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School Openings Leave Teachers “Literally Like Cannon Fodder”: Interview with a Tennessee Teacher

In a phone interview conducted on January 14, Left Voice caught up with Tennessee public high school teacher DJK Freeman about the continued negligence of school administrations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sarah Crowe

January 23, 2021
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The photograph depicts an empty school classroom.
PHOTO: Innovate LI

Last July, Tennessee public high school teacher DJK Freeman wrote about how school boards were preparing to send teachers, students, and staff back to school even in states that were experiencing a daily rise in Covid-19 cases. She explained how her school reopening plan ignored CDC safety guidelines and failed to provide PPE to staff, as well as the challenges of fighting back in a Right to Work state. Left Voice checked in with her again in a January 14 phone interview.

The article you wrote for us last year was a really good explanation of how schools can go totally astray. I was wondering if you could briefly explain again the development of that local task force that was in charge of when and how schools would open.

The first thing the county did was send out a survey to all the parents and teachers and stakeholders about what they would want to see in a back-to-school situation during the pandemic. The task force was formed to go through all that data and make recommendations based on the data, and as I reported, these people were appointed by recommendations from the school board. Each school board member got to recommend somebody. So, obviously, what you end up having are the people who helped these school board members get elected becoming part of the task force. There were no teachers, but there were clergy members and business owners. Subsequently, what’s playing out is that none of the school openings have anything to do with schools. It all has to do with the economy — that’s why they had three business people on it. They had what they called “listening sessions” with teachers. The teacher who I actually talked to about their experience said that it was just lip service. They were asked their opinions, and were never brought back to talk about anything ever again. They were told that they had served their purposes, essentially. It was performative, for lack a better word.

When did you end up opening after last summer?

So, they delayed the school opening by two weeks, and they never mentioned that by doing that, they took all of our snow days away. So that was a surprise! It seems to me that they just put out a survey and asked people what they think is the best thing to do, with people who aren’t in the classrooms. They’re unaware of the realities of what happens in school. And that would have been a simple no-brainer: “Hey, do you want to wait and see what happens if you go back, or do you want to use these school days?”

And when did you guys go back for this semester?

January 5th. Our numbers are almost as high as they were when the whole county went red — red meaning that we went completely virtual. We went red the week before Christmas. There’s no concern for the safety of anybody. One of the most frustrating things is that they continually cite this survey, which was given in June, before we had any significant cases, and then they cherry-pick the data from the survey, and that’s what’s available on the website. They say, “Oh, parents want their kids back in school,” but they forget that the second part of that question [on the survey] was “if it’s safe.” They never cite that. At almost every meeting, the school board will say “well, according to the parents survey…” — they never say that it’s from way back in June. So, they cherry-pick that data, they use old CDC data, they use old American Pediatrics data from September and October, before the crisis really hit the United States.

Can you talk about the way the existence of a vaccine is being used as an excuse for them to just go ahead and put everybody back in school, even though nobody’s going to be getting the vaccine for months?

Exactly, that the superintendent is being so optimistic, that “the end is in sight” and “we’re doing all the right things”; it’s ludicrous, because you have pictures of classrooms where the kids are sitting four to a table face to face. We have [so many cases of] hospitals on the verge of closing, but somehow they are constantly messaging that everything’s just fine.

This task force has justified reopening with the idea that “students need normalcy”…how do you think that the majority of your students are taking this? Do they feel safe?

They confide in other teachers that they’re confused. Some teachers are enforcing wearing a mask, while others don’t. I know some colleagues aren’t doing that [enforcing masks]. But they ask, “why do we have to wear our masks in class, but we can take them off during lunch?” That’s always my favorite question [laughing]. I’m like, “you’re not supposed to!”

And what do your colleagues think?

We’ve been writing demands, and we’ve been writing to the newspaper, trying to get letters to the editor published, trying to get our side of the story out. Some teachers have decided to speak openly because they’re retiring this year and have nothing to lose. By and large, teachers are really upset.

It’s interesting that this could be something that activates teachers, now that they’re being put in a life-or-death situation.

I think what we’re all shocked about is the level of abandonment that we feel from our leadership. And it’s on every level — I’ve worked directly with some of the people that are running the district; I’ve been part of the decision-making process about how to move instruction. Any time we’ve ever done that, it’s always been with the utmost research, finding the experts, sending our people to learn from these experts, and going through the training to bring it back. There’s always been this very high level of preparation for any kind of instructional shift. 

Suddenly, we’re faced with this major crisis, and they decided early in June that they were going to go buy a device for every student. So we knew in June that we were going to go into this year with computers for all the kids, and we had no training for it. We were told to put all of our content online. ow, I’ve kept abreast of the technology, but one thing I’ve never done is develop an entirely online course that is going to meet every day. All of us went into the front lines — literally like cannon fodder, with no preparation, no support from our leadership in terms of how the parents are going to react, or how the kids were going to react. The kids have no support, it was the most fucked up situation to send thousands of professionals into, and that was our day-to-day. Towards the end of the semester, I’m not joking, they came out with self-care bingo cards because the teachers are burning out. There’s this disbelief from our leadership — like, “hey you guys have control over this, if you’re assigning all that work and you’re overwhelmed, that might be your problem.”

So, “why are you making this hard for yourself?”

Right! So, self-care bingo…like, if you turn in your card, you get a free cup of coffee. Teachers are renowned rule-followers. But even those people who do everything by the book, they were like, “I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t believe they’re asking us to do this, I can’t believe I’m still here, I can’t believe I’m risking my family.” Teachers feel abandoned and with a lack of direction. It really is like they sent us out into the field to fight an enemy while they then went back into their offices.

The language used to talk about teachers is very similar to healthcare workers or grocery store workers — “we’re so proud of all the great work you’re doing” and then zero support. You have to get your own paper towels. 

Exactly. “Get your own paper towels, write your own online curriculum,” it was everything, and then leaving us to deal with the parents who were justifiably asking, “what the heck’s going on?” There was no plan, and — this is really good —  I went to three meetings about what we need to do better for virtual learning, and, I don’t know if you’ve used Blackboard or one of those learning management systems, but most professors’ pages are all kind of the same. Well, we all had to design our own pages. So these poor kids are coming in and each of their online courses are different. The kids are like, this teacher wants me to do this, this one wants me to push on the little button- We needed a template, we needed a design to show what an online course looks like so we can just plug our stuff in there. After three meetings of saying the same, all we got was to make sure that we have our office hours on the front page and our contact information.

It’s again, this whole idea of “students need normalcy” and it’s like, you can’t provide that now. There’s no way to make this normal.

That’s such a ridiculous expectation to have, so pie in the sky, to say “normal.” That’s the problem. These people are talking about it without any type of research. They’re just making these claims, and they’re allowed to get away with it.

No, I’m totally there with you. It’s astonishing sometimes how easy it is for someone to lie. 

And people believe them because they’re in a position of authority.

One of the other things that horrified me was, as you mentioned in your article, a lot of substitute teachers are retired teachers, and obviously they’re not going to be able to sub anymore because they’re at a health risk. But now, when a teacher has to quarantine or is sick, the kids disperse into other teachers’ classrooms. So you would very easily now have 40 to 50 kids instead of 35. Is that an example of something that they just paraded out and you guys had to take it?

That’s what we would do under the most dire circumstances, and that was very rare before the pandemic, where we have to break up our kids. Now that there’s a shortage, it’s less rare. And there was no plan. Teachers will roll with it. In some ways, it’s a really awful tribute to the fact that we are so resilient and able to like adapt very quickly to do that. But that’s not what we’re paid to do.

What’s going to happen when teachers become too threadbare? Do you think that they’re going to try and fight? 

I don’t know, I’m feeling very hopeless about it. I see these teachers and they’re so naive. They take what the union says, even the countless times the union has said something and nothing has happened. They still think the next time will be different. Like, they just haven’t realized the fact that that’s not going to happen…I don’t know how they did it in the beginning of the twentieth century. I just don’t know what the secret is. People are so helpless. I’ve said it since the start, “If we all go out, they can’t fire us all, right?” But what’s going to happen is now that we’ve started contracting with companies that do remote learning, we are expendable, because we waited too long. 

But I also think that teachers are going to be vulnerable going forward because now we do have the possibility to circumvent the teachers in the classroom who might raise a stink. You know we can afford not to have full staffing because we just farm it out to the companies that offer these courses. So I think teachers are even more precarious than we were previously, and I think people will not be eager to make demands of any kind at that point. 

One other thing we were feeling a lot of frustration about with now, at this point, after a semester, is the press’s refusal to talk to teachers off the record, knowing full well that we’ve been publicly warned about speaking out. A couple journalists have spoken to us anonymously, but always if they get pressed, they say “we’re going to have to give your name.” They would rather have teachers lose their jobs than use anonymous sources like the New York Times does every day, like the Washington Post does every day. Like our television news station is going to be the paragon of journalistic integrity, right? I don’t think that’s true, I think that that’s wrong, and they just don’t want to publish it. They refuse to publish our letters to the editor, they won’t respond, they’re not the least bit curious about what’s actually happening in the classroom. 

It’s almost like it’s taking more work to shut you guys down than to just go ahead and do the thing that’s safe.

It’s really bizarre. This isn’t the county that I worked for for 11 years. The other side of the story that really isn’t getting any play is the equity one, about kids with severe disabilities. That’s been completely disregarded both by the news and by the leadership. I was at a meeting with advocates for those students and educators. The parents are at the point where they’re just taking pictures of their kids who can’t use their hands trying to use the keyboard. Why aren’t they reporting what’s going on in the classrooms? Why aren’t they reporting on these kids who aren’t able to use the technology? There was no plan. It’s hard to believe that my district would choose getting sued for not giving the kids their education as promised by law; that they’re going to say “Well I don’t know, we’ll get back to school as soon as we can.” It’s bizarre. It just defies the imagination.

I hope what I’ve said was articulate, because we are so isolated from others. We kinda joke around that if you’re not a teacher, then sometimes it’s hard to be friends with a teacher. What we do is just so taxing. Our story still isn’t getting across. People just think it’s a job like any other job, and it’s a lot more than that.

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