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My mom is a conscientious Howard teacher, so why are you risking her life? | COMMENTARY

Last week, my mom bought an air purifier.

My mom is a high school math teacher who has worked in Howard County for the past 15 years. My siblings and I are proud to be products of Howard County schools, including the high school at which our mom teaches. We are proud of the education we have received and beyond proud to have a mom who is a teacher.

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My mom embodies everything you want in a teacher: gentle with mistakes, enthusiastic about every success (big or small), accessible whenever students need her and talented at making difficult topics comprehensible. When I was in high school, I used to get frustrated by how late she would stay to help her students after school. I couldn’t go home until she was ready to go home, and she always seemed to have one more student to help, one more teacher to talk to. In my junior year, I realized that some of the students coming to ask for her help didn’t even have her as a teacher; they just knew that she would explain the content more clearly than other teachers in the school.

This past spring, when Maryland switched to virtual learning, I watched and listened as my mom adjusted to the new mode of teaching. She often called me after her school day to ask for help testing out how to work Google Meets, Google surveys, Jamboards and different math platforms. She received some training through her school and the county, but she still needed to practice. So, she took time outside of her workday to practice on her willing guinea pigs (i.e., us, her children). Over time, I could hear her improve. Within eight months, my mom had acclimated to a new style of teaching after 30 years of in-person instruction.

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Was acclimating to a new style of teaching easy? Oh, my mom was frustrated. Learning is hard. Talking to a classroom of 30 boxes without their videos on is hard. Developing new lesson plans is hard. Spending every weeknight and every Sunday to adjust and adapt to new modes of teaching is hard. My mom is working longer hours than I have ever seen or heard her work before.

Through the summer and the fall, my mom and I talked frequently about schools reopening. I work for an educational nonprofit and conducted research on reopenings in the summer. I talked with her about my doubts of the safety of school reopenings, describing how they prioritize the economy of learning rather than academic learning. We talked about the frustrating, confusing, horrifying gaps in state and county discussions around schools reopening, including decisions being made without consulting teachers.

We know that teachers are important as they relate to students. But are teachers important as individual human beings? Clearly not, according to most conversations about schools reopening. Teachers are treated as commodities, nothing more valuable (or less necessary) than access to the internet.

I was reassured, as was my mom, when Howard County repeatedly and decisively agreed to continue virtual learning through the fall semester. She was becoming a more effective virtual teacher as time passed. My mom and her community recognized the drastic measures of virtual instruction were taken out of necessity. The alternative — in-person instruction — could be fatal without the right protective measures in place. The metrics set by the county and the state were also reassuring: They would not go back to in-person instruction until the metrics hit a measurement that indicated safety.

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And then my mom called me one night, anxious. I could hear it in her voice. Those metrics forgotten, Gov. Larry Hogan pushing for in-person education immediately, the county Board of Education moving quickly. We did the math together; she would not have enough time to get both of her vaccine doses before going into in-person learning. What would teaching look like now? How would she interact with her students?

My mom expressed frustration on her students’ behalf that she will be a less effective teacher now that she will be teaching students online and in person simultaneously, shifting from teaching in a 45-minute time block to an 85-minute time block. She expressed desperate fear on her own behalf that she will not have the protections she needs to teach during a deadly pandemic. She expressed quiet, frightened pain that her voice, and the voices of educators across the county and state, can be so easily discarded.

I know that reopening schools is not something the Board of Education takes lightly. I know they’re weighing voices, priorities and lives in the balance. We’re thinking about the digital divide, about the learning gap, about students who are not safe at home, about the future of education and what this lost year means for our kids. We’re thinking about what it means to be “safe,” what it truly means to take care of the physical and mental health of our students, families and educators.

Does my mom wish she could safely teach in person? You bet. Does she miss her students, worry about their well-being, prefer teaching them in person to virtually? Absolutely. Does she know that it is not safe for her to return in person without the proper precautions in place? Unfortunately, it seems my mom understands this point far better than the school board does.

Rushing the school reopening process is not the answer. Disregarding and delegitimizing the concerns of teachers and teachers unions is not the answer. The board had previously adopted plans to ensure a safe return to school for teachers and students. The context has not changed enough for those plans to change. The board can ensure the safe return to in-person instruction by assuring that educators will be fully immunized and returning to the previously adopted plans. Any plans to rush in-person instruction unnecessarily puts the lives of students, educators and their families at risk.

Last week, my mom bought an air purifier. She is preparing to work in person by the end of February, and her school provides few protective measures to its educators and staff. She will be given masks and hand sanitizer, and that’s it. My mom has not yet received her first vaccine dose, although she has filled out every form she can find. She will return to school without a vaccine, responsible for looking out for her own well-being because her state, county and school are failing her.

The writer, who grew up in Howard County, is a Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident.

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