Rural Arkansas

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With national leadership urging schools to reopen this fall despite rising cases of COVID-19, classroom teachers are facing bewildering choices. Already undervalued, teachers are weighing the dangers of in-person instruction against the effectiveness of online learning, with little certainty about either. Students are isolated, parents are exhausted, school districts are scrambling to make responsible decisions, yet teachers themselves are being asked to carry most of this burden, risking their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs. Even a superhero would be daunted. As we approach the start of the 2020 academic year, we asked U.S. K-12 teachers to tell us how they’re feeling and how they’re planning for the year ahead.

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As a teacher, I have always felt like I had a higher purpose, like my job was to make a difference first, and teach second.

I have never thought twice about using my personal budget to get supplies for my students. At the beginning of the shutdowns, I did everything in my power to keep their spirits up. I did contests. I mailed them toilet paper squares. I wrote them personal notes and called them and texted them. I challenged them to duet me on TikTok. I did a bus parade where I drove my bus route and threw candy to my kiddos telling them I missed them. I dropped off work at student homes where there was no internet access. I cried for them. I missed them. I spent personal time and money investing in them.

Now it’s fall, and I’m terrified. I’m being called lazy for not wanting to go to what could be the next epicenter of the virus: school buildings. I live in a rural community where masks draw more criticism than support. And I’m terrified. I’ve poured myself into a nearly decade-long career to come to this: teachers are suddenly lazy and not worthy of their salaries. I battled anxiety and depression not being able to see my students. I stood at the ends of their driveways and offered homework help. I tutored outside school hours on video chat for free to see them and help them survive. Yet here we are. It’s time to “go back to school” in the height of the pandemic. Have I mentioned that I’m terrified? Our “protections” are to wear a mask inside and clean more often. Some students have chosen online schooling. I don’t know if I’m teaching them or if someone else is. I don’t know how many students on my roster will physically be in my class. I don’t know how to teach them words and phrases with a mask over my mouth, but I also cannot physically get 12 feet away from them in order to teach. There’s just no room in my class. I have full rosters of thirty students. How do I space them out? How do I prepare my room? How do I change my curriculum? How do I prepare for what has too many unanswered questions? How do I get ready for this when I don’t know what “this” even is?

I spend days on an emotional high to get to see my kids again. I spend days in a pit of despair worrying that I can’t see my family once school starts. What happens when I get sick? What happens when I give it to my husband? All of my questions go unanswered. I wish there were one “right” answer in all of this. Truth be told, there isn’t one correct way of doing things. I do not support what my district is doing — the bare minimum — which offers me no comfort for my own safety. I don’t have the answers. I just want to feel protected and like my efforts were worth something to someone.

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The author is an eighth-year language teacher in rural Arkansas. Her favorite part of teaching is making meaningful connections with students and showing them the world outside the walls of the school through culture and language.