September 23, 2020

I’m Scared & the Students are Scared: What it’s Like to be a Teacher in the Time of COVID-19.

I’m so overwhelmed with our return to in-person teaching as the 2020 school year begins.

All over the country teachers, students, and their families are anxious and stressed over all the unknowns this year, and the threat of increasing COVID-19 cases that are predicted as the autumn and winter bring cold and flu season upon us complicates matters further.

Every state and school district have safe school reopening plans that combine social distancing, mask-wearing, health surveys, temperature checks, classroom deep cleaning, COVID tests, and lots and lots and lots of hand sanitizer.

Many districts across the nation are utilizing technology such as Google Classroom, Google Meet, Google Docs, Chromebooks, Smart Boards, and apps like KAMI, and more, to help deliver digital distanced lessons to students of all ages, and continue the vitally important job of educating our children while keeping in-school populations down, maintaining social distancing, and keeping everyone healthy.

The trick is to balance physical health needs with the socialization that emotional health requires. 

Some schools are back to in-person learning full-time and others are sticking with the 100 percent virtual, distance learning models that kept us all safe last spring. Other districts, including the one where I teach, have created a hybrid model that combines the in-class experience (that includes mask-wearing and social distancing) with distance learning in the safety of students’ homes. Sounds confusing—because it is. 

I teach 11th and 12th grade English. Roughly half of my students come to school Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half attend Thursdays and Fridays. The three days they are not in school they are distance learning through the Google Education Suite.

All the students in our district, K-12, were loaned Chromebook laptop computers by our district so that every lesson can be delivered digitally to all of our students. This digital streamlining is great for the environment, as we use no paper, and it also makes it more sanitary, as it reduces the spread of germs between students and teachers. 

Teaching in person and online simultaneously is exhausting and stressful. I’ve got roughly 12 face-masked students physically in my class with their matching Chromebooks sitting at desks positioned far away from one another. And I also have another 12 students attending class through Google Meet, appearing Brady-Bunch-style in tiny boxes on my computer screen. They join class, watching and hearing me as I attempt to teach all of them simultaneously. 

So much of this job, the best part if you ask me, is relationship building. While I understand and agree with the necessity of wearing masks to prevent the transmission of COIVD-19, teaching while masked to a group of masked students makes it extremely difficult to foster connections with kids who remain virtually strangers, because relationship building is so much harder masked. 

Human beings are biologically programmed to recognize faces. So, when we hide the lower part of the face with a face mask it markedly impairs our ability to recognize and identify faces. This is why burglars and thieves wear them.

My students and I just met when the school year began and I’m struggling to get to know their names and who they are as people. The kids themselves, are in new class groups and are struggling to get to know their classmates, and the masks are inhibiting this process making it nearly impossible for students to grow comfortable enough to participate. 

The masks keep them from talking or at least if not a prohibition, the masks are reinforcing their quiet, making speech seem inappropriate, or not worthy of the extra effort it takes to talk through a mask. It’s like a gag.

Social distancing is separating us from each other, keeping students and teachers from moving about the room and from standing or sitting too close, making collaboration in person nearly impossible. 

Looking at the kids in the room with identical Chromebooks in identical cases, sitting in identical desks in neat orderly rows has a “dystopian-novel” sort of feel. It’s very Nineteen Eighty-Four. Their identities and uniqueness are partially hidden, reinforcing this idea that they are all the same, focused, and typing away in unison on their matching keyboards. 

I love the sound of all the kids typing on their Chromebooks at the same time in a quiet room. It sounds like a gentle rainstorm. 

Juggling all this new technology is an uphill, overwhelming battle. I am busy night and day converting all of my MS word lessons, activities to Google Docs format, my quizzes and tests to Google Forms, and my PowerPoint slide presentations to Google Slide so that I can teach via Google classroom, presenting and sharing content through Google Meet. (Google is doing well in the time of COVID. Stock prices are up. That’s no surprise.)

Each day, we each face the task of figuring out how to have everyone hear the sound of our voices as we deliver lessons, try to foster conversations and discussions, and motivate engagement to a wide variety of students who may be new to English, and who may have atypical emotional needs or physical impairments like deafness, through masks. 

We struggle to use microphones and speakers without blowing up our eardrums from screaming microphone reverb.

Managing simple managerial tasks like taking attendance become a challenge as we experience WiFi issues and our Google Meets get dropped, spontaneously close down, or we get booted off suddenly. 

Today, I am trying desperately to keep everyone engaged and interested while I’m juggling all of this and feeling frayed at the edges that sweat is pouring down my forehead and dripping inside my mask making me even more anxious and feeling gross. 

It’s only day eight of the school year. One hundred and seventy-two to go. 

All over the country, teachers and students are trying to get back to work and create a feeling of normalcy, but we are getting exposed to COVID, and slowly, or not so slowly, depending on where we are, the numbers of positive cases is increasing because we have so many of us together in school, many decades-old buildings that were built without adequate ventilation and HVAC systems.

Just a couple of weeks back, many teachers and students and their families were being sent back into quarantine in an attempt to control the spread, but everyone is freaked out. Who will be next? Every cough and sniffle send ripples of panic and fear through the classroom. 

How long with this last? Will the COVID numbers go back up as the school year continues forcing us back into fully remote learning? Who knows. I think it will, but one never knows how this will actually go. This whole year so far has been a crazy parade of surprises. 

No one could say it better or more clearly than the kids themselves. In a survey, I asked my students how they feel about all of this. 

They told me that this “feels weird.” Much of it feels normal and the same—the underneath parts, the classrooms, the people, the routines—but the top layers feel oddly weird and scary.

Many kids “hate looking at everyone wearing masks just as much as [they] hate wearing a mask.” They admit that “talking through the mask is so hard” as they “long to see everyone’s whole face, to be able to recognize them and read their expressions.”

Quite a few say they are already “tired of keeping [their] distance from everyone and feeling like [they] shouldn’t hug [their] friends.” Everyone is staying away from everyone else. “When I sit in a desk in my classrooms, I feel like I’m stuck there and can’t move. There is no forming groups or collaboration the way we have always done it. I don’t recognize this world and I’m scared that it’s going to be like this for a long time.”

We have moved into a new era and are most comfortable and feel the safest when interacting with each other online and at a distance. Stopping the spread of contagion is the priority. The students attending class remotely through video chat are comfortable. They’re in cozy clothes, sitting in their homes, feet up, pets walking around behind them, and they are unmasked; they are less anxious than the students in the classroom, and because of all these factors, are participating more, and more easily and readily sharing their ideas. 

Hats off to Maslow and his “higher order of needs.” Clearly, now more than ever, we see that the kids who are at home, comfortable, safe, and unmasked are at the advantage over the ones in school, uncomfortable, and masked.

Some are grateful to be back in school, no matter the changes, after six months at home during the beginning part of this quarantine. But many more prefer the safety and comfort of going to school from home. 

What is education becoming? We all struggle to learn the latest apps and programs with the newest technological hardware to run it all. We are out of our element, inventing new ways to present, share, discuss, write, learn, analyze, and respond to the curricula, and trying to give our students the best education we can muster.

But we are floundering ourselves. Worried about our kids and their educational experiences, worried about our family’s health and well-being. Worried about our health and well-being. Worried about our students’ safety, health, and well-being. 

Breathe. Try to be calm. Breathe.

We are all in the same boat. We will figure this out together. 

The vulnerability this brings to the surface is fine.

We are all heroes just for being here.


Read part two here.

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