Please don’t call them heroes
By Farhad Manjoo
In America, you should always get a little suspicious when politicians suddenly start calling you a hero. It’s a well-worn trick; they’re buttering you up before sacrificing you to the gods of unconstrained capitalism and governmental neglect.
A few months ago, it was nurses, doctors and other essential workers who were hailed as heroes — a perfectly accurate and heartwarming sentiment, but also one meant to obscure the sorry reality that the world’s richest country was asking health care workers to treat coronavirus patients without providing adequate protective gear.
“Please don’t call me a hero,” a nurse in Brooklyn wrote on a protest sign at the time. “I am being martyred against my will.”
Now, it’s America’s parents and teachers who are being valorized for doing a job that really should not require putting their lives on the line.
At a White House event last week to encourage the nation’s schools to reopen, Vice President Mike Pence laid the heroism on thick. Parents and teachers, he said, were “two categories of heroes that emerged” in the crisis. Since the pandemic is all but over, at least in the magical thinking of the Trump administration, Pence wants parents and teachers to again put on our capes and save the day. “To open up America again, we got to open up America’s schools,” he said.
I want schools to reopen as much any parent does. My wife and I were driven to the verge of breakdown this spring while trying to home-school our kids while working from home, and I am freaking out about having to do that again in the fall.
But parents and teachers would be wise to reject any invitation to unnecessary heroism. I don’t want educating my kids to be a heroic act of American defiance — I want it to be ordinary. And I’d rather not sacrifice my children’s teachers, either, so that America’s economy can begin humming once more.
Again and again in this crisis, the federal government’s callous incompetence has left Americans with no good options. Early research on school reopening suggests that classrooms can be safe when the virus is contained or declining, and as long as schools take necessary precautions to minimize the chance that classrooms become superspreaders. But in much of the nation, the virus remains uncontained, and so we face a grim future. There will likely be danger and chaos if the schools do not reopen, and there will be danger and chaos if they do.
The needs of children and working parents have long been ignored by American lawmakers, but I’ve never felt the government’s neglect as viscerally as in its inability to make school safe again during a pandemic.
Shouldn’t getting our kids back to school have been a primary goal of the federal government throughout the summer? What possible excuse can anyone muster for falling down on this job?
I’m reminded of that famous presidential call to sacrifice: Ask not what your country can do for you … because, honestly, it probably won’t do much of anything, and your best bet when facing a crisis is to just learn to live with it. (This sounds like a joke, but it’s the actual plan: “The virus is with us, but we need to live with it,” one anonymous administration official recently told NBC News.)
Experts say there are many ways to mitigate the risks of the coronavirus while reopening the schools. The most obvious of these would have been to reduce the spread of the virus, but you know how well that’s going.
The federal government could also have provided the hundreds of billions of dollars that school district officials say is necessary to remake education during a pandemic. We could have funded hazard pay for teachers and paid time off for parents, and come up with a plan to repurpose office buildings or gyms for the space required to teach students while social distancing.
In May, Democrats in the House passed a bill that calls for $58 billion in new funds for schools. But the Republican Senate has not taken up the measure, and President Donald Trump has done little more than post several all-caps tweets demanding that they reopen. In cable-news interviews this weekend, Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, refused to say if schools should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health guidelines, which calls for strict social distancing, masks and the installation of physical barriers and improved ventilation to reduce the spread of the virus.
DeVos’ plan, like Trump’s, appears to be little more than wishful thinking: Go to school. Don’t worry about it. Things will be fine. You’re a hero!
Forgive me if I feel less like a hero than like a chump. This week several large school districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego, announced that it’s too dangerous to open for in-person instruction. I expect that we’ll see a wave of others deciding the same, leaving parents across the country in an impossible bind.
There is a danger that frustrated parents blame teachers for the crisis. After all, distance learning has been a disaster. It’s unfair, and likely impossible, for kids to learn by themselves off a screen, and in my experience, remote learning requires a great deal of parental oversight, which is difficult or impossible for most overburdened parents.
But as I tried and failed to educate my kids during months under quarantine, I gained new appreciation for my children’s teachers, and I’m wary of asking more of them. Spending a day teaching kids has got to be one of the most difficult and most thankless job our society asks professionals to do. It doesn’t strike me as fair to demand that teachers now risk their lives, too, just because our government couldn’t be bothered to protect them. Teachers shouldn’t have to be heroes to do their jobs; educating our children should be heroism enough.