Teachers: You Are Being Gaslit

Teachers: You Are Being Gaslit

by Michele Merritt, Ph.D.

Whenever I teach logic, one of my favorite fallacies to cover is bandwagon, mostly because I get to use a Saturday Night Live skit to demonstrate it. You know the bandwagon fallacy: if enough people believe something, it must be true? It’s a quick and simple example of crappy reasoning.

In this particular “Weekend Update” skit, Jason Sudeikis, playing Mitch McConnell, says, “Remember school? If we all do it, we can’t get in trouble?” The faulty reasoning is of course that if enough people do something, it makes it acceptable. I can hear my mom now, every time I complained I was not allowed to do what all my other ‘cool’ friends were doing. “If everyone started jumping off bridges, would you want to do THAT?” Fair enough, mom.

Then again, when you think about the principles behind worker strikes, they are oddly reminiscent of this fallacious bandwagon inference. If we all refuse to show up to work, our employers will be forced to address our concerns, right?

When I discuss the bandwagon fallacy, I always tell my students, even if you all refused to complete any assignments this semester, I could technically fail all of you. I often think about what it would be like if they actually did organize a protest like this. Would I really give them all Fs? What would that look like and how would it impact my reputation as a professor? To be honest, the whole exercise makes me realize how tenuous my authority as their instructor really is. The same fragile authority is held by school administrators. There are more of us (teachers) than them. A brief history of strikes levied by educational workers quickly reveals that when teachers organize and unionize, they can change policies, procedures, and working conditions. It’s time to start thinking about what a national strike — among university and K-12 instructors alike — might look like.

If you are like me, the administration at your school is scrambling to make plans for how best to navigate education during a pandemic — a pandemic that is not going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps you have received one of the emails so many of my colleagues at various schools are getting that say something to the effect of: “We have no idea what is going on or how we are going to manage all of this safely and effectively, but here are some platitudes to make you feel better.” If you are a K-12 teacher, you might have been told in more certain terms that in-person classes will be happening this fall, but they will have staggered scheduling, lower class sizes, etc. Chances are, as the summer has dragged on, these messages have changed, perhaps even weekly.

To be fair, the pandemic involves a rapidly changing complex of events, and I sympathize with how difficult it must be to make these decisions at an administrative level. I do not envy any of them, and I do not profess to know how best to handle this situation in education. I do know, however, that as an educator, I am under no obligation to put myself, my family, my students, or my colleagues at risk of contracting a deadly disease. And despite all the precautionary measures — the mask requirements, socially distanced classrooms, and extra sanitizing that schools claim will be enforced — it is not safe for the entire country to resume in-person education. People — including children — are going to get sick. Many of them will die.

Fellow educators: we are are being gaslit. We are being presented with the false choice between our own safety and quality education. We are being made to feel crazy for being scared to do our jobs, when in reality, it is logical to be scared.

There are abundantly many reasons to get kids back in school. I’m a parent to two toddlers, and I desperately want them to be enrolled in their daycare come August when I’m back to work at my university full time. I completely understand the arguments — especially from working parents with no other resources for their children — to reopen schools. Not to mention, the mental health of these kids, some pretty compelling reasons to believe online learning is inferior to face-to-face instruction in younger learners, and of course, the problem of insuring ‘techquity’ among all students if they are taking online courses. These worries are even more complex at the university level where there are disparities in pricing for online versus in-person classes. I have grappled with all of these issues, but this piece is not about those concerns. Despite the many important reasons to resume face-to-face instruction in schools nationwide, the bottom line remains: we don’t know enough to be sure it’s safe.

Legislators and politicians are pushing the idea that in order for the economy to get back on track, re-opening schools is paramount. But as this article details, while it might be true that having schools operating again would boost the economy, this will not stop Covid-19 from entering those schools. Don’t be lulled into believing that if you do not go back to teaching in-person this fall, you are responsible for the demise of the American economy.

Another argument we keep hearing is that “kids do not get infected with or transmit the disease.” First of all, they do. They just do so at a rate far lower than older adults. Moreover, cases in younger persons are on the rise. Florida, the new epicenter of this pandemic, has recently seen over 11,000 children test positive for Covid-19. Worst of all: none of these estimations seem to factor in the adults in all of this — the teachers who will be interacting with these children all day, the parents who drop them off, and the school staff. As this viral facebook post outlines, there is far more to consider. We are not talking about tele-transporting our children to a perfectly sanitized classroom where they will remain 6 feet apart from one another, masked, and clean the entire day. You are not insane if you are afraid to teach these kids or to send your own child to school this fall.

When it comes to universities, the whole ‘kids don’t get it’ argument is completely moot, since we are dealing primarily with adults. And this study out of Yale indicates that if universities were to re-open without any modifications, we could be looking at a nearly 100% infection rate. My university, like so many others, is opting for a hybrid approach, where classes will be broken into smaller sections and each section will only have face-to-face instruction half of the time. This will likely curb some of the infections, but how successful will it be? How sure can we be that proper measures are being taken to sanitize in between classes? I have heard nothing about hiring extra workers to manage this increased demand in cleaning needs. Even more disturbing is that many institutions are not requiring students to mask. Again, the bottom line is that being asked to return to in-person instruction is being asked to assume an unknown and therefore unfair amount of risk. You are not insane for thinking it is a bad idea.

In fact, it is arguably the case that administrators know returning to any sort of face-to-face instruction this fall is a bad idea. But they are following orders from folks even higher up the chain, like for instance, the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has been vehemently arguing for fully reopening, and not just partially, as many school districts and universities are trying to do. Then, of course, there is the push from the president to reopen, complete with threats to cut federal funding to schools that don’t comply. (He cannot do that, by the way). Never mind that the federal government is at once forcing the hands of state education officials to re-open while also refusing to provide even so much as a framework for how individual states should implement such a plan. All the while, DeVos and her cronies propose budget cuts to education, despite the fact that if schools are to reopen safely, they will need more money, not less. For them, the bottom line is that the economy is more important than the ‘very small percentage of lives that will be lost’ by reopening (Edited to note that depending on the veracity of whether DeVos claimed that an acceptable percentage of children dying if schools reopen fully is .02%, that number works out to roughly 11,320 children, as per the number of children the DOE lists as ‘students’ in the U.S.)

Meanwhile schools are fumbling around trying to make contingency plans. At my university, we are being told to prepare to transition at any point to all online instruction, which sounds eerily familiar to this past spring semester. This time, however, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. is far greater and the death toll is much higher. Cases are surging as we speak. And yet, schools are making plans to reopen in somewhat brick-a-brack fashion, with very little certainty as to how it will all shake out. This is leaving instructors in the awful position of having to choose between their health and livelihood on the one hand, and their jobs and duties to educate on the other.

A professor at University of Georgia tweeted that faculty there were being asked to identify academic “next of kin,” in case they become ill or worse. Schools are asking parents to sign waivers absolving them of liability in the event that children fall ill or die. This shows that at least some school officials are very well aware that the outlook is not good. Instructors at several universities have begun speaking out against the absurdity of it all, especially in districts where they are expected to return to work but masks are not even going to be required. Despite its drawbacks and in many cases, extra work that must be put into it, professors have overwhelmingly said they prefer to teach online this fall.

This is where we are. There are stirrings of discontent among university faculty and K-12 teachers all over the country. These complaints are being met with paternalistic dismissal. Remember your duty to educate. Children need to be back in school. We will be fine if we do this right!

As educators, we do have a duty to facilitate learning. But this in no way implies we must put our lives on the line to do so, nor does it mean we should put others’ lives at risk. Children absolutely need to be around one another and physically in school. This just seems completely incompatible with containing the virus at this point and keeping those children — and their teachers — entirely safe.

We are not just teachers or researchers or colleagues. We are also role models for the students we instruct. Do we want students to think that we value their lives, as well as our own lives, less than a ‘healthy’ economic bottom line? Or would it be better to model behavior that says we can rise up against unfair practices and demand better for ourselves and our students? If enough of us demand change, it will happen. If enough of us refuse to put our lives in danger, the whole shoddy system will crumble and they will be forced to confront reality.

I always teach my philosophy students to learn to distinguish facts from bullshit because failure to do so, in my opinion, is in many ways a greater plague than this virus. Most of us educators are pretty skilled in detecting bullshit, and many of us know this demand to reopen is bullshit. The question now is, what are we going to do about it?

Originally posted at https://medium.com/digital-diplomacy/teachers-you-are-being-gaslit-a2bb2e0fbdca



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