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Letter: Teachers' COVID-19 demands remind me of communist bread line

The Detroit News

I was born in Romania under communism and it was the only world I knew until I turned 12. As a child, I remember cartelas, palm-sized printed pieces of paper that entitled families to their rations of bread, flours, sugar, oil, meat, vegetables, and fruits, among other staples. I remember joining, against my mother’s dampening warnings, the long line of people at the alimentara’s back window for the promise of a few cans of pineapple. I remember being scolded by the woman in front of me for catching her pantyhose with my bag, which fell at her calf level. I remember holding back tears and feeling ashamed as I was trying to keep still. It was my place in the line, my right, I told myself. I was 10.

Demonstrators block the driveways of the Detroit Public Schools West Side Bus Terminal to keep school buses from running on the first day of summer school, in Detroit, July 13, 2020. Concerns about COVID-19 and a lack of safety measures prompted the protesters to demand that schools close.

This summer I remembered, vividly and painfully, the scarcity of resources and the learned selfishness that comes with rushing to line up. This time it was from the comfort of my American home with a fully stocked pantry and in an award-winning public school district. In mid-July, the teachers in my school district, Ann Arbor, Michigan, demanded, through their union, that they do not return to in-person teaching for the fall because they did not feel safe. At that time, the State of Michigan had been in the “Improving” stage of Safe Start Plan for a month and a half, and as pediatricians had sounded alarms of mounting mental issues affecting children.

Teachers’ requests for virtual-only instruction made educational options for our children scarce, just as food was when I was a child. I found myself and my children lining up again, this time for safety — the safety that education would afford them, both academically and mentally.

Teachers justify the safety line and taking front spots in it by arguing they do not “feel safe” teaching in-person despite improvements and available plans and safety protocols.

Teachers have not felt safe for many years. They have been sidelined in the process of teaching and watched helplessly how federal and local administrations increasingly controlled classroom time while defunding schools at an unconstitutional level. And in all this, they have felt unsupported and unappreciated as their salaries froze. I get it. Teachers don’t feel safe. And they have the right to feel this way.

But “feeling safe” is in short supply these days for all of us. Many children who will learn from home will be plagued by “mental illness, hunger, physical inactivity, undetected child abuse, and trauma that results from witnessing violence.” Children who, by no fault of their own, do not have resources at home to oversee their learning to read, write, and understand numbers, may be at a disadvantage for the remainder of their lives. Special needs children will experience significant setbacks.

Essential workers, of which my husband is one, are starting to burn out. They are increasingly plagued by mental health issues and now feel financially unsafe as they are forced to quit their jobs, reduce their workforce participation, or take personal loans to tutor their children’s virtual-only education. Parents of special needs children and whose income depends on showing up for work feel unsafe financially as well, and are faced with similar options.

We, unfortunately, have created a line for safety, where taking over, sidestepping, and shoving are the only way of advancing to the back window. It’s a scene with which I am sadly too familiar. Teachers’ selfishness and rush to the front of the line may be learned from decades of neglect, abuse, and distrustful relationships with their administrators.

However, since the pandemic started, no other workforce has directly overtaken fellow citizens and threatened to strike or not show up to work. No other workforce has been this disengaged in finding a solution to do their jobs, and in partnering with the community to do the right thing.

I beg the teachers in districts deemed safe to open with safety protocols to see all the people and children waiting in line behind them.

Adina Robinson, Ann Arbor