McMinnville, Oregon

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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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I have been in my classroom twice since the pandemic began in earnest. The first time was to collect books from our little closet that held our class sets. I was going to put them in a box on the steps of the school for my tenth grade Language Arts students to grab for our upcoming novel unit, Animal Farm. When I walked into my room, it was in a state of disarray I’d never seen before. All my desks — painstakingly made by me in my home woodshop were shoved against a wall, and a line of splinters and shattered wood painted a trail for me to follow. I did so reluctantly, knowing which table broke. It was the one made from old-growth Douglas fir with clear, gorgeous waves of caramel and red that mirrored the sunset like those over the southwest states.

This trip to school was in mid-April, and I had already seen my students disappear into oblivion. I’d tried to organize them with Google Classroom, Zoom, and even Snapchat. None of it worked. We were told by the state that for equity reasons the work we would be doing was not to be counted against the students. I work in a disadvantaged rural school in Western Oregon. As soon as the announcement came, they didn’t even say goodbye. I tried to go on as normal, but at the end, not a single copy of Animal Farm was taken from the concrete steps of the school.

The second trip came in June. School was over, graduation celebrated from loudly honking cars, and I had smiled and waved at my students who looked well, but disappeared nonetheless, leaving me in distress and pain. I went in this time to measure out my desks, and to repair the damage from earlier. As I walked into my room, the floor gleamed under the new wax — the reason all the desks were thrown around — and all looked shiny and fresh in my newly varnished 70-year-old room. The windows were still cracked like spiderwebs, and the blackboard still sagged. I walked in and wept silently as unmasked custodians walked by. I wept not that I didn’t get any closure, nor that my room was trashed. Tables can be repaired, and my woodshop is always looking for new projects. I wept because I knew I would never again know my job as it was.

I am about to head down to Salem, Oregon, today to protest from my car. I went to Portland yesterday to protest, and today, I will protest for another cause. This time, I hope that the state heeds the message of scientists and educators and keeps education online for the fall. When I was in the Marine Infantry in Iraq in 2004, I chanced death from an enemy we created, but here, I worry that I will be used as an expendable babysitter to keep the economy running. That’s what education has become.

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Paul Warmbier is an author, teacher, and aspiring woodworker. He lives in Oregon, just south of Portland. He is the author of the memoir, Geometry of Fire and his essays have appeared in Allegory Ridge, Punctuate, Under the Sun, and others. Follow him and his writing on Instagram.