Mask debate scares teachers | Opinion

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We face an educational toll if action is not taken to address the teacher shortage in the United States. But how do you attract teachers when education has become so politicized?

The debate rages on the wearing of the mask. Some school boards have had to hold meetings virtually to avoid violent outbursts. Some council members have received death threats and some school principals have been removed from their posts. Fights between parents over masks have become commonplace, and we have students walking out of schools to protest mask requirements.

Not so long ago, the country was, to some extent, united in the fight against COVID-19. Wearing a mask, although imperfect, was expected to protect children from contracting or spreading COVID-19. This solidarity no longer exists. The mask debate has turned into political football with broad implications for the future of education.

Civil discourse is not the problem. After all, the First Amendment, arguably one of our most important amendments, gives us all the right to free speech. Parents have the right to express themselves. However, this is how those responsible for student education are vilified.

Scapegoating those responsible for raising our children is like blaming someone for being born. Educators followed requirements issued by governors and mayors across the country. Many have been forced to impose the wearing of masks or, on the contrary, prohibited from doing so.

With the acrimony of this debate, we run the risk of turning off those who wish to become teachers. The current political climate can be more than daunting for impressionable young candidates. Do they want to deal with yelling and upset parents? Do they want to deal with students who are inspired by their parents on the rules to follow? Do they want to work in an environment where school board members feel uncomfortable or even unsafe? Do they want to face picket signs in their workplace?

This situation could not come at a more inopportune time, as the nation faces serious challenges in recruiting teachers. In a recent letter to school districts, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stresses the importance of school leaders urging vaccinations. He recommends that they use the resources made available by the American Rescue Plan Act.

As policymakers, education think tanks, researchers and administrators scramble to find ways to attract new teachers and find ways to improve teacher compensation, we can all change how we treat members of this profession.

First, recognize the impact teachers have on all of us. I will always remember when a teacher told me that she thought one of her students had diabetes. The opportunity never presented itself to the parent; she just thought her child was very thirsty. The teacher turned out to be right. The impact she had on this child was life changing.

I often think of the teacher who believed in me, inspired me and pushed me to pursue my dreams. This teacher left an indelible impression on me. Many have had similar experiences. It’s time to tell our young people about the wonders of this profession. Speak highly of your child’s teacher at the table. Be aware of how you interact with this teacher in front of your child. If we show respect to teachers, our children will too, instilling in them a healthy appreciation for this truly rewarding profession.

It is important not to see educators as political experts, despite the still toxic environment that pits people against each other, where adversarial relationships are embraced.

Political leader Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Teachers are the ones who make this possible. How we treat them matters. What we say about teachers affects how our children perceive them.

Debates come and go; our differences are part of our reality. However, respect should never be compromised. Those who work with children need our support now more than ever. So many of our young people need consistency and a positive influence in their lives. Teachers provide all of this and more.

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