Care and Feeding

My Kids’ Teachers Refuse to Return to School Even After Vaccination

What am I missing?

Doctor administering a shot into someone's arm
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and CDC/Unsplash.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My kids go to school in an enormous school district—more than 150,000 students are in it. The teachers have an extremely powerful union. Students have been remote all year so far, and based on what I’m hearing, while there’s a chance they will go back to school this year on a hybrid schedule, it’s more than likely they may not go back at all this school year. Here’s what I don’t understand: In my state, teachers are slated to have priority for the vaccine—behind front-line health workers and the elderly. But parents who know more about the school board/union/community issues than I do are telling me that even if teachers are vaccinated, parents can’t, and shouldn’t, expect students to return to school full time even by September 2021. I don’t understand this. How does a union have the right to vaccinate the teachers, but not return them to work? If the unions’ gripe is that teachers aren’t protected, but then they get the vaccine, doesn’t that make their argument moot? I want my teachers and my kids to be kept safe. But I also feel like the union is digging in their heels and refusing to relent—I just don’t understand what the issue is if teachers (and other school staff) get vaccinated.

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—What Am I Missing?

Dear What Am I Missing,

Honestly, I am envious of your kids’ teachers. Here in Austin, Texas, we’ve been in stage 5—the highest coronavirus restrictions—since Christmas. Our hospitals are running out of beds and warn us that the worst is yet to come. Even though the Austin health authority recommended that the school district start the semester with virtual learning, the superintendent opened schools anyway. More than a thousand teachers in my district should have received accommodations to work from home this fall due to preexisting conditions, but the district revoked all but 93 of them. Since the start of school, our superintendent has had to about-face multiple times as she struggles to abide by health recommendations but also keep our school funding intact. It’s a mess.

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I realize all of this strays away from your question, but the situation Texas educators find ourselves in is an excellent example of what happens when teachers don’t have strong unions. I wish our union had the muscle to protect us.

But to address your question, the truth is I don’t know; I can only speculate. A district with 150,000 students also has tens of thousands of staff. How long will it take to vaccinate all of them? Some states seem to be doing a good job of rolling out vaccines, while others are struggling mightily (my own state of Texas is a shitshow—I’m not optimistic that I will get a vaccine before the semester ends). Perhaps the union leaders anticipate that it will take the rest of the school year just to administer the shots? Or perhaps they doubt that promises to vaccinate all teachers will be fulfilled—my district received 900 vaccines but has 5,700 teachers. Your letter also says that schools may not reopen “full time” next fall—are they discussing reopening in hybrid in order to keep class sizes smaller? If so, my best guess is that that may be to help mitigate the spread of the virus among students, most of whom cannot receive the vaccine but can certainly spread the virus to their peers and families. I sincerely hope that next fall will look different from the last one, but what if it doesn’t? I promise you this: Teachers are not simply looking out for themselves; we care deeply about our students and consider their best interests too.

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That said, I do understand your frustration—I am also a parent who struggled to balance the demands of my job and my child’s virtual learning. I also worry about learning loss and social isolation. Personally, if my district could vaccinate all teachers and staff while maintaining safety protocols, I’d feel much better about reopening schools than I do right now.

I’m sorry that I don’t have answers for you. I wish that as a society we could make decisions based on the best available science and muster the collective will to provide schools with necessary resources. Until then, there will be states like mine who march straight into disaster and states like yours that may be overly cautious.

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Good luck, and here’s hoping there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I just got my first education job after graduating college, working at an after-school program for grades K–8, and am due to start soon. It is also my first job working with kids in person during the pandemic. One thing I’m nervous about is making sure kids follow the new COVID rules, since this is their first time back at an after-school program since last March. I’ve heard horror stories from first-year teachers about difficult behavior in a normal year, so I am a bit concerned for what might happen in this crazy “new normal”! Any advice about behavior management from teachers who’ve taught in person during the pandemic?

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—New and Nervous

Dear New and Nervous,

My first instinct was to say, “Good news! Students take mask-wearing very seriously!”

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And it’s true. Even during our regular outdoor mask breaks, many of my students remain masked and have become more accustomed to wearing the mask than I have. This has been the case in my school, and it’s been the case in my wife’s school, too (she teaches kindergarten). Many of my colleagues in other districts report the same.

Students have also been so grateful to be back in class and are so anxious about the state of the world that this has been one of the easiest years in terms of discipline in my 23 years. It’s like kids understand that we are all pulling on the same rope.

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Then again, we are teaching in Connecticut, where mask adherence is near a national high, and masks have not been politicized at the levels experienced in other parts of the country. The truth is that your experience may be very different from mine depending on where you are teaching.

Your experience is also very likely to be grade-level-dependent. While my fifth graders practice outstanding mask adherence, it’s much harder for kindergartners to keep their masks on, with their little noses and lack of overall awareness, and it’s much harder to maintain social distancing when you need to zip up the coat or tie the shoes of a little one.

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The truth is that even with excellent mask protocols, the virus can spread. My wife currently has COVID-19, contracted at school, despite consistent, rigorous procedures in place. But at least in my school district, transmission in the schools has been exceptionally low, and there are some steps you can take to ensure mask adherence.

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1. Teach the science behind wearing a mask. There are some excellent videos online that demonstrate the effectiveness of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the virus. When kids understand the rationale behind a policy, they are far more likely to buy into that policy.

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2. Make sure that your students understand that wearing a mask is an act of kindness. One of the most insidious aspects of COVID-19 is that you can have the disease and never know it. Explaining that we wear the mask to protect others also helps them understand the rationale behind the policy. I often thank my students for wearing their masks so consistently and well.

3. Partner closely with parents and guardians when it comes to masks. Their support will make your job much easier. My wife, for example, has had to talk to parents about mask size and fit given her kindergartners’ tiny faces. Open communication will be essential as you navigate this terrain.

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4. Model excellent mask protocols at all times. You must be wearing your mask consistently and correctly if you expect your students to do the same.

5. You must maintain a zero tolerance policy when it comes to masks. A teacher’s first responsibility is to keep students safe, so every mask must be worn correctly at all times. There is no wiggle room. If a student refuses to wear a mask or will not comply to proper fit, there should be protocols in place to send that student home until they agree to be compliant. Be sure to know these protocols, and make sure that your students know them too.

As one of my now-retired colleagues used to say in the first month of school as routines and expectations are established, “now is not the time to be lenient.”

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Best of luck. Teaching during a pandemic is nothing like anything I have done before, but even with a wife currently fighting COVID-19 and isolated from me, it is possible and relatively safe if done well.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I’m an autistic 18-year-old and a senior in high school. I mask well enough to get by most of the time. I do well in school and have a number of academic interests, and I’ve been lucky enough to find a group of friends interested in the same things I am. However, I still struggle with a few social skills. I can’t seem to start or end conversations well! On the phone, in person, and via text, I can’t figure out how to participate in the same way as my friends. I always end up being the friend who never texts first, or staying out with them longer than I intended. While this would otherwise not be the end of the world, socializing really drains me, and I am wiped out by a few hours of masking my behavior. Worse, I often end up stuck places because my friends who give me a ride don’t notice I’m exhausted or don’t care! If I’m not careful, I end up staying up all night trying to finish homework because I have to decompress when I get home for a few more hours than expected. I want to spend safe time with the people I care about, but I also have homework to worry about and can’t be up all night.

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—Can I Walk Home?

Dear Can I Walk,

This is a tricky issue! I remember being 18 and not wanting to be seen as a buzzkill, but also not wanting to be out all that late because I ran out of social energy. Heck, I still have that issue as an adult. Truthfully, I think it’s impressive that you recognize that you need to set that boundary for yourself, and I would recommend you think of it as such. Boundary-setting is important in life, and friends who don’t respect or don’t care about your boundaries aren’t good friends. I know teenagers never want to hear what adults think makes for good friendships, but it’s true. People who don’t respect your boundaries aren’t being good friends.

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I have a few tips to help you with the friends who don’t notice or respect your limits. I’m hoping that within your group of friends, you might have one person you’re closest to with whom you can use a buddy system. What do I mean by this? Well, to use myself as an example: I’m an introvert, and I have a very small group of friends who know my limits. I use a sort of code with them—like I’ll say, “I’d like to go for a walk,” and they know that means, “I’m done with this party and would like to head home” or “I need a break from this large group.”

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If you don’t have a person you’re comfortable designating as your buddy, you can set a curfew. It’s OK to tell your friends you’re tired (high schoolers have a full day of school and so much homework!) and just leave, and you can set a reminder on your phone that by 8 p.m. you need to be done. It may feel lame in the moment, but you will be grateful to yourself the following morning that you exercised self-care in that way.

Finally, I’m not autistic, and it might benefit you to seek out advice from other (older) autistic people, who may have experience with this situation and have a solution that works better for you. The tag #ActuallyAutistic on Twitter is one I see a lot from autistic friends and peers of mine when they are seeking to speak within the community, and you may be able to ask for help there in a way that I can’t necessarily provide.

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It demonstrates excellent self-awareness for any 18-year-old to say, “This is crossing a limit for me, and I need to make a change”—that’s hard for many adults to do. The fact that you recognized that you don’t want to be in this situation anymore, to me, is a huge step. Finding a socially graceful way to avoid it will (hopefully) be an easy step.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My 8-year-old third grade daughter speaks with a lisp on “S” sounds. It never seemed to bother her. I had never thought about addressing it in any way because I’ve always found it adorable, and because her older brother had the same lisp as a younger child but doesn’t anymore. Her dad also lisps very slightly on “S” sounds but it’s not as pronounced.

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However, my daughter doesn’t seem to be growing out of it. The other day she was singing a song from The Lorax that goes, “Everybody needs a Thneed,” and she kept giggling because it sounded like she was saying “sneed.” She thought it was funny, yet I could see her becoming frustrated. It was the first time I realized that her lisp may be something she becomes more and more aware of as she gets older. I know years ago this might have been considered a speech problem, and I have older friends who were basically punished out of lisping (but who still lisp slightly).

Anyway, is this something I should be addressing? I don’t want to make her self-conscious, but I worry that what is cute now may affect her negatively as she gets older.

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—Seeking Some Support

Dear Seeking Some Support,

When I first started teaching elementary school, I noticed very quickly that lots of kids up to age 8 or 9 still talk with a range of speech differences. Speech differences are common, natural, and don’t always need fixing. Kids develop and learn how to pronounce and enunciate words at various paces, and that’s OK. In my experience, most students who have speech differences but don’t receive speech services grow out of their differences naturally by the fifth or sixth grade.

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That said, many of my families elect to receive speech services through the district and have seen great results. If developing stronger speech skills is a priority for your child and you, speech services at local public schools are often some of the best. I have two or three students a year who receive speech services from various district speech pathologists, and all the reviews have been stellar. Your results may vary depending on your district and school, but most families I’ve worked with have had really good experiences with in-school speech services.

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Ultimately, I think you should let your daughter choose. Have a talk with her and see if it’s something she would be interested in or not. If she is, I’d ask her teacher or school administration to have her evaluated and go from there.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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Due to COVID, my child’s public school in Hawaii is all online. However, during distance learning my child has to use a program called Acellus to learn on their own. A teacher comes on for 30 minutes at the beginning of class to take attendance, then leaves for the rest of the day. This does not seem right, does it?

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