When COVID-19 came to Brownsville, Texas, in March, Louis Leal was in the early months of his thirtieth year of teaching. He had started in the district in 1990, just weeks after graduating from college. An imposing man, tall and wide-shouldered, with a gentle manner, Leal now teaches language arts and theatre at Stillman Middle School. Over the years, though, he has taught reading comprehension all over the district, to kids of all ages, worked with good principals and bad, and seen superintendents come and go. He was raised, he said, to respect authority. “It’s in the culture down here,” he told me. “You respect your elders.” In thirty years, he never once went against the grain. And then, in the middle of a pandemic, the state asked teachers to return to their classrooms. Leal discovered a well of frustration that had been building for years. “It’s scary and it’s dangerous,” he said. “There are lives being played with. And no one is listening to teachers. We have to go to extremes to be listened to.”
Texas first shut down its schools in March, when it seemed as if the state would be spared the worst of the pandemic, and Leal and his fellow-teachers threw themselves into remote education. He rebuilt a curriculum for students to follow without the regular classroom resources. He studied their faces online to gauge their well-being and their understanding. He lives, he says, “out in the boonies,” and he struggled with his own Internet as he watched his students drop on and off his radar. “We were putting in sixteen-hour days, calling kids who were not getting online,” he said. “We couldn’t go knock on doors. We couldn’t send our parent liaison. Some of these kids didn’t wake up at eight in the morning. Instead, they were e-mailing me at eight o’clock at night, and me, being me—they’re my kids—I’m going to help them.”
Brownsville, where Leal grew up, is a border town of factories, migratory birds, and hurricanes that blow up off the Gulf of Mexico. It sits above Matamoros and just west of a marshy conservation area called the Bahia Grande. It is also one of the most impoverished cities in the United States—more than ninety per cent of the forty thousand students in the Brownsville Independent School District, or B.I.S.D., are economically disadvantaged—and one of the national epicenters of COVID-19. While Leal was struggling to keep track of his students, the district was scrambling to keep everyone fed. By mid-summer, B.I.S.D. had served more than six hundred and seventy thousand meals. They had packaged Chromebooks to send to students who needed them. They had organized a call-in counselling service. And all this still fell short of what the district could offer a student in an average year.
When Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced plans to reopen schools, the state was about two months out from the regularly scheduled first day, and at the start of a precipitous spike in COVID-19 infections. “It will be safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall,” Mike Morath, the state’s commissioner of education, said in a statement released on June 18th. Masks would not be required, he said. Health screenings would be optional. Flexibility would be offered to parents and students who wanted to continue learning online. Teachers, however, were expected to show up and do their jobs no matter what. Leal read the news and looked at his wife and his adopted daughter. He thought about his students. “When you see something like this, something you know is not right,” Leal told me, “you have to say something.”
Leal was not the only one. Early on, the pandemic had forced teachers to spend their days in front of their computers. As plans to send them back into classrooms materialized, teachers across the country turned to online forums to help make decisions, share tips, and voice their grievances. Teachers on TikTok make jokes about their pre-pandemic-versus-post-pandemic greeting routine (in place of a hug or a high-five, how about “ten seconds of uninterrupted eye contact?”) or talk about how exhausted they are. Facebook groups have proliferated, including Texas Teachers United Against Reopening Schools and Teachers Against Dying. In Galveston, north of where Leal works, a garrulous environmental-science and biology teacher named Dan Hochman started a Facebook group called Texas Teachers for a Safe Reopening. Within forty-eight hours, more than forty thousand teachers had joined.
Public schools offer an ideal environment to spread disease. They also sit at a crossroads of social services: expected to bridge a growing divide between poverty and privilege, there to educate students, and, beyond that, to provide food security, health screenings, and counselling to those in need. And, in the middle of an economic crisis that is disproportionately impacting women, schools provide child care. It is a heavy burden on a system that is underfunded and a profession that has, over time, been devalued. Like other professions associated with women—those of nurses, care workers, and, for that matter, most essential workers—teaching is at once vital to the functioning of the U.S. economy and subject to painful contradictions. Teachers, and other essential workers, are praised for their heroism, expected to serve selflessly, and provided with very little in the way of support. “A school district alone cannot formulate the entire response for children,” a Los Angeles Unified School District board member wrote in a Times Op-Ed, when schools shuttered in March. But, as reopening loomed, it seemed as if schools and teachers were being counted on to do just that.
According to Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, this scramble was playing out in school districts everywhere. “Every school district across the United States made their first priority feeding kids,” Levinson said. “And then you thought, Oh, so this is actually what school is about. It’s about providing those services.” To explain the disproportionate demands placed on teachers like Leal, Levinson pointed to a famous government research project, led by the sociologist James Coleman, that was released in 1966. The study found that educational attainment was determined primarily by factors outside a teacher’s sphere of influence—particularly race and class. “The data has been clear for over fifty years,” Levinson said. Despite that, “the emphasis has been ever more on schools’ role in fostering academic learning. . . . But the teacher accounts for at most fifteen per cent of a kid’s academic learning.”
So, while teachers have been held to higher standards, and schools rewarded and punished according to academic achievement, they have at the same time been called upon to ameliorate the challenges that students face outside school walls. Districts across the U.S. are dealing with a rise in homelessness. School nurses serve as primary care. “Teachers have long been the first responders in trying to address our kids’ needs,” Rob D’Amico, the communications director at the Texas A.F.T., the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “If the kids come to school and they’ve forgotten their shoes. Or their parents have split up. Or if they’re moving. It hasn’t really been accounted for other than teachers trying to do what they could.” For Leal and Hochman, this has meant that they work harder and take more risks. Their responsibilities have expanded past their job descriptions to the point that their lives seemed expendable. “No, we shouldn’t fix the gun problem; we should make teachers stand in front of bullets,” Hochman said. “We shouldn’t fix the virus; we should make teachers be willing to die.”