An Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

Hank Waddles
4 min readJul 11, 2020

--

Photo Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Dear Secretary DeVos,

I’m writing in response to your press conference on Wednesday of this week and your suggestion that schools should open at full capacity in the fall.

I will avoid commentary on the irony of any member of this administration’s being critical of how public school districts — or anyone else for that matter — handled the pandemic this spring, but it troubles me that you would use your voice and platform to be negative during such a difficult time.

You have never spent any time in a public school, either as a student or a teacher, and in fact you have never taught at any level, so I can understand how you might have overlooked a few things in your evaluation of the current situation and your recommendations for the coming school year.

Let me explain what it’s been like for classroom teachers. I was notified via email at 10:40am on March 13th that my district would be closing at the end of the school day. As the morning and afternoon wore on, I had to speak to each of my middle school classes and explain that we would still be in touch, and even though I had no guidance from the school district on this point, I assured them that we would still be working.

When I left school that evening, I had to prepare for a journey unlike any I had taken before. I knew neither the length nor the goal, and it was impossible to anticipate any of the bumps that might come along the way. I scavenged my classroom like a sailor abandoning ship, taking anything that looked like it might be helpful — an iPad, dry erase markers, an eraser, several novels, and an armload of textbooks for my three different preps.

The plan then was that we’d be closed for just three weeks, but I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I left campus that evening worried that my students and I might never again work together in my classroom. It turned out that I was right.

Image Source: Edgeunity

During your press conference you indicated that too many school districts just gave up and did “next to nothing.”

Well, here’s what I did. First, I had to learn several new platforms to continue teaching. I used YouTube and YouTube Live for some lessons, Zoom and Google Meet for others. Instead of greeting my students by name as they walked into my classroom, I squinted at tiny boxes on my iPad and checked them off on my roll sheet. It only took a week or two to realize that my home technology wasn’t going to be good enough, so I dipped into my pocket and bought a new MacBook.

On the day that we got the news that our campus would be closed for the rest of the year, I wasn’t surprised, but I was still shattered. Selfishly, I was devastated that I wouldn’t get to stand in front of my students, I wouldn’t hear their laughter as they walked into the room, and I wouldn’t see their faces light up during our discussions.

But that was only a fleeting thought. You might not understand this, Secretary DeVos, but all teachers will. My main concern was for my students. I worried about their isolation, I worried about their education, and I worried about their trepidation. I sent them a quick video expressing my sorrow for what we were losing, but also assuring them that I wasn’t going anywhere.

And we kept going. We stayed connected, we kept reading, and we kept writing. And I worked harder than I have in years. All across the country there are countless teachers who could tell you this same story, and it’s insulting that you would suggest otherwise.

So as I look to the fall, I agree that there would be nothing better — and nothing easier — than to have everything back to normal. Selfishly, I would love to be standing in my classroom in front of thirty-five students on September 1st, the same way I’ve started the school year in each of the last twenty-nine autumns. But once again, I have to think about more than just myself. I have to think of my students.

If you truly have the best interest of America’s children in mind, you should support local school districts instead of criticizing them. Rather than standing by the President’s threat to withhold money from cautious districts, you should ask what resources you can provide to help us open safely. Instead of presenting yourself as an expert, you should ask to learn from those of us who are doing the work.

You mentioned that this moment in time presented an opportunity, and you’re right. It’s an opportunity for you to learn, but only if you’re willing to listen.

Sincerely, an American Teacher

--

--