Returning to School... A Question for Chronically Ill and Disabled Teachers
TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK!
Above: a photo of Audre Lorde next to the text “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
As a high school science and special education teacher in the NYC public school system who is disabled and neurodivergent, I’ve felt like I have been living in a fishbowl since March 2020. I’ve watched colleagues be disabled by this virus, and disabled colleagues be *FURTHER* disabled by this virus. I felt a large responsibility to be up to date and informed (based on available data) and made myself as accessible as possible in checking in with members of our community and offering my real real talk about how to keep each other safe as possible.
It was important to me to center disability this year because this generation is our future and a disability justice lens is now, more than ever, going to be necessary to make reparations for many of the wrongs in this country/world that the pandemic has amplified. There is so much dissonant information swirling these days on different forms of media that it can be hard for children of the internet to feel like they can keep up with combing through what is real (and what is important to know). I am thankful that this year my co-teacher and I were able to focus on empowering our students to feel confident about the information they are using to inform their behaviors and safety, and to bring their public health knowledge to their families and communities. We have busted the myths. We have grappled with how to break down scientific studies and identify the data that is relevant to answering our questions.
I’ve talked with many kids about Long COVID (symptoms that persist or appear 4 or more weeks after infection) that didn’t know there was a name for it, even though they (or someone they love) had been experiencing since they got sick months ago… but the truth is that 19% of asymptomatic infections exhibited/exhibit Long COVID symptoms, 27% of those with mild to moderate symptoms, and 50% of hospitalized patients.1
No one wants to go back to fully remote learning for all kids. Fully remote learning forced so many parts of teaching to not work because of what was physically gone:
*space together* // **technology** // ***people***
It forced us to convince ourselves we were doing a good job despite seeing (or not seeing) our school communities crumble… but the knowledge/lessons people have learned through their collective and individual traumas need to be able to go on.
Remote learning cannot be TAKEN AWAY... just like always, all parts of a school community are best served if we are able to take what works, and add/edit things that could have gone better to make it go better. We don’t just eliminate/outlaw options that worked for some kids and not others.
Now, my heart is going out to all the kids for which remote learning gave them opportunities to grow and adapt and learn about ways they never thought they could be accommodated. This, like any knowledge about self-metacognition, is SO IMPORTANT AND POWERFUL.
Meanwhile, the city continues to say remote learning is not/will not be an option. In the midst of the delta variant surge when kids under 12 still can’t even be vaccinated.. This last year and a half has been really terrible for kids. But I have seen many moments of BRILLIANCE and I’m so thankful to have gotten to be with them -- processing and learning and finding the realest news we can and thinking critically about what that information means for all of us. I have gotten to know some kids' voices better than ever because the privacy of a breakout room is really different for an anxious/shy child than receiving support from your teacher in front of everybody.
And it’s not just the students who may have benefitted. Disabled teachers2, like the kids who figured out ways they could learn much more deeply in this context and then grew more confident in sharing their voices and thoughts with other students this way3 , are facing a similar dilemma of the playing field having being opened wide in terms of being able to care for themselves . Now we are being thrown back into the same old ableist setting4 and needing to face the facts that we’ll be giving up things -- vital, life-affirming and sometimes life-preserving things -- by going back to the building.
I am scared about the students and families that will be fucked over by the unsafe and hasty decisions/policies by those far removed from what it’s like to be learning/at school during a pandemic (and really learning at all during a pandemic!!) Teachers and parents are the real experts here, but after this year and a half of shouting into THE VOID as we saw state-sanctioned crises emerging on our horizon over and over, we are exhausted.
I am not only scared about human lives, but also in my ability to face returning to normal school because this year and a half of remote learning, although a devastating time, gave many disabled folks5 the space to consider ways to make working from their living spaces go as well as possible.
For me, particularly as a neurodivergent person living with Type 1 diabetes, the way I organize my home space is all to do with access. The things I use most frequently need to be accessible, and I need to know where all those things are (because otherwise my life would never stop being an endless vortex of looking for whatever critical thing I need and I never would be able to get anything done). I have a lot of physical contraptions/items I need in order to manage health, and being able to easily gather anything I needed was dreamy...being able to deal with my health crises from the comfort of sitting down and telling kids I need a moment to recover (and having them understand the science of it...cuz it felt like there was space for it and being vulnerable) led me directly to having (by far!) the best diabetes control of the last 18 years of life (before which, I was living with my parents)…
Here are my questions for you:
What did having the freedom to teach from home allow YOU to learn about accommodations that support your well-being? What are you scared of giving up if we do indeed return to school buildings? What are you not willing to give up?
I want to talk to folks about how to advocate for the updates we need to become or remain disabled teachers who are not damaging ourselves by doing this job (and the number of disabled teachers is increasing too due to the unsafe conditions we’ve exposed teachers (and their families) to, and who now have Long COVID symptoms/damage).
Here’s a few first brief thoughts that are examples of things I’m concerned about that I want to think more about:
having to jump between 3 different teaching spaces and a separate office space whilst “managing” large groups of kids who may or may not be wearing their masks (or wearing them in a way that actually protects them and those around them) and somehow also take care of myself without having to run between rooms trying to find whatever vital thing I need.
having to multitask teaching and taking care of myself which means taking the time necessary to thoughtfully push all the right buttons such that the machine, aka my insulin pump and the sensor that gives it data, doesn’t freak out (which leads to neither teaching nor taking care of myself being fully possible)
resenting how much extra work it is for me to be the same amount of productive teacher as other folks are, solely because I am behind in the line of ability, and how that ultimately affects my short and long term health.
If you’d like to share (anonymously if you please!!) how you would answer this question, please share in the comments below.
I would love to hear from you and see what our community has to say and how we can help each other.
Largest longitudinal study of Long COVID to date, based on 2 million patients:
FAIR Health - A Detailed Study of Patients with Long-Haul COVID: An Analysis of Private Healthcare Claims. A FAIR Health White Paper, June 15, 2021
as well as those who may not self-identify as disabled but for who the definition of “disabled” applies [“disabled” to me means that the ableist world (actively) robs us of our ability to participate in it by being inaccessible to us]
I call this “baby steps” and use this concept constantly in my life to get anything to happen…figuring out a manageable chunk or goal that seems small, but leads to other small steps happening that make growth possible
not a dig at schools in particular, all state institutions in this country are ableist
and (again) also folks who wouldn’t have identified as disabled until they had the chance to think about how that applied to them in the space for self-care working from home provides