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.
The next school year will be my sixth as a high school teacher and coach.
In my first year, I told my class that I would be offering test retakes to anyone who wanted one, prompting a student to run up from the back of the room and hug me so tight that I was concerned for my health.
In my second year, I stopped one of my classes mid-lecture to check on a student who abruptly left in tears. She was crying because she was stressed out from school work and was afraid that she was letting her parents down. In that moment, I was her shoulder to cry on.
In my third year, I played the game Clue with my Latin students to practice the ablative case. We sat around a small table, rolled the shared dice and shouted out murder accusations in Latin (Dux Mustard candelabro in triclino!) as other students walking by poked their heads in and wondered what all the fuss was about.
In my fourth year, I brought my art students on a field trip to the “Earth Room,” a contemporary art “museum.” The museum is actually an apartment in SoHo that is almost completely filled with dirt and stretches the ideas of what art is and what art can be. Twenty of us trudged up the narrow stairwell, single file, for a brief but meaningful experience in that tiny room of compost. One student whispered to me, “This is kinda spiritual,” and another yelled, “It smells like the Home Depot garden section in here.”
This past year, I attended numerous fencing meets with my student-athletes, all of which involved us being packed like sardines on a school bus and me doling out high fives when they won or pats on the back when they lost. (The latter was much more common, alas).
All of this was before a pandemic killed 155,000 Americans and counting.
And all of the moments I illustrated above could now sicken and kill my students and colleagues. Teaching in a classroom requires proximity: from standing over students’ shoulders to review work with them to pulling a student aside to tell them something in confidence.
Wearing a mask and social distancing should be a prerequisite for any school that insists on reopening. Yet those very things prevent being close to one’s students, which is the entire point of being physically present in school in the first place.
Virtual learning, while it can’t replicate this proximity, can at least offer a semblance of it. Small group activities and one-on-one conversations are more feasible in this environment than one in which we are spread out in a 100-foot space unable to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. I would rather sacrifice being close now, so that we can be close later.
Kaitlin Moleen teaches Latin and Art History in New Jersey. She is also an amateur sketch comedian and writer and has recently completed a script in which Vince Vaughn and Chuck Schumer switch places.