We often hear teachers are invaluable since they raise our future generations. And they do. This is their long-term value.
But this is not the immediate value of schools. The immediate value is that people cannot go to work unless someone watches their children. If there is no child care, the economy stops.
Different countries value education differently. South Korea values it highly. Teachers are well-paid and treated like superstars. This makes the pressure on children very high, starting from early childhood. There is the stereotype of South Korean students committing suicide over less than ideal exam performance.
In the US, we emphasize education less. This is not necessarily bad. A large portion of what schools teach is not useful. Folks like to believe that schools have magical powers to make people smart, like medicine has magical powers to cure. In truth, the useful parts of schooling are socialization, certification, and the basic skills everyone needs. Beyond that, schools don't truly increase anyone's potential through education. However, they may do so through network effects and certifications that grant people elevated status. College itself is not truly useful – but a college degree is.
The salaries of American teachers reflect what we value them for. International rankings of American schools reflect it. They indicate that we value schools primarily for child care, and we see education as a bonus. This might be more in line with underlying reality than South Korea, seeing how the US has managed to stay a very successful economy anyway.
Now there is Covid. Frightened of a virus that has a mortality rate around 0.26%, and which primarily affects people 60 years and older, teachers want to stay at home and prepare lessons for students remotely. We should postpone reopening schools until the virus is "under control" – whether this is realistic, or an end is anywhere on the horizon, or not.
This is a complete misunderstanding of what teachers are for. We do not pay taxes just so that children can get educated. Education is a desirable effect, but the immediate effect is a structured environment where children can go. If this is not available, then parents can't go to work. If parents can't go to work, they can't feed or house their children. If the children aren't housed and fed, this renders remote education quite moot.
School must reopen, even if no teaching is done in them. It is essential that children have somewhere to go. If there's no choice, there don't even have to be teachers – as long as someone watches the kids and gives them something to do.
Schools this year are simply not a place for people who are worried about exposure to Covid. Teachers who fear this, or who are at risk, should quit. For those who quit, replacements need to be hired who will at least watch over children, if not actually teach them. Remote schooling is not viable if it means parents can't work.