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I'm a Teacher & Cancer Survivor - Here's Why I'm Worried About the Fall

By Glenda Cohen

Published in We Are Teachers July, 2020

In a different world than we are in today, I would be celebrating this month. Why? Because in August, it will be five years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer - a huge milestone in any cancer patient’s life.

But I won’t be celebrating. How can I when I’m as fearful as I’ve been since hearing my diagnosis those years ago? Fearful because I may be forced to return to my teaching job for a district where I question their commitment to protecting my health and safety.

Some may say I am being too harsh, that everyone is doing “the best they can” during these unprecedented times. And if you're lucky enough to work in a district where you believe this, I say, “Good for you.” But I’d like to share a recent experience that leads me, a teacher with 17 years experience, to believe that where I work, I’m regarded as nothing more than a replaceable cog in the educational wheel.

Like thousands of other teachers across the country, I was asked by my school’s administrators last month to return to the building to clean out my classroom. Though I was hesitant to do so, I complied because I felt it was my professional obligation to assist, in my small way, in purging the upheaval and trauma of this past year and make way for a new (allbiet, unknown) path forward.

As I packed up books and labeled furniture, two custodians (one who was a former student) offered to help. We worked alongside each other at a social distance while wearing masks as they helped me put trash into recycling containers, and carry boxes and bags to my car in the parking lot. When we were through, I thanked them and wished them a nice summer.

Four days later, my friend texted asking, “Have you seen this?” I clicked on the link she had sent me to our local online news source and read the headline: “Custodian at High School Tests Positive for Covid-19.”

I wish I could say that my first thought was, “I hope he’s ok.” Truthfully, however, my first thought was, “What if it was one of the guys who helped me?”

I have a compromised immune system from cancer surgeries that removed some of my lymph nodes, so I’ve taken stringent precautions during the pandemic to safeguard my health. I get my groceries delivered and leave my home only to walk my dogs. Going into my school building was my first foray outside of my house or my car. After learning the news about the sick custodian, I certainly wasn’t panic-stricken, but I wanted more information. Was I exposed? Do I need to get tested? Should I quarantine from other members of my household?

I was expecting my school district to send out an email immediately to inform me and other staff who were in the building that week of our risk of exposure. But days later, there was still silence. It was if the administrators were ignoring staff concerns and hoping we would go away. So I contacted the human resources director and expressed my dismay that we were not informed by the district, but only learned of our potential exposure through the local media. I asked what the plans were to share important information with staff. I wrote that I didn’t expect to know the identity of the custodian, but I wanted to know what days, times and areas of the building he had worked.

I wasn’t asking for confidential information. It is certainly permissible-- in fact, it is essential -- for schools to inform staff if they come in contact with a co-worker or student who has the virus. According the Centers for Disease Control, “[S]chool administrators should notify local health officials, staff, and families immediately of any case of COVID-19 while maintaining confidentiality.”

But as I soon learned, just because districts should inform staff and families that they may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for this highly contagious (and potentially deadly) disease, doesn’t mean they will.

The email response I received from the HR director was terse: She called the report a “rumor” and said “Contact the City’s public health nurse if you are concerned.”

I don’t know why my HR director wouldn’t tell me if I had been exposed to the virus. Perhaps she was afraid of negative publicity. Perhaps she didn’t want to scare parents into thinking that the district didn’t have proper protocols. Or, perhaps she viewed me and my colleagues in much the same way owners of the meat packing plants in the Midwest do their infected workers - not especially valuable and easily replaceable.

As we start to open our schools, staff from teachers to bus drivers are poised to assume the awesome responsibility of safeguarding our own health while simultaneously protecting the safety and well-being of America’s children. Aside from first responders and healthcare workers, few other professions will have such a high level of risk and responsibility. We will be required to learn new safety protocols and make sure our students are compliant, all while trying to teach our lessons.

I am willing and eager to take this challenge to serve my students with the same enthusiasm and professionalism that I have brought to my job throughout my career. But how can I do this if I don’t trust that my district is committed to making my working conditions safe? Staff and families throughout the country need to be assured that all information about potential exposure that is legally permissible to share will, in fact, be shared in a timely, transparent way. Otherwise, educators will continue to fear going back into the classroom - or may leave the profession altogether - and families who are able will keep their kids at home.

Fortunately, I didn’t end up contracting the virus. But this experience has made me even more on edge about going back into my building. Even in districts that take the most careful precautions, teachers -- especially those of us with pre-existing conditions -- will face the daily risk of contracting Covid-19. But these risks can be mitigated if administrators place the health and safety of students and staff above all else. And when school buildings open, which we all pray will happen soon, leaders must be prepared to answer this question when asked by students and staff: Can you please tell me if I’ve been exposed?

Glenda Carey Cohen is a teacher, editor and writer.

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