Public schools are essential. Experts across numerous disciplines agree that in-person school serves students better than distance learning. Students need to be back with their peers. Parents need schools to re-open to help meet childcare needs. Businesses need schools to open for employees to come to work.

But if schools cannot open safely, then our school buildings must remain closed. The health and safety of our children must be our top priority. Numbers of COVID-19 cases are spiking in our community and across the state. If we cannot contain the virus in the general population, then we cannot expect our students to return to in-person school or demand that our teachers and other school workers put their and their families’ lives at risk.

Our public school teachers and other school workers have long served as frontline workers, even before the pandemic. Decades of disinvestment in public schools and safety net programs have forced teachers to be the first line of defense against the effects of every injustice and unmet social need: poverty, racial trauma, hunger, domestic violence, substance use disorder, childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, parental incarceration, and on and on.

Teaching is challenging. It requires training and experience in pedagogy, behavior management, subject matter expertise, assessment, and communication. Yet, too often, we expect our teachers, instructional assistants, and other workers to also serve as stand-ins for social workers, nurses, psychologists, disciplinarians, and even parents. Teachers show their commitment to our community’s children by rising to these unreasonable expectations, time and again.

But there is one thing that we simply cannot ask from them. We must not ask teachers to be guinea pigs in an experiment to re-open schools as the virus gains ground across our state. We cannot put our teachers on the frontline of a war against a global pandemic.

A member of the Jefferson County school board shared with me this excerpt of a message received from a constituent: “For the general health and future prospects of those not reached by distance learning, I believe JCPS should be willing to accept COVID transmissions and some COVID deaths as a price to be paid.”

JCPS and other KY schools districts should be “willing to accept” no such thing. A preventable pandemic-related death of even one member of our public school community is too high a price. Our students’, teachers’, instructional assistants’, and other school workers’ lives are not expendable.

Here in Jefferson County, we are fortunate that Superintendent Marty Pollio understands the high stakes of re-opening schools in the face of the still raging pandemic and has announced six weeks of distance learning. I am hopeful other superintendents take his and our school board members’ lead; it is the safe and courageous decision for our children, school personnel, and families.

Unfortunately, even as Superintendent Pollio was making his announcement, Kentucky’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit that would have eradicated Governor Andy Beshear’s executive order granting our public schools the flexibility to conduct distance learning during this emergency. The short-sightedness of this measure was met with the Kentucky Supreme Court’s swift intervention, as they ruled that all of our Governor’s pandemic-related orders remain in place until they can be separately reviewed. When lives of students, teachers, and school workers are at stake, this outrageous attempt by Kentucky’s Attorney General is not just risky, but potentially deadly.

There are opportunities in these unprecedented times. Distance learning will require shared sacrifice. But it can also create shared innovation. Teachers are leading the effort by learning new ways to practice their craft. Parents and friends will be required to engage more directly in our children’s education. New childcare solutions will be necessary, and employers will need to extend flexibility to workers with school-age children. Community leaders must find new ways to ensure that students’ basic needs are met while school buildings are closed.

Our teachers, school workers, and public schools play vital roles in our communities. That fact should be clearer than ever to my colleagues in the Kentucky General Assembly. This recognition should spark action to fully fund our public schools, increase pay for teachers and classified school staff, ensure secure retirement for educators, extend policies that grant our schools increased flexibility, and allow our teachers to lead, both in their classrooms and on education policy.

We hope there will be a vaccine or cure for this dreadful plague soon. Until then, let’s keep our students and educators safe.

And let’s invest in the safe, healthy, and equitable public schools and the services that our students, educators, and communities deserve.

Lisa Willner represents the 35th district in Kentucky’s House of Representatives. She is a past member of the Jefferson County Board of Education.

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