As a teacher in New York City for the past 14 years, my colleagues and I have always lived with the sinking feeling that we weren’t valued by the powers that be. After all, our classes are overcrowded, our resources always a fight to attain, and we are grossly underpaid for the emotional, intellectual and physical work we do. But these past few weeks, it’s become even more apparent.
As the coronavirus began to spread throughout NYC, health professionals, scientists and government leaders began warning all of us to stay home ― writing all over the wall for everyone to see. As we were told to separate, to socially distance ourselves, we hoped that our lack of trust in our leadership was just a feeling, that those in charge would do the right thing.
Our union engaged in a vicious battle for days to have Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza do the right thing — take the 1.1 million students and 75,000 teachers out of the incubation centers of the virus — our overcrowded, under-cleaned New York City schools. Yet day after day, our mayor stood up at a podium in the blue room and told us to continue on ― business as usual.
Our schools are important, he said. Here’s what we heard: Our lives are not.
He cited new safety measures that we all knew were impossible to fulfill — deep cleaning and sanitizing that was beyond the labor capacity of our custodians. Social distancing that we knew was impossible in gymnasiums packed to the max with kids, classrooms of 34 students, hallways in gridlock.
“Our schools are important, he said. Here’s what we heard: Our lives are not.”
All of us had been living in this reality for days and knew it would get worse. We scrambled to find soap, sanitizer, ordered our own mops, taped Lysol wipes to our classroom door handles. We did everything we could to protect ourselves and our students during a time that our city was ignoring our cries for help.
Many of our teachers got sick. We got fevers and sore throats and were unable to be tested.
The rest of us kept teaching.
Our students coughed into their sleeves or in their hands or in the air, into their worksheets that they handed into baskets on our desks. We graded them and comforted them and loved them anyway.
Is it safe to be here? They asked us, and we knew they lived with their grandmothers with emphysema or mothers with breast cancer and that they took two trains each morning from Canarsie or Queens. We looked at their young beautiful eyes, their lashes batting, and we stayed quiet.
Even if we told them: No, this is not safe, we are not safe right now ― the act of us showing up, of school being in session, told them otherwise. Our kids look to us like family, they trust us by example.
NYC teachers won’t forget this.
On Sunday evening, after the mayor announced begrudgingly that schools would close, we thought we had finally convinced him ― all of our scientists and hundreds and thousands of signatures and our teachers union president fighting like crazy ― that our lives matter, that groups of people convening had not been safe for some time.
Both of my daughters, whom I’d pulled out of school the week before — began to cheer. Mommy could stay home, she could stay safe.
Then the mayor followed his announcement with a second directive: Teachers should still report to school during the next week.
Don’t go, my oldest told me.
Stay home, my youngest begged.
On Monday, a New York Times headline read “The World Is Closed.” Pictures circulated online of a barren Times Square, a sight only seen in post-apocalyptic movies. Crosswalks empty, massive Jumbotrons flashing for no one. The federal government announced that the CDC urged against gatherings of 10 people or more.
Yet NYC teachers were still told to report to work. They sat in their classrooms with face masks and gloves, learning about online platforms, making phone calls, wondering “Wouldn’t it make sense for us to do this at home?”
We are not first-responders or doctors.
It pains me to read messages from teachers all over the city who have been unable to sleep, filled with anxiety and dread about going into their school buildings for meetings when they have lost trust in the city’s regard for our safety. We are trying to grapple with this new, unprecedented reality that is rolling in like the most unpredictable storm. We are making plans for our families, making plans to attain enough supplies and food ― our children are not allowed to go on playdates or to see their grandparents, who we won’t be able to see or touch or share a room with for a duration that is still unknown.
This training could have happened virtually. Let the teachers stay home. We will work. We always do.
So I say this to the mayor of our great city: We are the people who have gotten up every morning for the past decades to give love and instruction to some of the most vulnerable and deserving young people that you are supposed to lead. You are our mayor, and we are caring for and shaping and educating and inspiring all of your children. In teaching our students endlessly about self-love and respect, we have learned some lessons on our own.
“Let the teachers stay home. We will work. We always do.”
But for now, we will continue to work. I spent this morning reaching out to all of my advisory students and their parents and checking in to help ease their mind, sending texts to let them know that we will be here, to help them get set up online with internet access, to talk, to walk them through the next set of unknowns. They thanked me, told me “God Bless You,” told me, “Stay safe.” I smiled because I knew they meant it.
Each of my daughter’s teachers reached out to me, too, and when I reminded them to worry first about their own health and well-being, they chuckled, understanding that the love we have for our students and ourselves overlaps, sometimes muddies the waters in a beautiful way. I could feel the humanity on the other end of my phone today, reminding me that all of us teachers have created our circle, virtually holding hands in the face of one of the biggest scares and the biggest letdowns, still doing what we do best: leading with love.