I’m a Nurse. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did.

Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.

The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”

“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.

We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.

We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way. Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses.

What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Instead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.

My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”

I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.

I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.

In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, “No, I can’t just chump out!” Chump wasn’t the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.

The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn’t my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed.

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.” He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”

Teachers signed up to be a positive adult presence in children’s lives, and to help them grow up with their peers, at school, away from home. We need them to follow through, even though it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful; it’s not going to be perfect. “I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good. The point is that everyone is going to have to go above and beyond. But teachers are smart and adaptable. They can do this.

In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.




  1. Teachers do their job. And as a reminder schools never closed the buildings closed. Teachers continue to teach and spent hours and hours and hours on the computer, talking to parents, building packets of worksheets and projects, connecting people to food banks and emergency money. Most of our work days started at 4:30 AM and didn’t stop until 11:30 PM. Sadly, patients sick with COVID-19 do not argue about wearing a mask or keeping 6 feet. This is not a matter of “I did this so you can do this too”. This is a matter of a community of random families put together that could completely transform and transmit a deadly virus. Children carry the virus and children can transmit the virus. As we survey the community to see who is coming back, you will hear the frightened voices of everyone involved. Not only are parents, teachers, and staff members concerned about coming back so are many children. The costs to a school district to embrace the CDC guidelines is enormous. We ARE trying our best to serve our communities but we will do so in a safe manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a veteran teacher of 15 years I wholeheartedly disagree with this article. I cannot believe you are married to a teacher! You should come into a public school classroom with limited funding and not enough PPE and then tell me to stand up in my classroom of six-year-olds! If one of them gets sick guess who they’re going to blame! How dare you write an article about how we should stand up and do our jobs when you have never been a teacher.


  3. Dear Author,
    Thank you for what you do. I’m glad you feel supported and safe while working, because it is a basic human right, and you deserve it.
    Now, get over yourself. I would never show up to the hospital and start telling people how to do their jobs, and you are NOT qualified to determine it is safe for teachers to return to in person instruction.
    If you had 20 active patients in the same room all day, and you weren’t wearing PPE, would you still feel safe? If your patients were coughing and sneezing, needed help turning the sink on, buttoning clothes and tying shoes, and they were touching and licking things that were shared amongst everyone, would you still feel safe? Are you responsible for cleaning the surfaces your patients use/touch? And if you were, would you have any time to actually do your nursing job? In an industry where people routinely rely on donations of tissues, hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes, it’s legit to be concerned that the proper safety supplies will actually be provided during this time of need. You probably wouldn’t be writing this ridiculous article if you had ever spent any time in a kindergarten classroom, or a school bus.
    Please don’t pretend that the concern of teachers isn’t valid.


  4. I do see your perspective here and I do agree that if safety measures are in place and the health department believes in person school is appropriate we should return. I would also like to say that in many parts of the country, county health departments have said in person school is not safe so no matter how teachers feel, they are starting remotely. The public typically blames teachers for this rather than people who actually make these decisions. I also want to point out that our public schools are grossly underfunded throughout the country and before the pandemic class sizes were so large in my district we had students working in teachers lounges and on the floor. So we do not have the space or staff to accommodate 6 feet of distance even with staggered scheduling. One of our high schools had only one bathroom for over 3,000 students (I am not joking). As a nurse I am sure you are aware that schools are a vector for disease. As a teacher, you see this every year during flu season. We do not have the money or infrastructure to meet health department guidelines. Finally, it is important to point out that this isn’t the first time society has asked us to risk our lives for their children without appreciating all that we do. Before COVID many people believed teachers should carry guns in school to stop school shootings. In one shooting a kindergarten teacher lost her life shielding her students from bullets. You have to understand that teachers are in a different place societally than you are. We feel abused as a profession and we feel like we are held responsible for the bad conditions in public schools rather than the government. So, while I do agree we are essential workers, I don’t think we will have safety measures in place as you said.


  5. I am currently teaching and I also cashiered during the shut down. Despite your husband being a teacher, it seems you have quite a gap in your understanding of the situation that most teachers are walking into and the impossible physical restrictions and lack of funding in order to implement them that so many school systems are faced with. Also, I have nothing polite to say about your article title. I would never have the poor judgement to say that to anyone in the medical community, (including a shockingly large percent of my family) so my advice to YOU is “stay in your lane”. I have other opinions, but I am trying to be a lady about this.


  6. There are many people that have been put in uncomfortable situations during this whole pandemic. I would think that if a person is not comfortable to return to their job it may be time to consider employment in a different environment.


  7. There are many valid comments above already. My parents were nurses for many years. They went into the profession to look after the health of their patients. They were in wards with a limited amount of people. They were provided with safety equipment when dealing in situations which could allow for transmission of an illness or blood. Current practitioners are given PPE when dealing with those with Corona virus. I also worked as a nurse in my early 20’s.

    Of course teachers should go back to work. I am sure we all want to. Our situations are very different from a hospital dealing with diseases. We work in education establishments. We don’t have the training, facilities, equipment and knowledge to properly deal with students who may have COVID-19. So on top of doing our jobs in-person/on-line we will also have to learn how to deal with our current climate – in a school setting.

    Teachers, students and parents are scared and so they should be. I’m sure your husband is also apprehensive.

    I would encourage you to spend some time in your children’s school, when you are not on shift. I do everyday (my children go to my school).


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