This summer, I made the difficult decision to take a leave of absence from teaching. For the first time in 11 years, I won’t be meeting new students this September. This isn’t the choice I wanted to make, but one I felt forced into as an immunocompromised transplant recipient and new parent facing a year of Covid-19 waves without mitigations or accommodations.
And I’m not alone in making a decision to step away from the classroom: The underfunding of schools, an ever-expanding standardized testing regimen, disrespect for teachers as professionals, anti–“critical race theory” zealotry, and an utter lack of care for teachers’ and students’ health during Covid have fueled teacher resignations across the country. As we head into the new year, the National Education Association estimates that US schools are short almost 300,000 teachers and support staff.
For me, like many who work in our public schools, teaching is in my bones. My grandmother was a New York City public school teacher, and from an early age, I would line up my stuffed animals on the edge of my bed to “teach” them. Once my younger sister was old enough, I subjected her to regular “school” sessions that included homework and history projects. I love spending my days learning with children and have been fortunate to work at a wonderful school with committed leadership and a joyful, nurturing culture.
I’m also one of the millions of Americans with a suppressed immune system. When I was 19, I received an emergency liver transplant and started taking immunosuppressant medication to prevent rejection. Since then, I’ve always gotten sick more frequently than other people my age, but overall I was able to live a normal life while teaching—until the coronavirus struck.
For the first year and a half, I taught remotely, but in the fall of 2021, I went back into the classroom thinking, like many, that the worst of the pandemic was behind me. I was vaccinated and students wore masks, so I felt safe. Then Omicron hit. The city’s newly elected mayor, Eric Adams, chose “swagger” over caution: In his zeal to end the culture of “wallowing” in Covid, he refused to implement preventative measures like mandatory high-quality masking and universal testing after students returned from the December break. Predictably, the virus spread—and spread—leading to record staff and student absences and weeks of disrupted learning.
I made it through with two HEPA filters (purchased by me), N95 masks, and luck. But many teachers, students, and their families struggled. While politicos insisted that Omicron was “mild,” every news article contained what had become a familiar asterisk for the immunocompromised. By February, 40 percent of Covid deaths were among vaccinated people with other risk factors—in other words, people just like me.
Those of us who hoped the first Omicron wave might inspire some sort of reckoning were quickly disappointed. As case counts waned, politicians, pundits, and “activists”—many funded by Koch money—pushed for the elimination of indoor masking in urban school districts. The day New York City announced it was going to end the mask mandate for schools, I was in the hospital for preeclampsia; I returned to the classroom eight months pregnant and preeclamptic, kept safe from Covid largely by the kindness of families who encouraged their children to continue masking.
Now, as the new school year looms and the acutely transmissible BA.5 variant continues to spread, the city has given up on some of the few remaining Covid protections. Masks, social distancing, and weekly school-administered PCR tests are all things of the past. What the Department of Education has not done, amid this rush to “post-pandemic” learning, is announce any criteria for medical accommodations for high-risk staff or students.
Still, perhaps the most demoralizing blow for New York’s teachers has been the decision by the mayor to cut school funding. At the very moment he’s removed most Covid guardrails, he’s slashed critical resources and lobbied against a state bill to decrease class sizes, forcing teachers to do so much more with so much less. It’s a story we’re seeing, in one form or another, throughout the country: school communities left to fend for themselves, then deprived of the resources to do just that.
These policies are not accidents of austerity or incompetence. Corporate-funded Democrats like Adams and right-wing politicians share a goal of driving teachers out of the classroom in order to privatize public schools, and privatizers have seized on the disruptions of Covid to push their agenda. It’s no surprise that 2021 ushered in a record slate of state bills to defund public schools and funnel money to lucrative charters and voucher programs instead.
And it’s not just teachers who are leaving. After I started sharing my decision to take a leave of absence, dozens of parents contacted me about their decisions to homeschool their kids because of the city’s unwillingness to adequately accommodate medically high-risk students. No doubt, parents across the country are making similar decisions. This is also by design.
After the Uvalde school massacre, the openly -anti–public school Federalist Society pushed out messaging about the benefits of homeschooling. The continued refusal to control Covid in schools serves the same end: Undermine families’ confidence in public schools, ignore the actual source of threats to students’ safety, and then use declining enrollment to make the case for diverting funds to charters and school voucher programs.
I believe in public schools. Most Americans do. But this cycle of crisis and attrition will continue if decision-makers keep operating as if the human beings within schools are expendable. At their best, schools are communities, and community means a commitment to our shared humanity and to everyone’s safety. If we want public schools to survive what comes next, it’s time for us all to reaffirm that commitment to each other.