Last Tuesday, the School District of Philadelphia released a plan to reopen schools starting on Nov. 30. As a second-grade teacher in the district, the news shook my family to the core and left me with an impossible dilemma: leave the profession that I moved 1,000 miles for, or put my fiancé at risk of catching a virus that could kill him.
I moved from Florida to Philadelphia a year ago for one reason: I wanted to advocate for students whose access to quality education and resources is unjustly determined by their five-digit zip code. Joining me on my journey was my fiancé, Reuben. Life seemed perfect for us, planning a wedding, both working our dream jobs, until COVID-19 hit.
At 13 years old, Reuben was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. In order to treat it, he takes immunosuppressants. The result is that his body can’t fend off disease in the same way a healthy person can. For us, this means even the common cold is concerning. A COVID-19 diagnosis could put Reuben on his deathbed, so starting in March we rationed our groceries and only left the house to restock every two weeks.
I am now desperately seeking accommodations so I don’t have to choose between teaching in person and my fiancé. But according to the School District’s Employee Guidance & Expectations handbook, because I am neither a caretaker nor positive for COVID-19, my only option is to use the 10 sick days and three personal days provided by the district. After that, I would be forced back into a physical classroom, risking bringing COVID-19 home to Reuben. And what about my students? They would likely have a long-term substitute teacher, which would erase the relationships we’ve built and create yet another barrier to their learning. These options are impossible to choose from.
Sadly, even with the right precautions, an outbreak that puts my family at risk is seemingly inevitable. In New York City, after only a week of reopening schools, multiple zip codes were considered “red zones” due to a spike in COVID cases. Those communities are now back where they started in March, with schools closed. This, too, will be our fate if we return to in-person learning: closed communities, further disruptions to students’ learning, and more lives lost. Margie Kidd was a 26-year veteran teacher who caught COVID when her district required teachers to return to schools for pre-planning. Kidd’s daughter shared, “She felt like she didn’t have a choice.” What choice do we have?
I know how badly we want things to be normal: We want our kids back with their peers, and we want to be back in our classrooms and away from our screens. But in the words of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, “If families opt in, we are forced in.” I am calling on families, unions, teachers, and city leaders to be our allies. Protect my family and so many others by stopping the district from reopening schools in November. Provide proper accommodations for those with family members who are at risk. It is not enough to simply offer sick and personal days. Teaching virtually is the only way we can keep everyone safe.
Hannah Patrick is a second-grade teacher for the School District of Philadelphia.