School Reopening Has Turned Political, And Teachers Feel The Pressure

Teachers who are concerned about returning for in-person school because of the health risks are being met with hostility by some parents.

remote learning
The decision to go remote or offer in-person instruction is causing rifts in school communities, with teachers often caught in the middle. Here, public school students in Denver gather to do their school work remotely. David Zalubowski / Associated Press
remote learning
The decision to go remote or offer in-person instruction is causing rifts in school communities, with teachers often caught in the middle. Here, public school students in Denver gather to do their school work remotely. David Zalubowski / Associated Press

School Reopening Has Turned Political, And Teachers Feel The Pressure

Teachers who are concerned about returning for in-person school because of the health risks are being met with hostility by some parents.

At a heated school board meeting for School District 34 in north suburban Glenview last month, board members were poised to vote for a remote start to the school year. It was an unpopular decision, and some statements during the public comment section harsly attacked teachers.

“If you refuse to teach, you should agree to an ankle monitor to be worn as you should not be allowed to do other activities where your risk of COVID is present,” one community member said in a written message read aloud by district staff.

And that wasn’t all. Taxpayers should be refunded, the message went on to say, and teachers shouldn’t get paid if they refuse to go back to school buildings.

This sentiment is playing out in many districts.

During a teacher car caravan rally in support of remote learning in Chicago, a bystander yelled that teachers take money and demand more money, according to a video shared on social media. And at board meetings across the Chicago area and on social media, some have questioned why grocery clerks can return to their jobs but teachers are unwilling.

The Trump administration recently declared teachers essential workers in a push toward in-person learning, though the label is only advisory.

“[Teaching] feels so undervalued,” said Jessica Lapkus, who recently resigned as a teacher in District 34. “Nobody goes into teaching to make money. Nobody goes into teaching to hurt kids or to deny them of the things that they need.”

Lapkus said it’s unfair to say teachers aren’t working hard enough if they aren’t in school buildings. She’s a special education teacher, and she said she made home visits to check on kids who weren’t logging in during the spring.

“The personal side of it was my husband pulling out his hair trying to keep the kids quiet while I’m one Zoom call after [another] for meetings or I’m trying to teach a class,” Lapkus said.

The elementary and middle schools in the Glenview district have started remotely for the first few weeks, but like many districts, special education teachers are expected to return to the building for some part of the week. Lapkus made the tough decision to resign to ensure the safety of her immune-compromised husband and focus on helping her own children with their remote classes.

Fellow teacher Robert Glassner also considered resigning but ended up staying after being offered a position in the district’s all-remote program. He said that’s lifted a weight off his shoulders.

“I’m focusing 100% of my energy on ‘How do I maximize that experience?’ because it’s not going to be perfect because no one likes remote learning,” he said. “Every single teacher I know wants to be back in buildings, but it’s not safe to do so right now.”

Glassner said the negative message against teachers feels pervasive, and it’s affected morale.

“If teachers are looked at in such a negative light, other staff members, associates, paraprofessionals — it’s a trickle effect that affects the entire culture and community,” he said.

But Glassner said even if a family is against remote learning, he’s going to teach all students to the highest standard.

Voices of support for teachers

He said at times it felt like critical voices were the loudest ones. But he was heartened by notes of gratitude from district families to teachers, perhaps because of a particularly tough board meeting. Similarly, a group of Catholic school parents recently spoke out publicly in favor of teachers calling on the Archdiocese of Chicago to reconsider its reopening plan. Most Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese are opening for in-person instruction.

Glenview parent Neda Nozari understands the frustration all around. Some parents may need to return to work and have few childcare options, and remote learning from the spring was widely unpopular. But she said it serves no purpose to criticize teachers over legitimate concerns about whether schools can really create a safe environment for teachers and students.

“The variables, there’s just too many,” she said. “What happens when somebody gets sick in that class or the teacher gets sick? Teachers are underpaid as it is and undervalued. This whole thing really highlights that.”

Her son opted into an all-remote program, because she is immune compromised and they help out her elderly parents. Nozari said now is the time to think communally and to care for others.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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