As COVID-19 swept the world with its ferocity, little did we know that our lives would forever change. We teachers naturally adapt to new situations because we always revise, modify, and often, roll with the punches. Each school year comes with its abundance of work and challenges, but we teachers are always prepared to lead, inspire, discuss, share, and grow. However, in August 2020, the fears of entering a classroom have justifiably disheartened and frightened teachers.
Throughout this post, teachers from all walks of life openly discuss their concerns and fears for themselves, their loved ones, and their students. School districts and its schools, both public and private, are all battling not only the virus but the political response to it. As the following teacher expresses:
So many teachers are putting their heads down, endangering themselves without understanding the option to stand up for yourself. We have to provide that model!Kathleen Holder, Spring Branch ISD Teacher in Houston, TX
John Lewis, the iconic Civil Rights leader, who marched and fought with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., taught us, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” We all have a voice that may not seem powerful, but it is. Whether it is standing in front of a school board, posting on social media, or in open dialogues with each other. Teachers around the country should use their voices to enlighten their fellow citizens and affect their perspective and increase their understanding of what is the best for students, teachers, and the schools–what is good for America.
When teachers voice their concerns, all valid based on our recent and realistic experiences in the classroom, we are dismissed. We are labeled as negative, as selfish. We are belittled into submission, or told to resign. Our options are to adhere to their flippant level of concern or quit. And frankly, knowing that the very existence of this virus has been denied by certain demographics, I don’t believe the people making decisions on my behalf realize the severity of the inevitable consequences. Board members are removed from the classroom, many with no experience in our field, and approved a safety plan that met the minimum requirements of the state agency which cannot realistically be enforced.
Moreover, teachers are vehemently concerned for their students’ mental health through this pandemic:
What happens to that one kid that gets the virus and dies? Because I’ve gone through several years now where a student or number of students perished (suicide, hurricanes, accidental death, traumatic events, etc.), and we’ve had negative impacts on our students’ mental health each time. What happens when, NOT IF, there is X number of students who die because of this virus, or are giving it to their families if they get infected and spread it and their family members die, or they contract the virus and are gravely ill?
The most important work we can do to ensure our safety is to advocate loudly for it! I created a Facebook group to provide a platform for sharing information in my district, I joined the teacher union and became the campus representative. I have contacted my representatives on all levels and had no shame in calling Judge Hidalgo’s office daily. We should respectfully follow established policies and start playing their game if we plan on being represented. That is my main goal.
Student’s Mental Health
Parents are very important to a child’s life, but teachers are often their confidantes. Students trust their teachers and depend on their support. During the 8 hour school day, teachers grapple with cultivating the students’ capacity to solve their emotional and mental conflicts:
I am concerned about the mental health of my students. Having been teaching remotely for just a few days now, I have already noticed that they are struggling with more than just schoolwork. They are dealing with loneliness, depression, heightened anxiety, and some have difficult home lives that they are now living 24/7. It’s just hard to see. I would say that my most prevalent thought is that I miss my students. I miss making music. I miss talking to them and watching them struggle with, and then master, difficult concepts.
And then there is the workload and educational development:
My biggest fear with the upcoming school year is that I won’t be able to teach my students to the highest degree. I’m worried that I won’t be able to reach them through a screen. There is so much value in direct instruction. I’m praying my students still get the music education that they deserve. I’m hoping that the kids will be responsible and do the work that is needed to be successful.
School in Session
As the COVID-19 crisis worsens, uncertainty and despair are inflaming our fears. Teachers must face the opening of schools with unclear and impractical guides and regulations. With 5.5 million Americans having contracted the virus and more than 174,000 deaths due to the virus (updated on 8/20/20) and its daily surge around the country, teachers cannot help but feel alarmed at the prospects of the schools opening their doors, especially with their understanding that children cannot be expected to comply with the CDC recommended precautions. As a public school teacher states:
The biggest concern is the lack of medical data being used to create guidelines for this international pandemic. Listening to the board meetings for my district, the question of liability was discussed and a lawyer was brought in to clarify. I never heard a doctor or other medical professional testify to the benefits or risks involved with the proposed safety plan. When asked for the data created to design the plan, none was cited. Board members are removed from the classroom, many with no experience in our field, and approved a safety plan that met the minimum requirements of the state agency which cannot realistically be enforced.
Based on the expertise of the medical and scientific professions, teachers know, without a doubt, that when schools open, COVID infections will increase among students, teachers, and their family members. In fact, it has already begun in some states. Catastrophically, more of our loved ones will die. This leads the following teacher to respond:
My concern is that we will go into the school, enough students either die, get infected, infect family members, and/or staff members/faculty that we’ll be forced to go to virtual instruction. I fear that our best efforts for virtual instruction will be qualified and utilized as a reactionary implement rather than a preparatory one.
Safely Learning, Effectively Teaching
Learning behind a computer is the safest way for students to learn and teachers to teach. Yes, teachers and students prefer classroom instructions; however, the safety of our children, teachers, and their families is of the utmost importance.
Many schools have found effective ways to teach their students virtually and through computer programs. Students are adjusting to this new way of learning, and although it does not replace face-to-face student-teacher learning, at this time during this emergency, we must do our best. We teachers, as I stated above, and students are very adaptable. Teachers will develop more and more outstanding ways to teach virtually and through a computer, and students will develop better ways to learn virtually with a computer. The teachers below express this understanding:
Right now, the safest thing I can do is to teach online and social distance. I haven’t seen my family in a while. I don’t go anywhere but to the store and back. This has been a reality for a lot of people. I just know it’s better to be safe than sorry. I have a history of asthma, so this is not something I’m taking lightly.
My children will be learning online until the positivity rate is within a reasonable range. To prepare my classroom, I have purchased a medical-grade air purifier for my classroom, touchless hand sanitizing stations, switched to desks to provide clear, distanced work stations for each student. For myself, I bought my reusable PPE with much better protective measures than what was provided. I’m lucky to have had access to the funds for all these supplies. I’m devising rituals for entering, exiting the building, eating lunch in my car every mundane daily task has to be reconsidered. To be honest, once the students enter the building, I’m not certain any of these steps will be effective in protecting me. Doctors and nurses trained in containment, with proper PPE, in sterile environments with ridiculous HEPA filters, are falling ill and dying. What makes me think I can do better in a 60-year-old building with middle school kids?
I have been socially distanced from as many people as possible since Mid-Late March. I rarely go out, and when I do, it’s for picking up groceries or for getting food to go. I also am young, in debt, and no assets, so I live with a roommate in the city where rent is cheaper than the suburb where I teach. My roommate is also a teacher, and he is still seeing his family (safely, mind you). We’ve had serious discussions of how we are going to handle living in our apartment if either one or both of us get COVID-19: and it turns our living areas into a highly regulated living situation since we’ll be exposed to 600-800+ individuals in completely separate communities of the Greater Houston Area – we’re trying to make sure that we are doing what we can to mitigate spread from one community to another since the last thing we want is to be the reason that our school/community spurns infections because we were living with someone who was infected from a completely different part of the city.
Optimism at its Best
Teachers have discovered an abundance of growing online resources to further assist with teaching during this pandemic. When we were children, the possibility of learning from a computer was far remote and unrealistic, but behold, it is here thriving among us. Who even knew of the company ZOOMⒸ 6 months ago. Teachers are adapting to this innovative way of teaching. As the following teachers explain:
At first, converting my performing arts curriculum to the digital format was terrifying. But after attending some conferences and seeing what my gifted colleagues have accomplished, I am invigorated. Everyone gets into routines and those routines can be boring to our kids. This is a perfect opportunity for me to add more color and media to my lessons, and to focus on different aspects of my curriculum that a performance schedule never allowed for before. COVID has eliminated my distractions outside of the house, my projects and performances, and has allowed me the time to foster my own identity as an educator. My students will get the benefit of all my creative energy now–I hope they’re ready!
I have learned so much about technology and different programs, it’s pretty exciting. I had no idea a lot of these resources were out there. I knew of some, but now that I’m forced to use them, I love it. I love using Flipgrid,Screencastify,Schoology,Sightreading Factory, and other programs. I’m a total genius at embedding videos, Google Slides, and other programs. Because virtual has caused me to find new and creative ways to share music with students, wherever we do return to normal, I will continue to use some of these applications.
My preparation for instruction has been mostly figuring out how to have a tandem model of virtual synchronous teaching happen in the first 3 weeks of the semester, then to switch to in-person, face-to-face while maintaining an asynchronous virtual model and making the curricular expectations and rigor our students have are equitable for both models– we cannot have one group be required to have the same expectations as another. I’m used to adapting and finding new strategies to accomplish what my goals are for teaching methodology and lesson planning– tech integration isn’t a problem I find for myself. The real problem is trying to pace down everything that our students will do with our structure my co-teacher and I have down now, but also maintain some sort of flexibility for when we have to throw our plans out because of school closings happening due to too many students/faculty/staff catching COVID-19. It’s difficult to plan when there is so much uncertainty with everything being in flux and our district has been…hit-or-miss in regards to giving us exactly what is expected of us. Leaving us to pick up the pieces in a lot of aspects, but I will acknowledge that my principal is adamant about safety first for our campus and is implementing procedures to remove students for non-compliance if those cases happen and for reprimanding teachers if they do not comply as well. All in all, it’s just a lot of uncertainty in the air while trying to plan how I’m going to herd my cats this semester if and when all of my plans are no longer useful.
At the end of the day, teachers want to teach safely and effectively, and both goals can be achieved together through virtual instruction and learning. We do not have to choose between good teaching and safety. I, like most teachers, understand the grave risks of returning to school. Am I ready? Certainly not. At best, I’m trying to be optimistic, keeping my safety at the forefront of my mind.
Every human life is precious, especially a child’s life and including a teacher’s life. Let us begin this school year, determined to provide an outstanding education in a safe way.