Down the street from my Rio Rancho home is a spacious community park that my family has not visited in weeks due to COVID-19. Yet, when we go for evening walks to get my young daughters out of the house, the park is full of life – but not full of masks or social distancing. This keeps me up at night, for the doors to our schools need to reopen, and when they do, many of my teacher friends and colleagues will be waiting behind them with smiling faces, no matter the worry that resides in their hearts and minds.
As I continue my duties as New Mexico Teacher of the Year, I will not be back in the classroom until January. However, this doesn’t limit my concerns as a teacher or parent. Many teachers share similar fears. As the moderator of the recent educator town hall held by the New Mexico Public Education Department, I read thousands of comments from teachers across the state who have serious concerns about safety. Yet, educators also long to be back in the classroom, cultivating the teacher-student bonds that are so essential for learning. While balancing the many sides of this story weighs heavily, there is no substitute for in-person connection. Still, we should not put lives at risk. So I ask you, our New Mexico families, to do all you can to safeguard our schools so that teachers can welcome students back with the confidence that all are truly safe.
While texting a teacher friend last week, she revealed that she has been ill with stomach issues and canker sores and attributes it to her worry of returning to school. My social media feeds show teachers talking about increasing their life insurance and seeking out help with living wills, all while our numbers surge toward 17,000 cases and 600 deaths. These numbers may be lower than other states, but teachers and families are watching with concern.
Children cannot get the best education if their teacher gets sick, which could leave that teacher out for weeks or even months. Substitute teachers already are hard to come by, and our current situation makes it more difficult. Education does not move forward without educators.
We also must consider that the Latinx, Native American and African American populations, who already are underrepresented among our teacher ranks, are at a higher risk. We desperately need teachers of color in classrooms, and these communities have been up to three times as likely to become infected.
Here are things that the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) recommends that could keep teachers and students safe:
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
• Wear a cloth face cover in public and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
• Wash your hands often with soap for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
• Avoid crowded places and close-contact settings.
Educators willingly play many roles and make many sacrifices, but this is a global pandemic and educators aren’t superheroes. We can’t keep students safe at school if families are not being safe outside of school. The Journal of the American Medical Association released a statement last week stating that “cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.” We must work together to not only put us on a path toward in-person school, but to also make sure that once students return, that the focus can be on learning and emotional well-being. Our students and teachers deserve your consideration and our willingness, together, to put them first.
Mandi Torrez is currently on sabbatical to carry out duties as the 2020 New Mexico Teacher of the Year. She is a Teach Plus Policy Fellow.