Greenbelt, Maryland

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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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In June, we were given a two-hour window to come to the school building and get what we needed from our classrooms. I tried to pick out the things that I would be really sorry to lose if I could never come back again. We had no idea then what September would look like. I put stray textbooks back on the shelf, dumped unreturned papers into the recycling, positioned the overhead remote in a place where the tech guy could find it, emptied and unplugged the laboratory fridge leaving the door hanging open, and then looked around.

Forty lab aprons hung on hooks by the door. I gathered them up, laid them across a lab table and began to fold them, following the creases they still retained from their packaging despite the months on the hooks. They were standard school aprons, thin black rubber, cotton tape at the neck and waist. And yet they were magical. With a pair of goggles, a lab apron transformed any middle-school student into a scientist.

I can lecture online. I can assign readings, demonstrate principles, give feedback, crack jokes, and break out into small groups online. I can give my students the chance to demonstrate their learning in writing, drawing, song, and slideshow online. With asynchronous learning and student-pacing, many of those things can be better online than face to face. But when we’re online, I can’t give them the nod that means that their pre-lab work is done and they can go suit up. I can’t watch them hurry across the room and tie their aprons on and become scientists.

During emergency online school in the spring, I missed seeing my students’ faces every day, but I never felt disconnected from most of them. I still read my students’ writing every week. I emailed them and their parents. I talked to them in endless Google Classroom posts and hours of video. I played vocabulary quiz games online. In meetings, the faculty exchanged what information we had about how students were holding up. As a staff, we made silly goodbye videos for the departing eighth grade. I love my students, but I didn’t miss them because I felt like I was still connected to most of them. I felt confident that my online science lessons were meeting their needs, and I delighted in the thoughtful final projects they crafted.

Properly folded, the lab aprons took up almost no space. I tucked them into a shelf in the back of the room. They will be there when we get back, ready to transform another group of middle-school students.

My district will be fully virtual at least through January. It’s the right choice for our students, our families, and our faculty and staff. I’m looking forward to a new school year, using new skills to make online learning better. My goal for this summer is to find an online tool as powerful as the lab apron to turn my students into scientists.

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Jennifer Thorson is a middle school science teacher, an amateur baker, and an inveterate scribbler. She lives and works in Prince George’s County, Maryland.