s house, she said, but one of them is developmentally delayed and the other is severely immunocompromised. Remote learning isn’t an option for CPS students, so she has to send them back to school as soon as their isolation ends or they won’t keep up.
“A lot of these considerations are getting intertwined with labor relations,” Ehlke told BuzzFeed News, adding that it's “atrocious” some districts justify labor-related decisions like salary cuts or benefits changes for teachers who opt to work from home for reasons involving the pandemic.
Ehlke and his wife are teachers and parents of three children, and he said it's easy to have conflict within families like his when educators must prioritize other kids’ health over that of their own. Not to mention the distraction and burnout caused by exhausting disagreement over COVID responses, he said, which has set up districts for major teacher shortages across the country, even before Omicron hit.
Because the American school system is so localized, the experience for parents who are teachers varies from place to place, he said. With each town making its own COVID protocol, it's difficult for teachers who are parents to find a situation that works for their careers and families. For example, a teacher may work in one district and send their child to school in another — but what happens when their own child goes remote and they have to go to work in person? Or when they bring COVID home to their unvaccinated children?
“That’s where you see particular conflict,” Ehlke said.
One solution, Keller said, would be to implement more restrictive in-person measures. For example, her classroom roster has nearly doubled compared to last year, the school has stopped staggering when kids eat, and students aren’t tested as they enter the building.
“It would be helpful if we could just admit that right now this variant is super contagious and is spreading in schools,” Keller said. “Nobody wants to talk about that.”
A one-size-fits-all policy won’t work, Ehlke said, but he hopes multiple districts could coordinate on a regional or county basis to make decisions and avoid “unnecessary chaos.”
“I think this is an artificial divide,” Ehlke said of the tension between teachers and parents. “I think we need to make it clear that we are all in this together.”
“It’s not an us versus them thing,” said Takiah Ogunlusi, an eighth-grade teacher in Griffin, Georgia. “That’s a big part of the conversation that’s missing: People don’t realize we [teachers] have children too.”
Ogunlusi added it’s because she agrees with other parents that she chose to send her 11-year-old to in-person classes, but she has anxiety her oldest child will infect her other kids who are too young to be vaccinated.
“The reality of the situation is that kids have contracted the virus over break,” Ogunlusi said. “At the very least, there should be a true remote option.”
Andrea Castellano, a parent who teaches in Brooklyn, also decided to keep her fifth-grader and eighth-grader home in Queens after the holidays. More than half of her third-grade class has been absent since classes resumed Jan. 3, and she’s just trying to get students to meet basic mental and physical wellness so they can focus on their academic achievement.
Pitting teachers against parents is a conversation only some communities can afford, she said, because families of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID. Demanding that schools stay open ignores the potential effects on teachers and parents of color, too.
“Those are the people that have also kept their children in remote as long as possible, and who are reluctant to send them back right now,” she said.
Her children’s father has COVID right now and is isolated, so Castellano is gripped by concern that if they get sick, it will be because she brought the virus home from work.
“The guilt I [would] have,” she said. “I stood outside my door yesterday. And I was like, ‘I don't want to go inside because I'm scared to give it to them.’”