I’m a black single mother of two children. I have a 9-year-old daughter, who is amazing, and a 6-year-old autistic son, who is equally as amazing. I am also a proud and very involved special education resource teacher in the Paterson School District who lives in fear of COVID-19.
Teaching has been my passion for as long as I can remember. Before March 17, my days consisted of waking up at 5 a.m., preparing myself for work, preparing my children for their school day and their transportation to school, preparing their breakfast, getting myself to work and getting down to doing what I love. My love for education and being an educator is organic and innate within me. It’s more than just what I do during school hours; it’s building relationships with my students and their families, creating an inviting and inclusive learning environment and working with my students to develop a real-life plan to help them succeed academically and emotionally. That all stopped with COVID-19.
Overnight, my days turned into waking up with anxiety and stress, all while preparing my children and students for remote and paper-based learning. To say it was a challenge is putting it lightly. I was multi-tasking while dealing with quarantine statutes, making meals and snacks daily and worrying about who would test positive, be hospitalized—or worse, who passed on after battling this sometimes-fatal virus. We all suffered and continue to suffer mentally, emotionally and physically. No one was or is exempt, and it was a lesson learned quickly by billions of people. I missed working with my students and colleagues, as well as the freedom of walking the halls of my school building with my students, testing them on the spot with their multiplication facts and vocabulary definitions and teaching the standards and objectives of the day! I get extremely emotional just thinking about it.
In the months that followed, infection numbers increased and restrictions were put in place for everyone’s health and safety. As one large community, residents throughout New Jersey were all fighting to live, and it seemed people were taking it seriously and numbers began to decline. The governor laid out plans for us to reopen in phases and began the journey to lead us into a “new normal”. It seemed like going back into school buildings would happen, but then other states and countries began their reopening phases only to find it impossible to do.
In Gwinnett County, Georgia, schools reopened only to find that 260 district employees had either tested positive or been exposed to the deadly virus and had to be quarantined. There were even more teachers who knew they had the virus and could not return to work for the reopening of schools. Internationally, in Israel, students were reported to have contracted COVID-19, and the numbers continued to rise within days of reopening. There are many more stories the news has reported and shared, and—if there is one thing that became clear—it’s that we are not ready to reopen our school buildings.
While many details were shared by the Paterson Board of Education in its reopening plan, there are still many outstanding questions and concerns. Is there a real-time budget in place to ensure that mandatory PPE equipment never runs out? What happens to children who come to school sick? Is isolating them an entire day the answer and can we even safely isolate them? How can parents who are also teachers be in school buildings while their children are placed in a hybrid model? Child care is an extra cost and not every parent is comfortable with having their children go to a program/ agency for a full school day. How can people with compromised immune systems safely return to school buildings? This includes students, teachers, administrators, secretaries, custodial staff, specialists, cafeteria workers, and many more. What will happen with transportation? Paterson’s plan stated that only half of the students that were on bus routes would be transported on the routes. What about the other half? Will two buses be assigned per route? Will parents have to wait later for the buses to come back around to transport their children after the first group? There are many children with special needs who may have difficulty and struggle with wearing and keeping on their masks all day. How can we address them riding buses without exposing other students or exposing themselves? As per Gov. Murphy’s order, are we really going to see our children keep their masks on an entire school day? His order also states that no “mask breaks” are allowed. And, as per Gov. Murphy’s order, indoor gatherings have been reduced to 25 people. How can schools adhere to this or, for that matter, why are they exempt?
There are so many more questions and concerns by parents and teachers like me. We are talking about reopening and having people return to school when there is a high probability that there will be persons who have the virus and not be aware as they enter school buildings, unwittingly exposing others and needlessly causing this virus to spread. Is it worth a child or an adult potentially contracting the virus and having to quarantine? Is it worth having one of our students or staff succumb to this virus and have to announce another funeral? One more case or death is one too high, in my opinion.
I know there are a select group of people who will read this and think that I just do not want to return to school because I am a teacher, or that I want to stay home and do nothing while collecting a paycheck. Let me correct you right now: Educators stepped up and took on this challenge in unforeseen superhero-like fashion. We made it look “easy”, when many critics had no idea how much work we were—and still are—putting in for our students and school districts from our home.
Believe me when I tell you that I have broken down crying at nights, and I know that many of my colleagues have done the same. I have had my students break down because they were struggling with being home. The social-emotional piece to this is real and no one is aware of it more than parents and educators. We would love to return to our school buildings and get back to what we do best, just not at the risk of anyone’s life. Our desire to begin the year with remote learning is about the health and safety of my students, my students’ families, my colleagues, my colleagues’ families, my administrators, my administrators’ families and my own.
We cannot be silent about this any longer. The state needs to sign off in order for our schools to have a full virtual reopening until this virus is contained, and we are no longer counting positive test results or deaths. We’ve shown just how much we can do as one statewide community before; let’s come together and do it again to beat this virus once and for all.
Shaye Brown is a mother of two and a special education resource teacher for Paterson Public Schools