When the coronavirus pandemic first began becoming a serious problem in the United States of America back in March, no one knew how long lockdowns and closings would last.
The country quickly moved from one in which the majority of people worked outside of their homes, to one in which almost everyone began working remotely (if they were able to keep their jobs at all due to massive layoffs that began as the pandemic was gaining in seriousness). In line with that, the country quickly shifted from one in which almost everyone was on the go, to one in which everyone was more or less not leaving their homes.
It’s About The Kids
While this had an obvious impact on adults, there was also an impact on children. Specifically, for students, they found schools shut, and converting to at-home virtual instruction. Parents suddenly felt like they had to not only balance their careers but also be supportive educators, helping their children to keep up with their schoolwork and fill in gaps that may have arisen from virtual instruction.
Virtual instruction also took on many forms, with some teachers doing live-streaming classes, others doing pre-recorded content while offering live “call-ins” where the class could “get together” and students could get extra help, and others doing a combination of different things. While virtual instruction could never completely replace in-person instruction (which not only offers in-person teaching, but also much more socialization and emotional development), the country was left with little choice due to the risk of the coronavirus pandemic.
What Are The Coronavirus Stats?
While the coronavirus pandemic has achieved better numbers in some states- meaning less cases and less deaths- there is no denying that the pandemic is still ongoing. In fact, cases across the country are continuing to grow at an alarming rate, with 67,574 new cases in the last 24 hours.
While the country’s population is huge- coming in at roughly 328.2 million people- there have only been 3,698,161 recorded cases thus far. This means that roughly 1% of the country has been infected with the coronavirus. To date, there have also been 139,659 deaths, meaning that the death rate in the USA from coronavirus currently stands at 0.043%.
Critics of the USA’s shutting down strategy will use these data points to argue that the entire country should be reopened and life should return to normal, however, it’s important to note that these statistics are with certain shutdowns still in place and many people still practicing social distancing. If the entire country was to open, these numbers would likely skyrocket- and, to note, that’s not fear-mongering, it’s simple science.
With New Jersey being one of the hardest-hit states initially when this pandemic began in March- and now one of the few states considered to have the virus relatively at a level of control- things have slowly started to reopen in the state. While Governor Phil Murphy (who has been criticized at times for his handling of the pandemic) recently put a pause on further re-openings, as things stand now he has instructed that schools will reopen in September.
While there have been discussions on what schools reopening will look like- with various concepts being thrown around, including alternating days students attend, doing a combination of in-person and at-home learning, having shorter days, etc.- it is inevitable that once schools open, coronavirus cases in the state are going to go up. There is simply no way that you can have all of these students and staff entering and leaving in one building with air conditioning and heat on, and not have coronavirus infections spread.
The majority of the coronavirus cases that spread will likely result in mild cases- or cases that at least people overcome- there will likely also be some fatalities. As has been known for some time, people with preexisting conditions are more prone to getting a serious bout of coronavirus and possibly dying. Surely, there are teachers with preexisting conditions amongst us. And, even if there weren’t teachers who had preexisting conditions (which there are), they may have family members who have preexisting conditions.
This leads to a very important question- could teachers who have preexisting conditions or those who live with a family member who has preexisting conditions take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?
What Is FMLA?
Before getting into the answer that we’ve been told, let’s review what FMLA is.
Since 1993, the FMLA has been in place as a labor law requiring employers to allow employees to take unpaid leave (with the promise of their job being protected). The purpose of this leave is to allow employees time off for medical and family reasons that qualify them to need time away from their jobs, such as taking care of a sick family member. This law applies to both private and public employees and only pertains to immediate family members (parents/spouse/children).
Examples of reasons that an FMLA would be granted include a child being born, adopting a child, to care for a spouse/child/parent who has a serious health condition, and/or if you have a serious health condition that makes you incapable of performing your job.
While the FMLA coverage doesn’t specifically discuss pandemics- and, why would it, as the last true pandemic was in 1918- one would think that if you or an immediate family member were a “higher risk” group in terms of having a pre-existing condition that could lead to the coronavirus being more deadly, you would possibly be able to enact it in order to take time off from work.
More specifically, if you are a teacher who doesn’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom- although you are being forced to in certain states- and you or your family member has a pre-existing condition, one would hope that you would be able to use FMLA to take a leave.
Not So Fast Teachers!
We have learned, however, that this is not the case. According to an insider we spoke with “Teachers are being told they are not qualified for FMLA- even if they have a disabled family member or one with preexisting conditions. They are being told that unless they are actually caring for a family member with a serious health condition, they do not qualify for this and must return to work, or risk losing their jobs.”
“This is ridiculous,” our source continued, “as in a lot of school districts they are actually giving parents the option to keep their children home and do full virtual instruction. It is unfathomable as to why teachers aren’t being given the same rights. Sure, some teachers want to return to the classroom, but others are definitely not comfortable at the current moment, especially if they or a family member of theirs has a preexisting condition that would make them more susceptible to getting gravely ill with the coronavirus.”
“Why isn’t anyone fighting for educators?” our insider went on to directly question. “Companies have gone above and beyond to protect their employees- many of which are paid much more than teachers and other employees of schools- by continuing to keep them at home. Why aren’t educators being granted the same rights? Why are they being made to feel inferior in terms of their lives? Why does it not matter if an educator or their family members potentially die of coronavirus, but it matters if others in society do? This truly makes no sense.”
“It’s sad,” our source elaborated, “as teachers and other employees of schools don’t make a ton of money. Most of them don’t have the option to quit their jobs for life because of the pandemic. But, if they’re willing to take the year unpaid- especially if they have an at-risk family member in the household- why are they being denied this? And, if they had an at risk family member at home, they likely depend on their benefits they receive as teachers to care for this family member. It’s as if they’re being asked to chose between their families and their careers- and it’s simply not fair.”
“Also,” our insider wrapped with telling us, “when- not if, but when- someone dies, who is going to answer for that then? How will we make it up to them? Certainly giving the teacher of the year isn’t going to cut it. It truly is such a disheartening situation.”
The Teachers Are Suing!
While there is still time in some places like New Jersey for final decisions to be made, as school doesn’t begin until September, other places like Florida are dealing with this issue right now.
In fact, today in Florida, news broke that the Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit against the state due to the education commissioner’s insistence that schools are open five days a week.
According to a report from News4Jax, Richard Corcoran, who is the Education Commissioner in Florida, responded to the lawsuit.
Corcoran stated that “Clearly the FEA hasn’t read nor understands the Florida Department of Education’s guidance, the Emergency Order No. 2020-EO-06, or Florida law. Currently, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida Statute 1001.42 (the law) required K-12 schools ‘to operate 180 days’ a school year. If you do the math, that equates to 5 days a week for 36 weeks. This [executive order] did not order any new directives regarding the requirements of schools to be open, it simply created new innovative options for families to have the CHOICE to decide what works best for the health and safety of their students and family.”
“The FEA frequently states that schools are underfunded, and if this frivolous, reckless lawsuit, succeeds it will eliminate these funding guarantees – completely contradicting their normal outcry,” Corcoran added. “School district finance officers and superintendents from across the state asked for some certainty in funding, and they got in through this emergency order.”
Meanwhile, Fedrick Ingram, the President of the Florida Education Association stated that “Until we get control of the community spread. Until we understand that our schools will not be superspreader events we have got to get rid of this hell or high water approach in opening up our brick-and-mortar schools.”
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Ultimately, it is clear there is a major issue on the table in terms of sending educators and children back to school. While some parents are comfortable sending their kids back, others are not, and that’s great as they are being given an option. Not giving educators that same option is not only driving home the point that society feels their lives are less worthy than others (as well as the lives of their families), but it also seems blatantly unfair and disrespectful. If there is no foolproof, safe way to return to school- one where no one would risk getting sick or dying- then it’s unclear why there is such a huge demand for returning to the classroom.
It’s also important to note that with many vaccine candidates looking promising, virtual instruction wouldn’t be forever. You’re talking about- in a worst-case scenario- one more school year at home. From all the reports that have surfaced about the vaccine, it’s unlikely it would even be that long, so the risk definitely appears to outweigh the benefit. And, to take it a step further, to deny staff members who have family members at home with preexisting conditions the right to take this year off- especially without pay- just seems inhumane. There are so many things wrong in this world right now that are complicated to fix. This seems like such an easy one to fix and, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be that at this point in time people are going to do what’s right.