With the Biden administration pushing schools to reopen in-person, it is necessary to reflect on the hardships our educators have met and continue to encounter as the COVID-19 crisis lives on. The gaps in teacher employment protections have and continue to cause excruciating consequences. This blog post serves as documentation of our teachers’ plights. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on massive areas of the law that do little to nothing to protect our teachers. Accounts of the lived teacher experience, shared below, is proof of our system’s failure to protect them. In Fall 2020, under the supervision of former HLS Dean Martha Minow, I wrote a legal analysis on the rights of teachers in a pandemic. I am a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, a first-generation daughter of South American immigrants, and a licensed teacher in early childhood education currently studying law. I mention my identities first as my “why” for writing the paper, and this post based upon what I’ve learned.
In 1969, Hubert Jones (“Hubie”), wrote a report on children out of school in Boston. In the report, Hubie stated that “the key to understanding what we all must do to change a situation that is so shocking” is to “understand [children’s] needs, their hopes, and their fears.”  While Hubie directed his attention towards understanding children, I believe the same words ring true in understanding the troubles of our educators currently working on the front lines. For my paper, and now in this post, I think it is absolutely necessary to include the voices of teachers. With the paper, and now this blog post, I hope to bring a sense of urgency and authenticity to the matter before us by sharing factual accounts of educators risking their lives to teach in the 2020-2021 school year and educators suffering job insecurity due to disabilities. The pool of educators I interviewed are former colleagues of mine and connections I made by reaching out to a teachers union for input. The recurring themes in my interviews with teachers were job insecurity due to disability status, health risks, and a lack of trust in employers.
Below you will find anonymized quotes from public school educators across the country related to the headlined theme:
JOB INSECURITY DUE TO DISABILITY STATUS
- Can we online teach forever? Is that sustainable? What happens if someone does get sick in the building, what is the plan and how do we make sure people still feel supported after and during?
- I have a condition that makes me more likely to get COVID-19. My son is extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and has an autoimmune disorder, epilepsy, and an intellectual disability… I was given the option of applying for an accommodation. My accommodation request got denied so I had the option of coming to teach in-person or getting a leave of absence. I took the leave of absence. I fell into the three categories: I am immunocompromised, my child is immunocompromised, and I have a child remotely learning at home – but still, my accommodation was denied.
- Only high-needs students have gone in so far, the school reopening has only impacted those of us who teach high-needs students. Right now, I get 12 weeks, but it is at two-thirds of my salary… I have this leave until December 31st. Given the way the pandemic is going, I am going to have to apply for another leave of absence. I am going to have to use all of my sick time and then anything after that will have to be unpaid…. We chose to work in a very diverse area and we are penalized for it….I was not given the option to work remotely.
- At this time, I only have ONE high-needs student coming in. The school district has had a lack of empathy for teachers. They [school district officials] are not going into a building, but we are supposed to?! My options are: I go back or I take a leave…I cannot go back to work, and if given a leave, I cannot take a position anywhere else. Even if I get paid nothing, I cannot take a position anywhere else, so either…I’m not going to be able to pay my rent, or my bills…My options are either to become homeless or go to work to get a disease that can kill me and/or my child. A transfer has never been offered… I would have one hundred percent accepted…Schools have the option of doing creative planning. A lot of schools, including mine, are not doing it. Schools were given the option to merge with other schools. It should not have been optional.
- The district got rid of our emergency COVID-19 policies where if we didn’t feel safe, we did not have to come in… the policies were all taken away and now we have to use our sick and vacation days. In the beginning of the year, they said we had the option to teach virtually if we felt unsafe. What happens when your illness exceeds sick time? My body doesn’t know that I only have two weeks to get over it.
- I immediately called my principal when my COVID-19 test came back positive. I was in urgent care at the time. The first thing I was told was “you can confirm this with documentation?” and when I said yes, all I heard was “oh **** we just put her kids with all the other kids.” I was not allowed to tell parents or my coworkers that I was positive. My administrators verbally told me to not tell anyone that I was positive. I do not know where this policy came from. I was verbally told they would take action if I told people. When the principals called me to contact trace, they made clear they only wanted me to list people I was in close proximity with for 15 minutes or more. I don’t know where they got the 15 minutes from.
- I came back [to school] after my 10-day isolation [from having COVID-19]. At this point, I was teaching with a hand on my chest because I could not breathe. My next option was to apply for a leave with benefits. My Assistant Principal said that I needed to once again provide extensive documentation that I was still experiencing symptoms, and until I provided that documentation, I was expected to keep coming in. Providing documentation takes time, it takes time to get approved, 48-72 hours is what my case manager told me. So I said “You want me to walk into the school tomorrow still infected and infect each and every one of our kids who are very low income who cannot even afford to take this test and on top of that infect the teachers. You want me to shut down the entire 5th grade.”
- Never once in my 3 ½ week COVID-19 experience was I ever reached out to by anyone checking if I was okay, if my kids needed support virtually. I was never told by my principal what my options were when I was suffering. I kept being told to come in.
- There is no testing plan that I am aware of for widespread testing if [my school] decides to go hybrid.
- My biggest fear is giving COVID-19 to someone and how that could potentially impact my relationship with my colleagues and students.
- My son had an acute medical condition that left him paralyzed. What would happen if he got COVID-19? I cannot take that risk.
- At the start of the pandemic, I had a co-worker who got really, really sick. Before testing, she didn’t know if she had COVID-19 or not. She was out for 2 weeks, had bronchitis, and had to get a ventilator. It was before this understanding of the virus. People thought she was just calling out and I had to defend her and say she was sick, like coughing up blood sick. She was worried of her job security because she didn’t have enough sick days for how long she was going to have to be out.
- My students live in such poverty that they do not know where their next meal will come from. My school does temperature checks, but fevers aren’t the only symptoms. I do not feel like we have enough supplies. We were given wipes that do not disinfect, a homemade face shield made out of a piece of foam and a sheet protector, and a spray to make do with. The kids have plexiglasses, but they have more germs than the children themselves. There’s no protection really.
- The custodial staff, bless their hearts, gets in trouble whenever someone does get COVID-19. That is just not how this disease works.
- I was the first one on my campus to have gotten COVID-19. We were never told what we need to do when and if we got the virus. I called my principal to tell him I was not feeling well, and I was still told to come to school and that they would “monitor” me. I came into school and I went to the nurse while my kids were in class and I told her I wasn’t feeling well. The nurse told me she didn’t give excuses to adults and that it better be good.
LACK OF TRUST IN EMPLOYERS
- … the average teacher did not receive any updates over the summer…
- We shifted the expectations of instructions and the method of instruction three major times since the shutdown.
- There is a substitute in my classroom who does not have a background in education… I have a special education classroom that does not have a special education teacher. There are multiple classrooms where either the paraprofessionals have taken over or there is a substitute…My job was posted as a long-term leave. The majority of the jobs on the posting site now are for those of us who had to take time off. As much as this had a big impact on me, the biggest impact was on my students…
- Since March, I would say I have changed my teaching plans around 10 times. We planned all virtual, then all in-person, then a hybrid model, then when we got to actually teaching in-person, we planned to use peer-deck but that didn’t work because students couldn’t type their name. Which systems are we using to test the kids, to submit student work? Are we using google classroom or something else? How are we getting data in the best way? There are so many little changes happening constantly that affect what I do on a daily basis.
- We are still working on getting hotspots to all the students. When my students don’t have access to reliable internet, it makes teaching my kids who are at home impossible.
- Having unsatisfactory scores is a reason for my principal to terminate me…. The scores follow your teaching career. This year, they went forward and said we are taking STAR and the Common Assessment… their solution is to say since the testing companies can administer it virtually, then we can teach it virtually.
- My district acknowledges that we shouldn’t fail them because it’s virtual, but apparently it makes sense to give the students a standardized test that can affect my livelihood?? There’s a data-driven disconnect there that is just not making sense.
- Once my FMLA and sick days run out, either I retire before I’m supposed to retire and take less money or take a chance on next year and see where it goes. I submitted accommodations back in August, I have not gotten a straight answer, I still have not gotten an answer.
- We are not saying we don’t want to work, we are just saying we need accommodations to be able to teach remotely until we felt comfortable heading back into the building.
- The administration did not make any effort in accommodating teachers… I only had one kid who was coming to my class. In our building, we have no ventilating system and so we were in the classrooms with windows open. I was given a bottle of hand sanitizer and a spray for the kid to clean his desk. It did not make sense to me to be coming in for one student while I taught the rest online.
- The school called in 100 teachers for only 60 in-person students. 1-2 students per teacher. This makes no sense. The principal demanded that everyone needs to come in or else it becomes a question of equity, and thus a problem in the faculty. I think the conversation should’ve stayed open. Many teachers feel guilty because there are so many people out of work and we have health insurance. But at what cost do we go in? That is what we are dealing with right now.
 Dana Goldstein, Biden Administration Vows to Open Schools Quickly, New York Times (Feb. 18, 2021, 3:57PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/us/biden-schools-reopen-coronavirus.html.
 Hubert Jones (Hubie) “shaped and defined the civic and social landscape of Boston for more than forty-five years. He played a leadership role in the formation, building and rebuilding of at least thirty community organizations within Boston’s Black community and across all neighborhoods in the city.” Id.
 “Out of school” meaning children not attending school in Boston “because they were physically or mentally disabled, had behavioral problems, did not speak English or were pregnant.” Hubie Jones, The History Makers (Dec. 16, 2020, 3:41pm), https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/hubie-jones-40.
 Hubert E. Jones et al., The Way We Go To School: The Exclusion of Children in Boston 7 (Beacon Press 1971).
 After I transcribed the full interviews, I edited them for length and clarity. Additionally, any identifying characteristics and details have been removed to preserve the privacy of those interviewed. The teachers who were interviewed agreed to participate for journalistic purposes: these accounts are not intended to be a holistic representation of teacher employment during the COVID-19 pandemic
This post was originally published on the COVID-19 and the Law blog.
Kimberly Foreiter graduated from Harvard Law School in May 2022.