Sunday, February 14, 2021

Whiplash and Tire Tracks on My Back: Teaching During the Pandemic

 In my day job, I teach middle school Spanish. My school, like many in the United States, closed its doors in March 2020, expecting that we'd all stay home for a couple of weeks while the wave of Covid-19 rolled over the country and that we'd be back to finish the school year. That's not what happened, of course. It didn't go away in a couple of weeks. 

We finished the 2019-2020 school year from home, with an ineffective program cobbled together in six minutes with no clear expectations and guidelines for teachers or students. We had some things in our favor since my school district already provided laptops to students, so we could at least guarantee that students had a device to use to access school materials, but we had no plan for offering instruction without the in-person element.  

Teachers were told that they were not allowed to teach new material, nor give any grades, and kids quickly figured out that there would be no consequences for failure to perform, so they disappeared in droves. I doubt that much learning of significance happened for anyone between March and June 2020.

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During this first bit of school-from-home public rhetoric was full of realizations of how difficult teaching really is. We were called heroes. Parents talked about how much they admired us for handling this every day and praised our creativity in finding ways for our students to keep learning.  

That lasted a month or two, then parents began to feel the wear of providing educational support and supervision for their children while trying to juggle their work responsibilities. 

So they began to throw teachers under the bus. The public rhetoric shifted to how teachers were overcautious at best, selfish for worrying about their own survival instead of what's "best for kids." 

NCAE and other teacher groups fighting for basic precautions and accommodations for teachers with underlying conditions putting them at high risk began to be accused of trying to get paid for "nothing" even as teachers worked harder than they ever had before to try to make learning possible despite huge obstacles. 

My personal favorites are the people who argue that teacher need to suck it up because other people did--the same argument people use to argue against student loan forgiveness and other social programs, like we can only be united by suffering the same fate, instead of learning from what happens to one group and preventing suffering for others. Now *that* my friends, is a particularly bitter brand of selfishness. 

Come 2020-2021 school year, and we BEGAN the school year at home. It was better though, at least in my neck of the woods. 

We had worked on a program all summer, and we had a plan involving scheduled and required live zoom classes, online asynchronous learning opportunities, and even offering limited in-person learning centers for kids/families in high need. Work would again be graded, giving back that traditional tool of accountability and measure of participation and effort. 

It hasn't been perfect, but it's been functional. My students mostly show up to live zoom class, or communicate about why they can't. I have about the same percentages of kids struggling and excelling that I always have had (I've been doing this for 26 years, and though I try to reach every kid, I'm enough of a realist to know that isn't realistic). My 6th graders, who had never attended middle school in person struggled the most, and my 8th graders, veterans of our school, handled it the best. Some kids have truly thrived, loving the release from bullying situations and uncomfortable social pressure.

The district found creative ways to bridge technology access problems. They provided wifi hotspots to families in rural areas or who didn't have regular internet access at home. They transformed school busses into rolling wifi stations and drove into high need neighborhoods and parked during agreed upon hours, so kids could use that access. The foods programs kicked into high gear, trying to make sure that no one went hungry and making it as easy as possible to get meal boxes for our families. The librarian arranged for curbside book pickup and drop off. In a lot of ways, it was working. 

So, of course, we can't just enjoy the fruits of our labor and stick with the system a little longer. Because the people who lost the earlier argument keep coming back and leadership folds because their decisions are based on external pressure rather than any independent analysis of facts and consideration of what's actually best for the students and teachers. Jelly for backbones. 

My district has changed plans so many times now that I've lost track. I feel like I've been watching high speed tennis and got whiplash in the process. 

I remember that, at first, we were due to come back to a sort of in-person school in January, but the pushback was HUGE, especially given that that the projected return date wasn't even 2 weeks past Christmas--which was the epicenter of a new spike of cases across the country. We won, and the return date was set for April--after Spring Break, and after the date we expect that teachers will have been offered the chance to be immunized. I was so relieved, I felt like my shoulders dipped below my ears for the first time in months. 

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That brings us to now: 

Teachers, even teachers with ADA accommodations like me, are being forced back into the classroom next week in my school district, thanks to a legislative push that our governor opposes but is not expected to veto. So, my first day back in the classroom with kids will be February 22 (just in time for the Superbowl spike of cases). It's either that or quit--four years too early for retirement, with a kid in college to support. 

February 22 is an arbitrary selection that ignores all the safety measures we've been discussing for months. The immunization becomes available for teachers in my state on February 24, and the new HEPA air filters are scheduled to be installed in mid-March, but we're being shoved back in the classroom early, which I find especially frustrating when immunizations and filtered air are both right there just barely over the horizon. What do two weeks matter in the face of a safer transition? 

There I am, back under the bus again. 

It's not that my district isn't doing anything. They do have clear mask policies and requirements with zero tolerance for noncompliance. They do ask the questions and take the temperatures of anyone entering the building, so we at least have the performative security measures like taking off your shoes at airport security. 

But my BIG question right now is: what do we gain from this that is worth what we lose? 

Here's what in-person instruction will look like at my school: 

Roughly 50% of my students will continue to learn-from-home because that is what their families have selected--parents get the right to select based on nothing more than personal assessment of comfort/safety, but staff is not afforded the same consideration. The other 50% has been divided into group A and B, which will attend school from 8:30-2:00 four days a week on alternating weeks. 

So, if you're a parent hoping for day care help, you get 4 shorter-than-usual days every other week with no options for pre or post-care. Not sure how helpful that will be for your own work concerns. 

The students will be masked and kept 6 feet apart at all times, including while walking through halls, waiting in line, using the bathroom, etc. They will get very little of the social benefit of time spent with other kids because they are not allowed any close contact and will have to eat their lunches in silence because they are limited to 15 minutes with masks off and may not speak during that time because of concerns of germ spread. They cannot play their instrument in band or sing in chorus, and the rules seem to change by the moment for physical education.

So, if you're a parent hoping this will give your kiddos the benefits of social interaction, you're not really getting that either. 

I will be pinned to my desk because I have to offer instruction to the 1/4 of my students IN the room, and the 3/4 of my students NOT in the room at the same time. This means that the kids in my room, will still pretty much just be getting a zoom class. Also, I'm not allowed any nearer to them than 6 feet. Also, I will be stressed out and frazzled by managing all that at the same time and probably much shorter tempered than I ever allow myself to be in the classroom. 

So, if you're a parent hoping this will give your student the benefits of in-class live-teaching experience, you won't really get that either because the teacher's focus is divided and physical distancing limits our interactions with the people present with us. 

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Meanwhile, people will get infected. 

Maybe we'll be lucky. Maybe our cases will be mild. 

Maybe your kid and your kid's teacher won't be the one who dies or suffers lifelong health implications. 

But many among the staff and students will spend a fair amount of mental energy worrying about it and anticipating disaster, and that takes a mental health toll in and of itself. 

Teachers will quit. 

Many already have--left teaching, taken early retirement. Classes will be supervised by substitutes while the teacher quarantines after exposure, which means they'll still be taking zoom classes or participating in asynchronous learning, but now they'll also be worried about their teacher and getting limited feedback. 

So, I'll let you know how it goes, but my prediction: poorly. And if I die from Covid because my district wouldn't wait two weeks to get me immunized? Y'all better pray ghosts aren't real, because I'll be back to haunt with a vengeance. 


  1. Good luck with going back to in-person school. I understand your worries and hope that you can get vaccinated soon so it's safer. I'm glad my daughter is an adult and we don't have to deal with all the hard issues of in-person or on-line schooling. I can't wait until we all can get vaccinated. I have months to go before I can get mine, and it's scary going out much.

  2. It is absolutely ridiculous that the CDC is pushing for schools to re-open with the claim that it is safe without immunizing the teachers first. I know for a fact that the resources are there to immunize teachers. All it takes is the will to do so.