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Eric Gay, STF / Associated Press

Texas Republicans are holding our teachers hostage

Teachers are writing their wills in preparation for the school year. How did we get to this point?

It’s not an overstatement to say that Texas teachers are being held hostage by Republicans in our state. 

Many educators already face fears about their safety due to Republicans’ unwillingness to address gun violence, and now they’re also being forced to risk illness and death on a daily basis because of the Texas GOP’s failure to adequately respond to this pandemic. The situation is so bad that Texas teachers have begun writing wills, and taking out extra life insurance. Think about that for a second. Teachers are writing their wills because they don’t know if they’ll live through the school year. That’s something a soldier would do before heading to war. 

Republicans are forcing teachers to fight in a war they never signed up for, and it’s one they have no say in. If they strike, they’ll be fired. If they quit, they’ll be out of work in the midst of an economic crisis. If they wait for more detailed plans, they’ll miss deadlines to get out of their contracts. If they stay the course, they’ll be met with ill-prepared reopening plans, ignorant “leaders,” and politicians who care so little about their safety that they’re willing to let teachers get sick and die if it means pleasing Overlord Trump. It’s a lose-lose situation, but it didn’t have to be this way. And it still doesn’t. 

This was preventable. 

If we had responded appropriately to the virus initially, we could have actually flattened the curve and the idea of reopening in the fall would sound a lot more feasible. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. But instead of learning from their mistakes, Texas Republicans are all too eager to repeat them. Internal documents from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that fully reopening K-12 schools and universities would be the "highest risk" for the spread of coronavirus. As Republicans follow Trump’s lead in pushing to reopen schools, our nation’s own health protection agency is warning against it. The Texas GOP is choosing partisanship over Texans’ health and safety. 

There are some who argue that there’s no alternative to reopening due to how important schools are in our society. Many families rely on schools for food and childcare while parents work and try to make ends meet, and there are additional concerns about children falling behind in their education. This argument would hold a lot more water if schools hadn’t closed at tens of new cases a day. Why would we reopen at 10,000+? Don’t get me wrong, the concerns about childcare and food insecurity are extremely valid. But they also beg the question — how did we get to this point? When did we start expecting schools, teachers, and other crucial workers to be a one-stop shop for almost every issue our society is facing? 

The fact is, schools are full of short-term solutions to long-term problems that lawmakers have refused to address. Extreme income inequality and poverty? Schools offer free or reduced lunch and free childcare. Mental health crisis? Texas schools have one counselor for every 450 students. Gun violence epidemic? Schools ramp up shooting drills and Republicans want to arm teachers. None of these “solutions” actually address the root of the problem. They’re just bandaids to help mask some of our society’s biggest issues, and it’s time our lawmakers stop expecting schools and teachers to fix all of them, while also refusing to implement necessary policy or provide adequate resources and funding. 

We ask a lot of educators. Teachers are expected to wear many hats, and now Republicans want to add “health care professional” to the list. Teachers, and all the employees who make up a school including custodians, cafeteria workers, librarians, and counselors, are extremely underpaid. And now we want them to risk their health and their lives to go to work every day because of a failure to address these issues on a systemic level? Our state is better than that, and it’s time we start treating our educators with more respect. 

We must come up with creative solutions to prevent further spread and continue to provide children with the tools they need to succeed. 

This is a question about whose lives we value in our society, and who we deem expendable. Many are surprised that Texas Republicans have taken the stance they’ve taken, given how obviously tragic the results could be. But we need only look to their inaction on gun violence to see that GOP lawmakers made their stance crystal clear long ago. They didn’t care when teachers, children, and staff died at the hands of a mass shooter. What makes us think they’ll care when teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, librarians, counselors, school administrators, and possibly students and their families die due to COVID-19? 

It’s important to keep in mind the communities that will be most impacted by school reopenings. As is so often the case in our state, and across our country, communities of color will be hit the hardest. This summer was the time when officials could have been coming up with creative solutions for at-home learning during the fall. Resources should have gone into getting all students access to the tools they need to be successful in an at-home learning environment. Internet access, laptops, ways to continue providing free and reduced lunches to the students who need it — these are all things that could have been tackled this summer while officials were working hard to force a reopening in the midst of one of the worst health crises our nation has ever seen. 

One of the best ways to begin addressing these challenges is to actually include teachers in the conversation. Right now, our state makes a point of silencing their voices any chance it can. Teachers in Texas are not allowed to strike, and our state is one of the most unfriendly toward unions. While a record number of Texans are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19, teachers have largely been left out of conversations about whether schools should reopen. 

Though the decision to reopen is mostly made by school boards and superintendents, pressure from Texas Republicans and threats from Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have hijacked the conversation. Not only is this unfair to the teachers who should be at the forefront of this issue, but this pressure from Republicans at the national level on down is directly opposite that of the usual conservative message regarding local and parental control. The issue has become so politicized that Republicans are abandoning their principles in favor of an extreme approach that puts more lives at risk. 

We talk a lot about the impact it will have on children if schools don’t reopen and they have to continue with at-home learning in the fall, but imagine the impact it will have on them if their teacher dies halfway through the year. Imagine the impact it will have on kids if schools open up only to be forced to close again, and the school has no adequate plan in place to handle at-home learning. Imagine the impact it will have on students if they spread the virus to a family member after attending school, and that family member gets sick or dies. Imagine the impact it will have on kids if their childhood is defined by this virus because our leaders did not take the steps necessary to stop the spread when they could have. 

In the grand scheme of things, having to learn from home in the fall to avoid further illness and death sounds like the best case scenario. But for some reason, Gov. Greg Abbott and our Republican lawmakers seem to be aiming for the absolute worst case scenario — or as the CDC puts it, the “highest risk” situation. 

The Republican response to this pandemic has already been an utter failure. Our lawmakers should be doing everything they can to prevent further suffering. By opening up schools without proper safety precautions and policies in place, Texas Republicans are once again gambling with our lives and opening the state up to even more tragedy.