Teachers across the country are anxiously awaiting the start of the school year and, although they are not technically “back on contract,” many have been spending days in their classrooms — cleaning, preparing, and regrouping as they face another school year plagued with concerns over increasing COVID-19 numbers.
There is an ever-growing fear over renewed spread with the large number of students who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated, and of parents who have chosen to remain unvaccinated. While I truly believe that the majority of educators want to be teaching face-to-face and genuinely dread mask mandates for staff and students, the uncertainty surrounding the school year adds stress and pressure to a profession still reeling from the strains of the previous school year.
As one of those educators, and a parent, I was reminded today of the importance of prioritizing our children’s health while minimizing the spread of COVID-19, as well as all the other germy things typically found in schools across America. My nine-year-old son woke up today not feeling great. While I assumed he was just tired, I made him get dressed to go hang out in my classroom while I organized and planned for the year.
This is not a required school day and was nothing that could not be missed, yet I rushed him out the door so I could get to work. Halfway to school, as he sat in the backseat with his eyes closed still complaining of a headache, he asked (oh so politely) “mom I feel sick, may I please have a bag?” And boy was he sick.
After pulling over to help him and treating the bloody nose that ensued from the violent vomiting, I told him to get back in the car so we could get him home to rest. This poor kid looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry mom.” I laughed and told him I was the one who was sorry — he had nothing to apologize for, and that I hated that he wasn't feeling well. That's when he told me “I know you had important work to do, I know you really needed to work in your class”.
As a parent, this broke my heart. This is what my bloody nosed, nauseous, pitiful child was worried about — keeping me from a non-required and extra workday!
This moment was eye-opening for me and something I fear we will face regularly in the upcoming school year. Our children will be identified as a close contact outside of school, but are showing no symptoms, and so they go to school anyway. Our children have mild cold symptoms, but we have not been exposed to anyone positive for COVID, so they go to school anyway. Our children don’t want to miss an important game, party, or test, so they go to school anyway. Our children see our stress, our frustration, our fear, and do not tell us how they’re really feeling, so they go to school anyway.
Parents, we must prioritize our children’s health and ensure they know that it is going to be ok if they have to miss school, and that we are going to be ok if we have to miss work. The burden will be heavy and we know not every employer will readily grant the extra sick days — and likely quarantine days — that we will be facing again this school year. But that cannot be a reason to send a sick child to school.
While we cannot all agree on mask mandates and virtual learning, surely we can agree that our children’s health and safety cannot be neglected because of our exhaustion from COVID-19. As the adults in our homes, we must ensure that we act like responsible adults. Our children cannot bear the burden of our fears and frustrations. We have a direct influence on our children’s attitude and a responsibility to set the standard for protecting each other and staying away from events and out of school when the potential to spread sickness (and not just COVID-19) is present.
Parents, I beg you to commit to keeping our kids in school and learning face-to-face. This can only happen if we keep them healthy and away from others when there is a potential they could make others sick.
Emotional Well-Being Is Important Too
In addition to ensuring the physical safety and well-being of children, we have to continue to monitor practices that protect their emotional well-being. Educators and schools bear the heavy burden of meeting students' emotional needs for a large part of their day. While schools cannot control what happens to students before they walk through the door each morning, a positive attitude and a kind word can shift the trajectory of a child’s day. I would go as far as to say that the first contact, whether positive or negative, a child has with an adult each day at school can be truly transformative.
Students need to know that they are loved, that they are safe, and that someone cares about them. Meaningful relationships are both expected and essential for our students and without them, there is a serious threat to their development and well-being.
Long-term neglect of our children's physical and emotional well-being can have devastating effects. The science is clear that young children who have experienced significantly limited caregiver responsiveness can sustain adverse physical and mental health consequences. The science also shows that these consequences produce more widespread developmental impairments than overt physical abuse. These consequences include negative impacts on the child’s physical growth and stress response, as well as their ability to demonstrate self-regulation and executive function skills. These skills are critical for children, not only now while we have them in schools, but in order to become productive adults.
Our children and students are counting on us to hear them, to help them, and to support them as they head into another school year full of uncertainty, masks and social distancing. I want to see your child’s smile each and every day at school. I want them to share learning experiences with their friends. I want them to be happy. But most importantly, I want them to be safe and physically and mentally healthy.
Jessica Saum is a native of Columbia, South Carolina, but calls Sherwood, Arkansas home. Currently, she is a self-contained special education teacher at Stagecoach Elementary School in Cabot, Arkansas teaching students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Jessica is a 2021 AAEF Advocacy Fellow and a 2022 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.