Teaching during a pandemic is a high risk job

Teachers’ exposure to COVID is higher than anyone else outside of healthcare and law enforcement.

Over the last year, I’ve run into a lot of COVID-hoaxers and anti-maskers and teacher-haters who think teachers are being wusses for demanding COVID-safe working environments. And many of them say something along the lines of “If teachers have it so bad, they should quit and work in a real front-line job like grocery store clerk or in retail.”

My wife and I were at the grocery store on New Year’s Eve picking up a few things and the store was mobbed. Nearly every checkout lane was open, and every open lane had at least two people waiting to be checked out (spaced as well as the crowd would permit). It was as busy as I’ve ever seen the grocery store. And my wife, a high school special education teacher, made the following (paraphrased) observation: “Even with all these people, it’s still less crowded here than in my classroom.”

With the previous anti-teacher sentiment and my wife’s observation in mind, let’s compare the grocery store checkout clerks to teachers at the high, middle, and elementary levels, starting with the grocery store clerk.

A grocery clerk who works a full 8 hour shift is going to work 7.5 hours interacting with customers (because they get two mandatory paid 15 minute breaks). From my personal experience, no checkout takes more than about five minutes and the average is probably more like three minutes. So over a single shift, your average clerk is going to be exposed to about 150 customers. That’s a lot of people, but each exposure is very short, well below the 15 minute “close contact” definition used by the CDC. And every retail store I’m familiar with now has plexiglas dividers between the customers and the clerks, which reduces exposure even more.

The only exception to the “close contact” rule is if the clerk is working with a bagger. So let’s figure 10 potential close contacts per shift per clerk, and all of them are between employees, not between the clerk and the general public. If we assume that half of every given day’s baggers rotate due to work schedules and a five day work week for the clerk, then we’re looking at 30 potential close contacts with other grocery store employees over the course of a work week.

Now let’s look at classrooms, starting with 100% in-person.

In a full time in-person high school classroom, the teacher is teaching 20-30 students at a time for at least an hour, for six periods per day. Let’s say the average is 25 students, so that’s 150 students. Since the classes last longer than 15 minutes, every student qualifies as a close contact. That’s 150 potential close contacts with students for a teacher.

If we go to a block schedule (three classes per day, but each class is twice as long) the number of close contacts drops to about 75 per day, but over the course of the school week, the number of close contacts is the same – 150.

Middle school core subject teachers, at least in the school district my children were taught in, would have had more like 90-120 close contacts. Band and orchestra teachers, on the other hand, would have had even more close contacts and would be a vector for COVID since many teach at two or more middle and elementary schools.

Elementary school teachers would have the fewest close contacts since most teach a single group of 30ish students all day.

But in every case, in-person learning exposes teachers to far more close contacts among the students than working in a grocery store or other retail establishment.

If we look at hybrid classrooms, the total number of close contacts drops by half. In districts where remote-only was an option given to parents, the number of close contacts drops by more like 2/3rds. But that’s still 50-75 close contacts in high schools, 30-60 close contacts in middle schools, and 10-15 in elementary schools. Only at the elementary level is the total number of total close contacts lower that that of a grocery store clerk.

But even at the elementary level, the nature of the close contacts are different. 10-15 close contacts among young kids vs. 30 contacts among other employees who are all at least high school aged. Grocery store employees are going to wear masks and gloves as required by their employers’ rules or they’ll be fired for cause. Little kids especially can’t be expected to wear their mask right all the time, use tissues properly, not drool, etc. I remember what my children were like as little kids: gross. And my kids were no different from pretty much every other little kid out there.

Out of a sense of completeness, let’s talk about how many close contacts teachers have with other teachers. In my wife’s high school, teachers each have their own room and shared office spaces are largely not used due to the risk of COVID spread. Department meetings are being held on Zoom rather than in person, and we can probably assume that this is playing out similarly around the country. So let’s figure a couple of close contacts every day, or 10 per week. Compared to 30 per day for a grocery clerk. So we can probably safely say that teachers have fewer close contacts with other school employees than grocery clerks have with other store employees.

So let’s summarize, shall we?

Grocery store clerks High school teachers Middle school teachers Elementary school teachers
In person Hybrid In person Hybrid In person Hybrid
Close contact with the public ~ 0 150 50-75 90-120 30-60 30 10-15
Close contacts with other employees 30 10 10 10 10 10 10
Total close contacts per week 30 160 60-85 100-130 40-70 40 20-25

This shows that teachers are far more likely to have close contact with someone who has COVID than grocery store workers are. And grocery store workers will interact with the public far more than any other retail worker I can think of – more than clothing stores, furniture, home improvement, etc.

Outside of healthcare and law enforcement (especially prison guards), I can’t think of any job that involves more potential exposure to COVID than education. Given this fact, we should give teachers the resources they need to keep themselves and their students safe, not attack them as whiners when they point out the significant risks of their jobs.

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