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Is Teaching In The Time Of Covid Worth The Risk?

(Originally published on The $76K Project on 7/9/2020)

Disclaimer: Before I launch into this post, I want to acknowledge that a lot has happened in the weeks since I last wrote something. There are crucial issues that need continued discussion: racial inequality, police violence, trans rights, and more. Before I broach any of these in any detail, I need more time to formulate my thoughts and figure out the best way to use this little platform. I don't want to write something and have it come across as just another thing checked off of some Good Ally To-Do List. In the meantime, I'm focusing on amplifying the blog posts, podcasts, books, art, and other creations of those who are addressing these matters head-on. I am also doing the slower and less visible work of discussing these issues with my family, donating when we can, educating myself, and paying close attention to the times when I start to feel defensive (because that's a personal red flag for me, signaling an opportunity to learn).

This is going to be one of those off-the-cuff posts that, by the time I'm done with it, may not make much sense or sound very pretty. But I haven't written anything since the end of May, and it's time to get back to the blog.

Since this pandemic started, there's been an endlessly available smorgasbord of COVID-19-Related Things You Can Worry About RIGHT NOW!, and I've indulged in many of them over the past few months: Will My Parents Stop Going To Parties?, How Long Will This Shutdown Last?, Is Takeout Safe?, Is it Okay To Run Outside?, Why Are Bars Opening?, Why Is Disney World Opening?, Will My Child Need Therapy Due To Bad Dad Jokes + Lack Of Socialization And How Much Should I Be Saving For That?, Are We The Only People Still Distancing?, Will I Get COVID At The Doctor's Office?, and Why Aren't People Wearing Masks?, among many others.

For the past few weeks, the thing that my partner and I have been most concerned about is whether he will be required to return to his classroom in August. Here in Arizona, we have the highest test positivity rate in the entire continental US (nearly 27%). The number of positive cases continues to increase (more than 4000 just today), and the death toll has doubled in the last month. But our school and school district plan to bring kids back to the classroom starting on August 17. Because students have the option of learning online instead (which we support, and which my own kid will be doing), my partner and his colleagues will likely be expected to pull double duty by teaching in-person and managing the online cohort, too (which we do not support). Meanwhile, there's no information about: social distancing requirements, whether teachers will have to pay for PPE, whether the school will be updating its ventilation system (many of our school's classrooms have no windows; in the ones that do, the windows do not open), or what happens if a kid or teacher gets sick (do entire classes quarantine for two weeks?) We do know that although students will be required to wear masks, there will be no testing.

In short: More work, less money, taking major risks every day.

We've had several difficult discussions about what we'll do if the school opens before we feel it's safe for him to go back. My partner is currently the family breadwinner. He brings in the full-time salary. His employer supplies our health insurance. My part-time job comes nowhere close to meeting our financial needs.

But at the same time, COVID-19 is slowly revealing how versatile and insidious it is. It's not "just" a respiratory infection that affects older adults. It's a multifaceted illness that can attack different parts of the body, and often in an unpredictable way. It can sicken people of all ages. People of all ages are getting very, very ill.

And where does it tend to transmit most effectively? Indoors... amongst groups of people... either from coughs or sneezes OR when the aerosolized virus spreads through activities such as talking and breathing.

We've decided that he will quit if school opens and he doesn't feel that going back is safe. We're not going to risk it. We'd rather struggle financially than run the risk of ending up in the hospital or our child losing a parent.

It shouldn't be this way. As a country, we should have spent the summer containing the virus using methods that are proven to work so that essential workers can operate in a lower-risk environment. Instead, thanks to incompetent/nonexistent leadership, the virus is now completely out of control in many places. That hasn't stopped schools (from preschool through college) from planning face-to-face fall sessions.

We've been saving as much as possible since the pandemic started. Our emergency fund isn't where I would like it to be, but then again, where I would like it to be is one year of expenses - something that seemed completely over the top until, like, April, so that's not happening.

Still, we're in okay shape given the situation. Based on our current savings and expenses, and guesstimating the cost of ACA healthcare, I've calculated that we can live off our emergency fund and my income for approximately 6-7 months, assuming my job holds. After that, we could rely on credit cards. Not ideal, but we'd do it if we had to. My partner has been looking for other jobs and would of course continue to do so, so hopefully he'd find another position and it wouldn't come down to that.

But doing so has the potential to completely derail us financially. Only now, after three years of working very hard, are we starting to catch up on savings and retirement. Quitting would be a major setback from a money standpoint.

To put it mildly, this is incredibly stressful.

Under normal circumstances, I'd feel more confident that those in charge will ultimately prioritize people over profits and make decisions designed to protect the public. But right now? No. I have absolutely no faith that the state government or the federal government is looking out for the people they're supposed to serve. Not after what's happened so far this year. Not after more than 130,000 people have needlessly died. Not after our governor has continuously refused to make any meaningful mandates to get this thing under control, even as our numbers have soared.

We want to protect our family, but clearly, nobody is going to assist us with that. We're on our own. Everyone in this country is on their own at this point. You're not a billionaire or a politician? Good. Fucking. Luck. Utterly depressing, considering that the only way we're going to manage this pandemic until a vaccine is available is to work together and look out for one another (as other countries have).

Fortysomething does not want to quit. We do not want to lose our income. We do not want to make that decision. We're losing sleep over it.

But we will do anything to keep our family physically safe and healthy.

One request: if you have school-age children (or even if you don't!), speak up to your representatives at all levels about the need to create a safe environment for children, teachers, and staff. By "creating a safe environment," I don't just mean wearing a mask in the classroom or buying the teacher an extra container of Clorox wipes or moving to an online platform. We can do those things, but they don't do much to address our current challenges (people dying in droves, parents not being able to return to the office, etc.) I mean working together as communities to (1) lower the numbers to the point where transmission risk is low and (2) establish vetted protocols (testing and contact tracing, anyone?) so that kids can actually return to school.

That's what it will take to get back to semi-normal life. Our government doesn't want to do these things, and people don't want to be inconvenienced any more than they already have been... and yet school workers are expected to be on campus, with kids, day in and day out, just praying they can get through an entire school year without contracting a potentially deadly illness and spreading it to the people they care about*.

We are not willing to roll the dice on that.

I acknowledge that even considering this as an option is an immense privilege. The fact that ANYONE has to risk their life because our country won't get it together is completely unacceptable.

*I'm focused on teachers here, but we need to be doing this for the sake of ALL WORKERS WHO ARE PUBLIC-FACING. 

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