Salida, Colorado

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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 started school in-person this week, and it was fine.

I work in a really lovely small district, with fantastic school board members and funky, fun families. I am healthy, and I spend a lot of time outdoors, so I haven’t been too concerned for my health in the time of COVID-19. My district kindly extended teacher back-to-school training by two days so we could have extra time to get ready for all the changes, and a local seamstress donated two masks per teacher; bright, cheery, masks — I have one with stars and one with cute, cartoon dogs. I saw all the fabulous people I work with, and felt truly fortunate in my working circumstances.

By the end of the first day of training, I had collapsed in a puddle of my own hopelessness.

It wasn’t any one thing. By that, I mean it wasn’t the new one-way hallways, or the standing thermometers at each entrance; it wasn’t that masks muffle voices and I’m pretty hard of hearing, or that as part of my school supplies I was issued a thermometer; it wasn’t that I live for my students’ smiles, or that you really have to be careful of what you eat for lunch because you will be smelling it in your mask the entire rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t exactly that our librarian took a different job and we can’t afford to fill vacancies so bye bye library; it wasn’t that we adopted a new block schedule, or that we adopted a new learning management system which can’t be activated quite yet because it is overloaded by new districts; it wasn’t that my department had adopted new textbooks that hadn’t been delivered, or that all the links to the digital platform were expired. It wasn’t that my room had been stripped of anything “extra” (read: bookshelves) to make room for social distancing, or that I had five extra kids added to my advisory because their regular teacher is immunocompromised but can’t stop working and we are just trying to keep him alive; it wasn’t that there will be no assemblies, no drama club, no choir, no sports, no dances, no group work, no collaboration or no huddling together for writing conferences. I could go on about that first day, but it wasn’t any one thing.

“Death by a thousand cuts” is a phrase I’ve heard tossed about from time to time in my life, and which has never had any significance to me. It refers to an ancient form of torture, lyngchi, where the victim is literally cut a thousand or more times and they slowly bleed out over a long, excruciating period (it is also the title of a Taylor Swift song, and I’ll just let that sit there1). I’m certain I’ll be okay, but I’m not sure public education will be able to survive this particular collection of setbacks.

As I said, I went back to school this week, and it was fine.

1 I’m actually a big Taylor Swift fan.

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Britt Searles is a high school English teacher, yogi, and former porcupine researcher. She lives, reads, writes, and skis in Garfield, Colorado with her husband and large dog, Frances.