‘We Signed Up to Be Teachers. We Didn’t Sign Up for a Death Sentence.’


‘We Signed Up to Be Teachers. We Didn’t Sign Up for a Death Sentence.’

By Kristin Leong     Aug 28, 2020

‘We Signed Up to Be Teachers. We Didn’t Sign Up for a Death Sentence.’

When classes were abruptly moved online last spring in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas high school teacher Aletha Williams was ready. An award-winning veteran educator and tech expert, she thought teaching online a few hours a day would be no problem, easier than her regular long days in the classroom. She quickly realized she was wrong.

“I’ve cried at night,” Williams says. “I have friends who are crying at night because it is wearing and tearing at us and I don’t think that anybody is really looking at what is happening to the mental health of us teachers. And I don’t think they’re really thinking of us teachers as being essential workers.”

Williams teaches 10th and 11th grade chemistry for the Katy Independent School District in southeast Texas. According to the CDC, Harris County, where her school district is located, has the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state. Currently, Texas has the third highest rates of the virus in the country.

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Like many teachers across the United States, Williams felt that she received little to no logistical support last spring when her school closed and she had to quickly move her curriculum from her classroom to a screen.

Along with teachers, students were also left ill-equipped to manage this new normal. Some kids without access to a computer or reliable internet were offered less engaging paper worksheets, or fell through the cracks without much or any access to classwork at all.

Racist Harassment Goes Unchecked

Other students exploited flaws in online learning platforms in order to disrupt and harass both peers and teachers. In one of Williams’ virtual classes, a student entered without turning on their camera. When the student continued to interrupt the class by playing loud music, Williams took a closer look and noticed that the student had changed their screen name. First name: NIC. Last name: GERS.

Williams is one of the few African American teachers in her district. According to the most recent data reported by her school district, only 7 percent of teachers identified as African American in 2019, a total of 379 Black teachers. In contrast, 9,944 students (about 12 percent of the student body overall) in the district identify as African American.

When I asked if she received any support from her school or district following this racist incident, or if there were any consequences for the student, she said there’s nothing that can be done because there’s no way to identify who the person was behind that screen.

Meanwhile, students and teachers, along with the rest of the world, are battling their own anxieties brought on by the virus. Will they get sick? Are their families safe? And concerns are not just about health—many of Williams’ teen students have gone to work or picked up additional shifts as parents and family members have lost jobs in the midst of our current economic crisis.

Award-winning Texas high school teacher Aletha Williams poses for a portrait as a Teach Plus Fellow, 2020.
Award-winning Texas high school teacher Aletha Williams poses for a portrait as a Teach Plus Fellow, 2020.

Extra Strain for Empathetic Educators

Carrying the burden of their own stress and the hardships their students are facing, empathetic teachers are burning out. Williams estimates that she knows of at least 20 colleagues who have quit teaching since the pandemic outbreak began. Since her school district has announced their re-opening plan, that number continues to rise along with cases of the virus.

Although protocols keep shifting, as of today all teachers in Williams’ school district will be required to return to their classrooms for full-time, in-person instruction starting September 8.

Families may choose to opt-in their children to the district’s “virtual academy” for fully remote student learning. Teachers, on the other hand, are facing an impossible choice: go back to their classrooms or lose their jobs.

How will social distancing work in classrooms full of kids who are not able to participate in online learning? How will schools enforce limits on the number of students in bathrooms? Will there be consequences for refusing to wear a mask? What will happen if a teacher contracts COVID-19 and doesn’t have enough sick days to cover their recovery? According to Williams, answers to those questions are still unclear.

School Year Opens With Two Positive Cases

At 5 p.m. on Friday, August 14, all staff members at Williams’ high school were sent an email by the school district informing them that an individual at the school tested positive for COVID-19. Then, at the same time on Wednesday, August 19, they got another email and learned that someone else had also tested positive.

Both emails assured staff that the building would be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. However, the positive cases did not lead to any closures or back-to-school delays. Staffers were urged to “contact their personal physician if any symptoms develop,” but neither email said anything about communicating possible symptoms to the district or school.

Williams says she and her colleagues are scared and angry, and that teachers are being treated as if they’re expendable.

Still, despite fears for her own safety as she awaits news of new cases, and the stress of simultaneously developing in-person and online curriculum for her classes, she remains focused on students. “The kids deserve the best that they can get,” Williams says. “I don’t want them to lose the teachers that are out there for them and who jumped into teaching because they love teaching and they love seeing the light bulb happen for kids. But this experience is difficult. It’s hard. It’s a hard experience for everybody. You know, we signed up to be teachers. We didn’t sign up for a death sentence.”

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