Michigan Teachers protest returning to school

Paul Sandy, a Pontiac teacher, holds a sign protesting the return of in-person education at a rally on August 6. 

(The Center Square) – About 50 educators held a rally on the Capitol lawn today, urging school district leaders to start the year with distance learning.

“Online saves lives,” the group chanted.

Jennifer Ormond, one of the speakers, said she feared returning to in-person teaching because she and her seven-year-old daughter had a comorbidity and were at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

“I’m sick of people saying we need to do our job,” Ormond told the crowd. “I can educate from anywhere.”

Amy Watkins, an English teacher from Belleville, argued that there was a greater exposure risk to COVID-19 in a school than in a grocery store.

“The purpose of getting groceries … is nowhere near the purpose that I have when I go to school,” Watkins said. “My job is to instill confidence and validate the identity of my students.”

Watkins said she couldn’t accomplish that goal while wearing personal protective equipment.

Many healthcare workers had to choose to care for COVID-19 patients or quit their jobs, a conundrum similar to many essential workers like grocery clerks who served strangers for months after the initial March outbreak.

Watkins said teachers respected those professions but didn’t want to take unnecessary risks.

“I support nurses and doctors and medical professionals and the work that they’ve done and are still doing,” Watkins said. “Just because I’m scared to go back to the classroom, it doesn’t mean that I don’t value the work you do or the risks you’ve taken. I just don’t think we should take more unnecessary risks.”

Many parents worry their kids will fall behind in school if they return to distance learning.

But Watkins said the benchmarks set to gauge learning are “man-made myths” created to “rank children.”

“Perpetuating these myths is not worth risking my life or theirs,” Watkins said.

In July, the Republican-led House passed a plan aiming to have schools hold in-person education from kindergarten through 5th grade.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants each school district to make that decision.

Paul Sandy, a co-founder of the Michigan Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators and Pontiac teacher, said online education isn’t ideal, but he believed it was better than starting school in-person and “playing whack a mole” with COVID-19 cases and accompanying periods of isolation.

“We freely acknowledge [online education] isn’t ideal for teachers and students," Sandy said. "But it’s better than no school, and it’s better than family members dying.”

The group encouraged online learning in each of the eight Michigan Economic Recovery Committee regions until it reported no new COVID-19 cases for 14 days.

Choosing either online or in-person education has drawbacks.

Teachers fear contracting the virus from students or vice-versa and infecting their respective families.

As of July 17, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those younger than 18 years old account for “under 7 percent of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of COVID-19-related deaths.”

CDC guidelines recommend returning to in-person education with precautions to protect all involved.

The CDC cites social, emotional, and academic harm to children associated with closed schools, which disproportionately harms low-income and minority students who are less likely to tap into private tutors, food programs, and counseling services.

“The persistent achievement gaps that already existed prior to COVID-19 closures, such as disparities across income levels and racial and ethnic groups, could worsen and cause long-term effects on children’s educational outcomes, health, and the economic wellbeing of families and communities,” the CDC says.

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.