'Only As Safe As The School Next Door': Arizona Teachers Tweet Obituaries To Ducey In A Stand Against Reopening Schools

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, August 6, 2020 - 2:15pm
Updated: Friday, August 7, 2020 - 7:57am
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Earlier this week, a series of tweets called our attention to an effort by some Arizona educators to make clear just how important on-campus health and safety requirements are to them in this pandemic. The tweets include images of a template, which teachers could fill in with their obituaries or epitaphs. And the message was being sent to Gov. Ducey to not open schools and risk the health of educators and students. Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice for the Reason Foundation was behind the tweets. DeAngelis says he believed the approach of obituaries and epitaphs was over-the-top.

COREY DEANGELIS: There are obviously some teachers who feel, you know, very seriously about this, and they think it is a serious act of, you know, sharing their feelings. But at the same time, it seemed to be over-the-top to send this template out to your members of a fake obituary. And it's not a real obituary. Then obviously, they also had epitaphs, you know, where they instructed their members to create fake tombstones. We saw this in other parts of the country, too. We saw Milwaukee Teachers' Association actually created a bunch of fake tombstones to protest as well.

GOLDSTEIN: Judy Robbins, a special education teacher for deaf and hard of hearing students, is a leader of the obituary campaign. Her position is especially unique because she travels to a number of different schools to perform her duties. I spoke with her earlier and asked her what the message is and to whom it's directed.

JUDY ROBBINS: The message is directed definitely to the governor, and it's to point out to the governor that we project that there is going to be illness and more death. And we project that if we are back to opening schools where we are returning, we're gonna have the same results. So we felt that to send a clear message with no equivocation is to show what the result would be. And yes, it is a strong message. It is a little bit on the dark side. But in fact, it is reality, as we right now experience all over our state. So it was not so unusual to kind of go to that extreme and put the point home to the governor, is that we are going to see a health crisis. And we are only as safe as the school next door. And if he does not mandate that every school follow these guidelines that he should be setting up in a pandemic, that we are going to see many children and many staff, unfortunately, hospitalized and worse. So that is why we decided to go to obituaries and epitaphs and last-lecture letters that were delivered to the Governor's Office. And we hope he will read it and take it to heart, because we really do think that this is just a projection of what will happen.

GOLDSTEIN: Judy, approximately how many people took part, and did you write one?

ROBBINS: I did. In fact, I made all the tombstones.

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, gosh. OK.

ROBBINS: I did write an epitaph. And in fact, I mean, it really came home in early March when I started staying home. I started looking at my own will, and I did update during the summer my own will, because I really did fear that I had a big risk being an older teacher. I am qualified to retire. And having underlying health conditions, I had a good sense to kind of get my last plans in order because I just know that I would be susceptible if I'm asked to return, and the infection rate is what it is. So I think that the epitaphs are a little bit, you know, cautionary, but they drive that point home, is that we're all worried about the worst case scenario.

GOLDSTEIN: How much does it actually hurt to feel like you have to put together something like this, because — whether it's the concerns are not being heard enough or there's that extra anxiety you mentioned before — it seems so absurd that, that one should have to take this sort of tact, but maybe that's the only effective one you have right now.

ROBBINS: Well, educators have been grieving for a long time. We have not had the public and the political support that we were hoping to for decades. And we've seen year after year an undermining of our work, as well as our pleas for funding to make our schools the best we could. So when we came to this moment — and mind you it is a startling and tragic thing to have to plead for your own life, almost as if I'm being held as a hostage for choices here. There are no good choices out of any of the choices that we are being left with. But the best choice, and I think the most wise choice for the governor, is to mandate using those metrics, those scientifically-based metrics, and making sure that everyone is safe. Public health is the first thing that the governor needs to protect our citizens. And, yeah, it is tragic that we have to go to the extent we have done, and depressing that we don't have that support that we as educated people, that we are given this feeling that no one understands what we do or no one really cares to hear and follow our recommendations. So we do have to work towards stronger tactics unfortunately.

GOLDSTEIN: We certainly saw the impact of Red For Ed and how everyone had to pay attention when that happened. How does what's going on now potentially compare to that? I don't want to say it's apples to apples, but certainly it's in the same vein.

ROBBINS: It's important that we have a commitment from our politicians to support us. You know, I can't think of a better way to do it now to understand what value we bring, is by all of these families understanding now that they have stepped in our shoes and are a little bit more empathetic of our situation. That we are important people — we're essential workers as well as the cornerstones or the keystone for an economy that needs to open. But we also know that we have a little bit of power behind that decision making, as we did back in the Red For Ed action that we did in 2018. Right now, it's like a ball rolling down a hill. You know, it's going to gather some moss, but we don't know if that ball is going to roll down completely yet. But right now, we're working towards the fact that if we don't see movement from our governor, more and more actions are going to happen unfortunately — we don't want that to happen. We want to see our governor listening to all of the key stakeholders involved and really making his decisions based on public health and safety most importantly.

GOLDSTEIN: Judy Robbins, thank you so much for the time today and stay well.

ROBBINS: OK. Thank you so much, Steve. It was a pleasure.

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