Laurie Richards, first grade teacher, talks with Abigail Palmer on the first day of school at Brewer Community School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Flynn Ross is chair of the Teacher Education Department and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Teachers are designated “essential workers” in Maine. This means that even if they are exposed to COVID-19 they can continue to work without quarantining. Teachers are that important.

And there are not enough people willing to put their health on the line for what are essentially poverty wages for a family of four or more, to care for and possibly educate other peoples’ children as substitute teachers. The governor has issued an executive order to help meet the need with emergency certification. Some schools must delay the start of school and others may well have to close due to the lack of staffing.

In March, teachers were touted as heroes. There were memes circulating that teachers should be paid lots more as parents learned how difficult it is to teach reading and math. Our economy shut down when schools shut down. It became more visible how schools serve as community centers for social services including access to food, to child care, to health services, along with their primary mission of leading students to learn to read, write, solve mathematical problems, investigate like scientists and to become our future citizens.

Now in September, after a summer of social distancing, schools are being pushed to open to provide all of those services to ensure the continued reopening of our economy. We are doing this with minimal additional support, exhausted administrators and support staff who have had no rest this summer and anxious teachers who are being sure their wills and health care are in order along with plans for substitute teachers should they get sick and die.

Like so many crossroads we are facing currently, we as a state, local communities and as a nation need to confront whether we are going to support our public schools or let them wither. Public schools are essential to our democracy and the American dream as they offer the potential for individuals to improve their skills, to educate our future citizens and to build the foundation of an inclusive democratic republic.

We can look to other nations and the trajectory of their public policies governing public schools to look down two diverging roads at our future. Will we become like India where the “government schools” are viewed as only for the poor with often unpaid, unprepared teachers who show up to teach sometimes? In most of India with a legacy of a caste system, not unlike the United States, anyone who can possibly afford a private school contorts their family budgets to ensure their child has a chance at learning.

Or we can follow the public policy of nations like Finland, South Korea and Singapore that recognize their greatest public asset and the future of their economy is found in their children. These nations require two to five years of teacher preparation that is paid for, student loans are forgiven or both. Teachers are paid enough to be able to send their children to day care and college — or these are publicly funded to ensure all families can.

We have road maps to guide us in these policy choices built from research across states and nations. The Learning Policy Institute just published a report “The Federal Role in Advancing Education Equity and Excellence” ahead of the November election. Specific strategies are identified within four areas of impact: supporting teaching and learning, strengthening the teaching profession, funding schools adequately and equitably and reducing the effects of poverty on children’s learning. These same policy recommendations apply to states and school districts where over 90 percent of education funding resides. Insist that your candidates are addressing these issues as the voters make decisions about the future we will live in.

If one good thing comes out of this pandemic, I hope we collectively recognize how essential our public schools are for the future of our nation. Public schools are part of our common good. Following many religious traditions, we are only as well off as the least among us, like a parent is only as happy as their most unhappy child.