Teacher helping student
James V. Shuls

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone was sent home—everyone except essential workers. Health care workers continued to take care of patients. Police and firefighters continued to patrol streets and fight fires. Grocery store workers continued to stock shelves. Even workers in meatpacking plants, where some outbreaks occurred, continued to do their jobs. They continued to work because they were “essential.” Their jobs were so important to the lives of others that we asked them to take additional risk to continue providing their goods or services to us. Now, as schools are slated to reopen, the essential question we must ask is whether or not teachers are “essential.”

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of schools reopening, there are some fundamental facts here. First, putting kids together with 20 plus students in a classroom and crowded hallways undoubtedly increases the risk of spread. We can debate how much kids transmit the virus or how few deaths occur among children below the age of 18. These are all important conversations to have. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that schools packed with children are a petri dish where germs (and viruses) are spread. Kids will be kids. They will not effectively social distance and they will not wear their masks with fidelity. Without question, teachers in schools would have a much higher risk of catching COVID than teachers working from their living room.

The second unmistakable fact is that not opening schools will lead to large disruptions in the workforce. Parents without other options will be forced to quit their jobs or work from home as they help their children navigate the new online educational environment. This disruption will lead to decreased productivity and could have long-term negative impacts on the economy. Again, there are other issues we could debate, but there is no denying that closing schools will impact the livelihoods of many families.

We ask essential workers to face greater risks because the products of their labor—their service to us or the goods they produce—are integral to the lives of other people. We do not deny that they increase their risk by going to work. We do not deny that sending essential workers home would impact the lives of others.

It does feel strange that the clearest voices arguing that teachers are not essential are the teachers themselves, while the most persuasive essay arguing they are essential that I have read comes from a nurse.

So, I return to the central question—are teachers essential? I’ll let you, dear reader, determine the answer to this question yourself.


About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.