Should teachers be considered essential workers?

Elva Mankin

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates. What’s happening As the coronavirus pandemic began to hit the United States, schools shut down and moved online for the remainder of spring for the safety of their teachers and students. Now, with a new academic year […]

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

As the coronavirus pandemic began to hit the United States, schools shut down and moved online for the remainder of spring for the safety of their teachers and students. Now, with a new academic year on the horizon, schools are trying to decide whether to send teachers and students back to classrooms in person, continue online instruction or use a hybrid model.

Federal guidelines for what’s considered an essential worker — those whose jobs are necessary to keep society functioning even when much of the economy has been closed —  include professions such as health care workers, media and grocery store employees. But while the guidelines say child care workers are considered essential, it does not include teachers. In the United States, teachers have not been treated as frontline workers in the fight against the virus. Although they have worked, it’s been mostly online and remote — far from the frontlines. 

President Trump has made reopening schools a focus of his coronavirus response plan, though school decisions are made at a state and local level. There’s no question that the coronavirus still poses a health risk, but other places have shown it is possible for students and educators to be in the classroom: In more than 20 countries, students and teachers have already returned to (or never left) the physical classroom. 

Many U.S. teachers say they want to return to in-person instruction, but only if it can be done safely. In Florida, the teachers’ union sued the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for ordering schools to fully reopen. Some schools have already been forced to change their plans or quarantine hundreds of students and staff, while others have pushed back the start of the school year to give teachers more time to prepare for in-person instruction. 

Why there’s debate

Many teachers have expressed fears about returning to their jobs in person due to virus risks, and some teachers’ unions are threatening to strike if classrooms reopen. But they face tremendous pressure to reopen schools in order to get parents back to work and improve learning outcomes for children, prompting a debate about whether teachers should be considered “essential” workers and resume in-person work. 

Some say teachers should be considered essential workers and fulfill their duties by returning to the classrooms. Getting children back to school is a necessary part of fully restarting the economy, they say. Plus, teachers need to make up for students’ learning losses, as studies show that children tend to learn less efficiently online. 

Though most agree that it’s not fair to compare the risk level that teachers signed up for to that of doctors, they say it is fair to compare their risk level to that of grocery workers, who are considered essential. Like teachers, grocery employees were unprepared for the dangers of a pandemic. But if teachers are going to return to in-person instruction, then they, like all other essential workers, must be issued personal protective equipment to protect themselves from the virus as much as possible, they argue. 

However, others say that teachers are in a unique position because they can perform their job remotely. Teachers can teach online, so while they are essential to society, it may not be necessary for them to risk their lives themselves by doing their job in person. It’s also common for teachers to make other kinds of sacrifices for students, whether it’s buying school supplies on their own dime or vowing to protect children from a school shooter, but a pandemic is where teachers can draw the line, some argue. 

Others say that opening schools is unsafe because lawmakers and the society at large didn’t do the work that was needed to control the virus during the past several months. Asking teachers to put their lives at risk in order to cover up for those failures is unfair, they argue. 

What’s next

While schools in some states have reopened their in-person classrooms, most states are scrambling to adjust their plans as the start of the school year nears. Health experts have also warned of a coronavirus surge in the fall and winter, which could further complicate schools’ plans. 

Table of Contents


Teachers must return to classrooms, just as grocery workers must work in stores

“I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation.” — Kristen McConnell, Atlantic

Schools are essential for children, which makes teachers essential workers

“Evidence suggests that greater harm is being done by keeping children out of schools than by opening up. … [Schools remaining closed] could reduce future income and job prospects for millions of vulnerable kids. Many depend on schools for food and health services. And working-class parents, who don’t have the luxury of telecommuting, can’t work if their kids are not in school.” — Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post

Teachers must fulfill their duty to their students

“Are the teachers saying that their presence with students in the classroom is really not that important to the education of youngsters? While unions may insist that the full participation of their members is not essential, this is a highly controversial opinion.” — James Freeman, Wall Street Journal

Like other essential workers, teachers should be given personal protective equipment 

“Teachers, like other essential workers, have the right to return to a work environment where occupational health and safety standards are being met, and those who are at high risk from the virus deserve to be protected.” — Alice Albright and David Edwards, Washington Post

Teachers want to resume in-person instruction, but only safely

“No one wants to be back in a classroom and reopen our school buildings more than educators. We are teachers. … That’s what we live for … but we want to do it safely and we don’t want to put people at risk.” — Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram to USA Today

Teachers shouldn’t have to risk their lives because leaders failed to control the virus

“When someone takes a job, they’re selling labor for profit, not enlisting to fight a deadly battle. … Teachers face real and potentially deadly risks and not just because of the innate threat posed by the coronavirus. Local and state decision-makers endangered them further by pushing ahead with traditional reopenings or hybrid models, despite high rates of community spread, and by providing them with inadequate levels of protective gear.” — Sarah Jones, New York Magazine

Teachers make many sacrifices for students, but a pandemic is where the line is drawn

“It isn’t fair to ask teachers to buy school supplies; we aren’t the government. But we do it anyway. It isn’t fair to ask us to stop a bullet; we aren’t soldiers. But we go to work every day knowing that if there’s a school shooting, we’ll die protecting our students. But this is where I draw the line: It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment. … I will not do it.” — Rebecca Martinson, New York Times

Online teaching isn’t perfect, but it’s the best option 

“I will not be one to pretend that the rollout of online learning has been perfect. There are inevitable technology glitches, language barriers, and miscommunications. There is the emptiness of not being able to talk with students face-to-face. … There is no ideal choice, but it is hard to argue that a flawed education is a worse outcome than losing a family member or even their own life. Of a series of bad options, online schooling is the best one.” — Noam Kosofsky, the Atlantic

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

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