The deaths of at least four U.S. school teachers from COVID-19 since schools reopened in mid-August is a grim reminder of the dire risk teachers face after they were declared essential workers by the Trump administration.
The latest at least four teacher deaths were reported this week. AshLee Marinis, a 34-year-old special education teacher in Missouri, died Sunday after being hospitalized for three weeks. Demetria Bannister, a third-grade teacher in South Carolina, succumbed to the disease Monday.
Two other teachers in Mississippi were also confirmed to have died from COVID-19 over the past week. Mississippi has reported 604 coronavirus cases among school workers since the start of the fall semester.
A teachers’ union leader is concerned the return to in-person classes will have a deadly impact across the country if proper precautions aren’t taken. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, contends schools need mandatory face coverings, strict social distancing rules and other guidelines to safely operate.
“If community spread is too high as it is in Missouri and Mississippi, if you don’t have the infrastructure of testing, and if you don’t have the safeguards that prevent the spread of viruses in the school, we believe that you cannot reopen in person,” according to Weingarten.
American teachers are also at an increased risk of contracting the disease by an Aug. 18 order of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) classifying them as “critical infrastructure workers” or essential workers.
The DHS order means teachers will be expected to continue working even if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 provided they remain asymptomatic. Ordering teachers to continue working after potential exposure to the disease remains a controversial topic among educators, who remain concerned about the role schools play in spreading the disease.
Vice President Mike Pence confirmed the order declaring teachers essential workers on Aug. 21, but claimed it isn’t a mandate: “… when you’re declared an essential, it means you’re going to be prioritized for things like PPE and support,” Pence told Fox News. “But we want to get our kids back to school but we also want our teachers to know that we’re going to make the resources available so that their schools can be a safe environment.”
In response to Pence’s claim about PPEs, Weingarten said the Trump administration has “not actually gotten us the (personal protective equipment) that would make schools safe. They have not gotten us the testing that would make schools safe. They have not done anything on a national basis to stop the virus. They think teachers are dispensable.”
Educators keep insisting designating teachers essential workers is placing teachers and students at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. They said many teachers have kept fighting against returning to school buildings, saying it’s not safe to reopen and raising their anxiety levels.