Are We Hero’s or are we Guinea Pigs?

A teacher’s thoughts as a return to school looms

Greg Winkler

Much has been said and many have spoken before me on the return to school during the deadliest pandemic of our time. Like many in the teaching profession, decisions are being made for me that will significantly impact my life and the lives of those around me. Many thoughts and emotions run through one’s mind as I think about my students and my family.

Maybe I am writing this for my own mental health, or maybe I am really trying to rationalize my need to return. You see it is a need, it is not a choice. Yes, I chose this profession, over five decades ago. Throughout my career, education has changed and public perception about teachers seems to change with the tides.

In the spring of 2020, teachers were heroes. We were thrust into online learning and praised for our resiliency, our creativity, and for the boundaries, we hurdled to reach our students. Now in the fall of that same year, we are vilified for questioning the ability to return to school safely. It appears that safety is secondary and we will be guinea pigs for some political agenda.

There is always a tipping point. Two factors prompted me to put my thoughts on paper, actually, it’s on my laptop but you know what I mean. The first, two comments made by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida.

“If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart, you can definitely do schools.” (July 2020)

“Just as the Seals surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, so too would the Martin County School system find a way to provide parents with a meaningful choice of in-person instruction or continued distance learning.” (August 2020)

The second, a zoom call with my family. We have a zoom every Sunday evening because my wife and I are in Florida, and our family is all over the country. When we talked about my returning to school on Tuesday, they all told me to retire!

We are living through a pandemic! We are not listening to Science! The data continues to show that our country has not been successful in containing the virus. We still have too many questions about transmission, spread, and long-term effects. There are also questions about the accuracy in the data that is being reported. Those are family concerns.

Governor DeSantis’s comments about Home Depot and Walmart are not comparable. A child does not spend seven and a half hours in a store. Teachers, students, custodial and secretarial employees will be in smaller rooms with inadequate ventilation to control the spread. Most schools do not have the resources to guarantee everyone’s safety.

The second quote comparing the education of our children to a Seal attack on Osama bin Laden — I really don’t understand where that came from. Seals are highly trained with the most up-to-date weaponry, intelligence, and guidance. Seals understand the dangers with every mission they embark on.

While teachers are highly trained — to educate, we are not provided with the latest technology, the most up-to-date intelligence, our guidance is all across the board. When the seals went in to take out a terrorist leader, they knew the enemy and they expected to come out alive because of their training. As teachers, we do not know our enemy, that enemy is invisible, and we are not equipped to fight it. There will be casualties!

When I decided to teach, I wanted to be outside, I wanted to wear shorts to work, I wanted to play games, I choose to be a physical education teacher. I accepted the fact that pay was low, I countered that with good health insurance and a quality pension. After I graduated and started in the profession, pay improved, respect for the profession grew, and my understanding of what teachers did was eye-opening.

In the past decade, I have seen pay frozen, especially for veteran teachers, health premiums rise with less coverage, pensions attacked, and teacher work-days lengthened. Yet the demands placed on teachers have increased so much it would be hard to identify all that we do in a teaching job description.

One argument for opening schools is for the mental health of the students. I strongly agree that children need socialization. Interaction with others is crucial and the relationships we build lead to success. However, the primary responsibility of a school is to educate, the socialization is a by-product of how successful teachers have provided meaningful opportunities for that to happen. How much socialization will take place when, if a school is operating correctly in pandemic times, the students are six-feet apart, they are spread out at lunch, they are masked-up and see no facial expressions?

Most schools do not have enough counselors or social workers. Every teacher is now, not only teaching their subject matter but they are therapists, counselors, nurses, and social workers. I read an argument recently that students need to be back in school because of abuse and neglect. It has been teachers that recognize things that trigger reports to social services. Teachers have been mandated to report: abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, suicide, and other suspicious activity.

Our country has had a rash of school shootings. That is a problem that now also falls on the schools. Schools have active shooter training prior to the start of each school year and required to have active shooter drills each month. Teachers are trained to handle a variety of crisis situations. Every time we do this training, we are reminded how challenging our profession has become.

When my kids told me to quit and find a different job, I told them it was not possible. Teachers, myself included, need health insurance. If you look at my bio, I have been in the profession for a long-time, so what job would I be eligible for? More importantly, I love what I do! I want to see my students, I want the daily interaction, teachers aren’t questioning the re-start of school because they want to work online! No one enjoys that.

Many, like myself, feel like we have no voice in this decision. We ask for answers about contacting the virus. What if we get sick? What if we get our family sick? What happens if our students get sick? We are professionals and education is our superpower. We should have a stronger voice in how we move forward in this strange new landscape.

Despite my concerns, I will be back in the classroom. I will take precautions, wear my mask, wash my hands, and carry my sanitizer. We, teachers, may feel like guinea pigs, but we are not asking to be heroes. We would appreciate your respect and not be pawns in the current political battle before us.

I will approach this new school year with cautious optimism. I prefer to look at life with the glass half full and approach each day with gratitude. So maybe this article was a way for me to work on my own mental health. I am asking that scientific data be utilized to make important decisions and our leaders are not just following their gut. Teachers are the important fabric of our country and our kids are priceless. We owe it to them to do whatever is necessary to educate them but also to keep them safe.

The 2020–21 school year will continue to present us with new challenges and important decisions will be made every day. Many states have decided to start the year online, allowing them to see if the data shows a decline. Let’s encourage our leaders to make decisions with the most current scientific data available and keep the safety of all at the forefront of those decisions.

I am headed to school tomorrow, filled with uncertainty. This school year is certain to be the most challenging of my career. My colleagues across the country are entering uncharted waters. What we are experiencing was never covered in college.

Wish us luck!

Greg took his first teaching position as a special education teacher for behaviorally disturbed students in 1983. He taught elementary and middle school physical education for twelve years, then fourteen at the high school level, all in Wisconsin. He moved to Florida and taught one year of high school Reading, and now enters his 6th year as a HOPE teacher. Greg has been coaching High School and youth sports since 1980. Greg is the author of, Coaching a Season of Significance.