“So we all just getting omicron Monday?”
That question, posted Jan. 1, was the start of a recent popular post on /r/teachers, a Reddit forum with nearly 300,000 members where educators around the country have been gathering as schools reopen amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
Given that current positivity rates are above 20 percent and even 30 percent in some parts of the country, the tone of the community is grim. Teachers swap stories about how they feel abandoned by their administrations, taken for granted if not abused by parents and demonized in the media, where the prevailing opinion is to keep schools open at any cost. That position tends to come without a strategy to deal with what happens when large chunks of the staff or student body are out sick with a respiratory virus that’s killed more than 800,000 Americans.
The White House has said it wants schools to remain open as teachers in Chicago voted to pause a return to in-person instruction amid a rise in cases and lack of testing. (As a response, the city canceled class instead of switching to remote learning.) At least nine states have reported a record number of COVID-related pediatric hospitalizations, while government documents obtained by Yahoo News showed week-to-week increases of 97 percent in cases, 64 percent in hospitalizations and 16 percent in deaths as of Jan. 6.
“Teach on the Eastside in the Seattle area and don't see how maskless lunches, let alone loose masks in class, won't lead to students and staff all getting omicron pretty quickly,” continued the post from Jan. 1. “No word from district on testing, N95 masks, etc. Entire staff seems to think loose cloth masks are good enough. Feels like taking your shoes off at the airport. And long covid is never talked about anywhere. Really don't want to resign myself to getting it but don't see what any of us can do.”
It was written by Thomas, a middle-school teacher in Seattle who told Yahoo News he wrote the post because his district “has said nothing about omicron as we prepare to go back to work after winter break.”
(All names in this piece have been changed at the request of the interviewees to avoid potential professional repercussions.)
“It's business as usual,” he continued. “No word on better masks like N95s or KN94s being supplied to staff or students, nothing about testing, nothing about changing how lunches work or altering the schedule in any way. I have no idea how other teachers in my district are feeling so I wanted to get an idea in general and wrote my post.”
Thomas echoed many of the sentiments on /r/teachers in his interview, saying that he felt the discourse around returning to classrooms seemed to be ignoring the danger of long COVID, which can affect even those who are vaccinated, and those who are immunocompromised.
“I’m disheartened, confused and frankly baffled that our government at all levels, including the CDC, seems to have decided we all just need to get Omicron and that schools are ‘safe,’” he said. “I am happy there’s a ‘get vaxxed’ message but that seems to be about it. This far into the pandemic we should have testing easily available and being sent to people, masks like n95s available to everyone let alone school employees and students, real investment in ventilation nationwide, not just in rich districts.”
“Many students are unvaccinated or just have one shot, most wear cloth masks loosely and aren’t consistent, and even our Secretary of Education makes simplistic announcements about how ‘safe’ schools are,” Thomas continued. “It's hard not to feel like they’re asking school staff, medical staff, transportation staff, etc. to sacrifice themselves to the gears of commerce to not take anything beyond the most basic outdated precautions at this point.”
Emma, a music teacher at an elementary school in Colorado, had another popular post along similar lines, expressing frustration with the White House in what she warned would be a “grammatically incorrect rant/vent.”
“I don’t know why, but for some ungodly reason I thought Biden being elected meant we’d have even MORE protections since after all, [First Lady] Dr. Jill was an educator, so surely they’d understand our fears and struggles. Right?” Emma wrote. “Every single person in charge made it sound as though they had our backs; they ‘appreciated just how hard we worked to keep our students feeling loved, and educated during this pandemic’ how we were ‘heroes.’”
“Now, around the country we are dealing with being blamed for mega teacher shortages,” she continued, “for the educational gap in our students, for daring to worry about ours and our families’ health, being asked to pick up the slack, for NO extra pay, as a matter of fact, we ‘have to freeze your pay because the pandemic wiped out our budgets,’ there are no federal mask mandates, no social distancing being enforced. AND goodness forbid you actually GET Covid and you’re sick longer than your PTO allots, then you have to apply for unpaid FMLA and stress because you’re putting your colleagues through more chaos, all the while you’re losing out on a paycheck and having shit insurance to help you afford it all.”
“My students and I WILL survive this dark timeline better if we’re virtual,” Emma concluded. “They are so much more resilient than the bulk of the complainers give them credit for. They are strong, and creative, and deserve better than this shit. We all do.”
Emma told Yahoo News that she wrote the post after being unable to sleep multiple nights in a row due to thinking about the return to school, having received no guidance from her district. (They later emailed once classes had started.) She said that she and her colleagues loved the kids and loved teaching but that the pandemic had accelerated the feeling that parents viewed the staff as babysitters.
“You want to talk about Sunday scaries, this was more like Saturday, Sunday,” Emma said. “That’s where I felt really compelled. I had a good cry after I wrote it and then I went to school the next day because that’s what we do.”
“What good is it going to do if the kids are there and their teacher isn’t there or so many of their friends are out because everybody’s sick?” Emma added on dealing with the current wave of infections. “We love to espouse social and emotional learning for children and mental health for children and yet parents seem to only want that when they fit what they want.”
The forum is not entirely doom and gloom. You can still find plenty of jokes, encouragement and advice, but the overall tone has changed, according to longtime moderator Richard, as problems that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic have only intensified.
“Prior to March 2020, our community was overall a positive place,” Richard, a high school English teacher in Northern California, told Yahoo News. “We have always welcomed disgruntled and demoralized teachers who needed support. Many of them have nowhere else to turn to for advice. But the pandemic worsened pretty much everyone's situation. From March to probably around May 2020, the big discussion topic was what schools will do to finish out the year. Then, how would summer school work? Then, how would the next school year look? Workplace conditions (mainly safety) and compensation (including reimbursement for necessary distance-learning purchases) were constant topics of discussion. The ‘Cliff Notes’ version is that teachers were commonly mistreated.”
“This school year, I think the tone has shifted to more of a nihilistic tone compared to last year,” he continued. “My perspective is there seems to be more outspoken agreement that the system is completely broken. I do see some teachers post with a more positive attitude, but the upvotes and downvotes suggest those folks are really in the minority. One other thing I have noticed is an enormous increase in discussion of leaving the profession. Even if all these teachers don't end up leaving the profession, there is certainly a dramatic increase in what I'll call ‘resignation ideation,’ and that does not bode well for the strength of public education in America.”
Richard said that no particular posts have stood out to him due to their frequency and similarity. “They all blend together. Complaints about school administration mistreating employees. Questions about the journey of changing careers. Reports of COVID outbreaks and school mitigation efforts. General despair that we're living through the collapse."
Another /r/teachers moderator concurred with Richard’s assessment, telling Yahoo News via email, “The last couple of months have been a near-constant stream of ‘I resigned/quit,’ ‘I can't do this anymore,’ ‘F*** the parents that want me to die for their kids,’ ‘Why are we the bad guys?,’ and ‘What if we all just went on strike?’”
Like with other areas of society, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated problems that already existed in the educational system. With the Omicron wave set to last through at least the end of January and cases continuing to surge across the country, the debate over schools will likely continue, along with the commiserating at /r/teachers. Emma said the response to her post felt “somewhat validating to have people agree.”
“The feeling is like we’re being exploited,” she said. “There’s got to be a point where we say enough’s enough and we’re humans, we’re people, we have families, we have feelings. We do love your kids, don’t get us wrong, it’s just at the same time we’re not martyrs anymore.”
“Somebody responded to my post saying ‘When they tell you you’re essential and you’re a hero, that means they’re okay with you dying.’”
Jana Winter contributed to this story.