Editorial by JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of TN:
In Tennessee, education employees are public servants, and due to their duties, they are at a greater risk of exposure while on the job. We place health and safety at the center of our message, and the well-being of students and school employees tops our list. We think it is critical that children and educators return in-person to school as soon as possible with state-provided PPE already on hand. However, it must be done safely. Protecting and listening to our educators on this issue are what we deem “essential.”
Lots of questions for educators have emerged: Does designation come with additional sick leave? Is there assistance with dependent care? Will teachers be paid if they are forced to miss school for any reason related to this pandemic? Will there be any additional monies to districts for substitutes? Will there be any hazard pay for being deemed an essential worker?
While decisions to return to in-person classes have been placed in the hands of local leaders, the state must ensure the greatest protection possible for public employees possibly exposed to COVID-19 during their employment.
Before adopting a policy that makes education employees “essential workers,” policymakers should put themselves in the shoes of our educators, with empathy and understanding for what they do every day. This understanding only comes from “living” and experiencing the real school environment and listening to our educators. We have not always done that during this pandemic.
You can open up the school buildings all day long. That is the easy part. But without healthy educators and staff available, they are not schools. They are just buildings. We have to move carefully, and educator buy-in is essential.