Threats won’t end people’s virus anxieties

Give an extra tug on your seatbelt. The next couple of months will be rough ones.

The new school year starts in a few weeks. Not surprisingly, with the coronavirus still sickening and killing people in Iowa, what normally is a time of much excitement has become a time of great anxiety.

Our president has said expects students to be back in the classroom for in-person learning in every school in America. If schools do not comply, he has threatened to withhold their federal education aid.

No one really doubts that children learn best in a classroom with their friends and a teacher who shepherds them along through the course material and helps them master the skills they need.

No one really doubts that the school lunches (and breakfasts, too, in some places) are important for meeting the nutritional needs of students’ growing bodies and minds.

No one really doubts that schools make it possible for many people to hold jobs outside of the home, providing income for the families and labor for businesses.

But this year, going back to school is not some matter of routine. School officials have struggled for several months with competing thoughts on how best to reopen schools. It is not just unlocking the doors and running the flag up the pole outside.

My friend Joe, a high school teacher, illustrates why there is a sense of dread in many people as this school year approaches.

We have been through the “we’ve got to open things up and get back to normal” tug-of-war between those who think government is moving too slowly and those who think government is moving too quickly. This occurred when the president and many governors decided to reopen businesses that had been shut down for four months while the virus spread across the nation.

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen coronavirus case numbers and hospital admissions in some of those states that were the first to remove restrictions on large public gatherings. The numbers have risen like the summertime heat in Arizona, Florida and Texas. In Iowa, we have seen a string of days with 500 or more people being newly diagnosed with the virus.

Even though many of these people will recover, the disease still exacts a significant price on its victims – a price that is measured in the cost to each person for the medical care they receive and in the emotional cost each victim and their loved ones have to cope with.

Back to my friend Joe.

He’s in his 50s. He loves teaching high school students. He’s smart as a whip. He’s engaging, and he has a knack for connecting with kids. He teaches what was known as social studies back in the Pleistocene era when I was in school.

The highest compliment I can pay to Joe is wishing that the Evans offspring had him when they were in high school. He’s that gifted.

The first day of class is one of his favorite days of each school year. Until this year.

Now, he does not think his school district gives a hoot about the health and safety of its teachers. (Actually, he used a much cruder synonym for “hoot.”)

“I’m supposed to be concerned about protecting and worrying about my students,” he said. “But I can’t get past worrying about myself. In a month, I will be exposed and vulnerable. I’m aware of where I could be next.”

Joe is not the only teacher who feels that way. And it’s not just teachers in K-12 schools.

Forty-five University of Iowa teachers wrote an open letter recently to returning students in which the faculty members aired their anxieties, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

“We’d love to say that we’re eagerly anticipating meeting you this fall, but we have to be honest. We’re scared,” the letter said.

“We write this on the twelfth consecutive day of new, double-digit Covid-19 cases in Johnson County. We’re scared for our health and yours.”

Such concerns are not surprising. Nor are they the exclusive domain of teachers. Parents have these concerns, too, and so do students.

The letter included a shocking example of how not to help people deal with their concerns.

On June 1, Steve Goddard, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, held a virtual meeting with faculty to discuss the university’s pandemic preparations.

“When one faculty member … expressed concern over returning to the classroom for fear of getting sick, the dean suggested that she get counseling for her anxiety,” the teachers wrote. “He said she was expected to return to the classroom in the fall or risk losing her job.”

Faculty members said they feel like “disposable employees.”

That’s a sentiment my friend Joe would share. It's a sentiment that workers at Iowa meatpacking plants have expressed, too.

We need more than intimidation and threats from employers and government officials if we are going to get through this coronavirus crisis intact. Mandatory mitigation steps are needed to help protect teachers and students alike when the school year begins.

After all, students are not going to have good learning experiences if their school buildings become the latest scenes for the huge outbreaks that have plagued meatpacking plants.

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Randy Evans can be reached at

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