Donald Trump Will Never Give Us the Smart, Nuanced Conversation We Need About Going Back to School

Jul 8, 2020 11:03:00 AM


As COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the end of the 2019-2020 school year, parents and politicians nationwide sang the praises of teachers across the country—and it only took a global pandemic and economic collapse. Twitter and Facebook memes were abounding with the promise: “After this pandemic, people are going to give teachers so much more respect.” 

They applauded our efforts to shift instruction at the drop of a MAGA hat, and they glorified the willingness of school staff to go above and beyond delivering meals, technology, internet hot spots and materials to families. This was especially crucial for students in our public school system. So many of our students and families depend on the support systems which a typical school day offers, and [pullquote position="right"]educators worked overtime to demonstrate just how innovative we could be in times of unimaginable struggle.[/pullquote]

After rounding out what was undoubtedly the most emotionally-draining end to a school year I’ve experienced in fifteen years, I finally felt at peace with how things concluded—not happy, not satisfied, but accepting of what was, and hopeful about what could be. Although still heartbroken and feeling cheated out of my final months with my students, I experienced a sense of pride as I reflected on the unwavering resilience of my seniors, as well as the unparalleled commitment of my colleagues.

Furthermore, I marveled in disbelief at what we accomplished, quite literally, against all odds. Due to the circumstances, our instruction certainly wasn’t perfect, and it certainly wasn’t all that our precious students deserved. Nevertheless, I felt grateful that the public recognized our efforts. 

Trump Launches His Latest Attack on Teachers

My, what a difference four months makes! After navigating the impossible, Trump launched his latest assault on teachers, and he even threatened to withhold federal funding if schools couldn’t safely re-open in-person in the fall.

Allow me to reiterate: He threatened to take away funding from children in the middle of a pandemic—funding which ensures they have access to things such as meals even if they aren’t physically in school. 

The wind has deflated from my sails. Not because I haven’t come to expect threats and slanderous rhetoric from the president. After all, his family frequently yields insulting comments at public school educators. Hell, just last year we were on the receiving end of the same type of defamatory speech when Donald Trump Jr. coined the phrase “loser teachers.” I quickly grabbed my pen and rushed to my colleagues’ defense, inviting him into my classroom to prove him wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never took me up on that offer.

Nevertheless, Trump’s latest attacks feel extra personal, like salt being poured into a gaping wound after all that we have endured. To add insult to injury, Trump’s appeals to anti-intellectualism—and his scathing attacks on education—have given rise to much of the narrative fueling anti-science sentiment in politics. This likely contributed to the general public’s delay in believing scientists who warned of the severity of the Coronavirus pandemic, costing countless lives and further delaying the reopening of schools. [pullquote]This anti-intellectual trend is damaging our national ability to have educated, nuanced conversations about complex topics, ones which are required in order to formulate back-to-school transition plans for the fall.[/pullquote] 

The result is a sudden demand, with reckless abandon, that teachers and students return to the classroom. Period. And let me be clear: Teachers desperately want to return to school. We know that students are best served when they are physically present in our classrooms, and we want to provide them with the in-person instruction they deserve. Also, we miss our students. A lot. 

When is Enough Enough?

There are overwhelming challenges that lie ahead. Regardless, educators continue to work diligently to formulate plans to reopen schools in the fall, and some are even doing so at the risk of their own health. At a time when Betsy DeVos is redirecting Coronavirus relief funds from public schools, all while insisting that schools reopen even as COVID-19 cases spike throughout the country, some districts have miraculously found a way to offer full-time, in-person instruction in the fall with regular start dates—a very tall order, all things considered—so long as students wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Great, right?

Wrong. Even when faced with the option to send students back to school full-time with masks in hand, an overwhelming number of individuals insist, “That’s not good enough.” After endless task forces and team meetings and committees specifically devoted to restructuring school days and to developing policies and procedures which would ensure a safe return for students and staff, there remains an overwhelming sector of the population clinging tightly to their demands: Send kids back to school, full-time, physically, WITH NO MASKS! So much for respecting teachers ...

At this point, I feel compelled to ask: When is enough enough?

[pullquote]Educators are not sacrificial lambs. Our responsibility to educate does not trump our right to health and safety.[/pullquote] The irony is not lost on me that just four months ago, teachers and school staff were hailed as martyrs. Now people are organizing anti-mask protests with no concern for the safety of educators and their families. We tend to be selfless, but this is where I draw the line.

In light of this, I’d like to offer a few unsolicited suggestions regarding back-to-school (whenever that may be) procedures:

  • If you’re in a district fortunate enough to offer in-person instruction, please respect the guidelines and stipulations put in place by the district.
  • Please don’t vilify educators. We’re making tough decisions in real-time, and we’re working our asses off. It’s not our fault if COVID-19 numbers aren’t decreasing in your communities. If you feel the need to place blame, might I recommend redirecting your ire to the people who refuse to quarantine and/or wear masks? 
  • Your children will adapt to your district's plan in the same way that you do. Negativity breeds negativity. Please don’t make our jobs harder than they already are in these unprecedented times. Encourage children to be enthusiastic about the start of the upcoming school year, even if it is unconventional.
  • Teachers and families should be equal partners. No matter what the upcoming school year looks like, you’re valuable stakeholders in every child’s education. Resist the “us vs. them” rhetoric which is currently fueling too much discussion, and work together.

The sooner we all recognize that we are each other’s greatest resource in these unprecedented times, the sooner we can get back to doing what’s best for kids. 

Lindsey Jensen

Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach Plus Policy Alum, and she is an Advisory Board Member for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center. She has over 15 years of educational experience, holds a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Southern Illinois University, a master’s degree in secondary English education from Oakland City University, and she is finishing her doctorate in the fall of 2020 in teaching and learning from Illinois State University. In her free time, Lindsey travels the country speaking and engaging in educational advocacy. She has delivered over 100 keynotes at Northwestern University, SXSWEdu, The National Association of Teacher Educators Conference, The Raising Student Achievement Conference, and WITCon. She is a proud public school teacher and academic dean in Dwight, Illinois.

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