Lakeland, Florida

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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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The first classroom I ever called my own was in a repurposed brick schoolhouse blocks away from the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts. At some point, it had functioned as an elementary school for the neighborhood children, but by the time I arrived, it housed one of the city’s at-risk alternative programs: a place for kids who had been displaced. I had no teaching experience. I had never written a lesson plan. No one had handed me a toolbox filled with instructional strategies to assist me in tackling the curriculum. But all of these years later, I am convinced that the kids in that classroom were the ones who taught me the most essential element of being an effective teacher: building a relationship with one’s students. After eighteen years and at least nine different classrooms, it’s the reason I keep going back.

And that’s the burning question these days, isn’t it? Are you going back? It comes from my colleagues, from parents, from people on Facebook, from former students, from friends back in Massachusetts, and other states that are not currently considered the “epicenter” (thank you, Governor DeSantis). Just this week, it even came in an email entitled “Employee Intent to Return Form.”

Are you going back?

But what choice do I have? I don’t mean that in the literal sense. I don’t mean that my district isn’t providing me with options. There are all kinds of options. I can resign from my position. I can teach online to students at my school. I can teach online to students around the county. Or I can be face-to-face at the brick-and-mortar, as we keep calling it.

It feels like there’s no right answer. If I say I’m going back, people look at me like I might die. If I say I’m teaching online, they think I’m lazy or afraid.

Here’s the thing: the doors will open. And the students who show up in my classroom will be the ones who need to be there. They’ll be the ones who, when we closed in the spring, spent time calling me on borrowed phones so I could talk them through how to send an email for the first time. They’ll be the ones who don’t have consistent internet access, who share devices with their siblings, who don’t have parents who can work from home or help them with their school work. They’ll be the ones who come to school because they need the breakfast and the lunch and the structure and the love. They’ll be the ones who need the relationship, and maybe it’s just that I’m not skilled enough, but I don’t know how to build that online.

I try not to think too much about what my classroom will look like this year: the masks, the social distance, the disinfectant, the absence of hugs and high-fives. In some ways, it feels a lot like my first year. It feels a lot like we’re starting over. But I’m going back.

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Erin Lavelle earned her MFA in Creative Writing in 2004. Her work has appeared in Tar River Poetry, The Eckerd Review, and The Washington Square Review. She has been a teacher for more than 18 years and lives in Lakeland, Florida.