New York, New York

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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 stared at the Zoom screen, checkered with the familiar faces of my students, as I listened to one of them verbalize an iteration of a complaint I’d already become accustomed to hearing from any number of my kids over the few months we’d been in lockdown.

“It’s like I’m reliving the same day over and over again. It feels like this won’t ever end. Everything seems so hopeless.”

It was nearing the end of May, and while I’d begun quarantine armed with an ample supply of optimism and thoughtful pep talks, I found myself struggling to cobble together an adequate response to help my student regain perspective.

She looked at me expectantly, eyes peering through the screen and into the cramped New Jersey apartment where I sat curled up on the couch with my cat. I knew from previous interactions that she was at her kitchen table, likely seated across from the younger brother for whom she cared during the day while her mother, a nurse, worked at a nearby hospital.

The truth was that I no longer knew what to say to any of my students when they complained of hopelessness. I didn’t know what to say when they told me that they were scared or depressed or simply felt the numbness of nothing at all.

Because I felt the same way.

When it was announced in mid-March that New York City public schools would move to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I think most teachers assumed we would not receive much support in transitioning our curricula to various brand new online learning platforms. (Spoiler alert: We were right.)

But it quickly became apparent that we were also on our own when it came to dealing with students’ mental and emotional well-being – a task that none of us was professionally equipped to handle.

As an English teacher, I have often joked with my colleagues that we are the default “therapists” of the school, with students frequently seeking us out to discuss their teen angst. I even used to think that we were somehow more well-versed in the human experience, having devoted the better portion of our lives to the study of other people’s stories.

However, as quarantine progressed and many of my students began to deal with a variety of challenges, ranging from troubling to traumatic, I soon realized that my faux psychological prowess was no match for the sheer quantity of sudden and extreme suffering my kids were dealing with on a daily basis.

I felt lost at sea, completely isolated from my personal networks, and devoid of any sort of institutional support that might help me help my kids, many of whom felt unable to focus on schoolwork and were quickly falling behind.

Towards the middle of June, I called home on a boy who had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth – something that, it turns out, is an inevitable consequence of online learning for even the most academically-motivated teens. In a tearful confession, my student proclaimed that he hadn’t logged on to Google Classroom or answered any of his friends’ texts in weeks and was distressed that no one had checked up on him.

“I don’t think anyone would care if I just disappeared,” he sobbed.

As I look through the New York City Department of Education’s plan for partial reopening in the fall, I recall these students who felt so lost and wonder what will happen to them.

Nothing in the plan addresses the reality that kids are dealing with an unprecedented amount of trauma and grief and will continue to experience loss and hardship in the coming months. And it is simply not feasible to foist complete responsibility for student mental health onto guidance counselors and school psychologists who are already stretched far too thin.

Of course, most of us in the system know exactly who will deal with the brunt of this emotional labor: teachers. We are always the ones who pick up the slack created by poor decision-making at the top – and often willingly so because we love our students. But, in this case, I am beginning to suspect that relying on us to serve as impromptu crisis counselors for traumatized children is not only impractical, it is irresponsible.

And I am afraid. Afraid that I cannot cope myself. Afraid that I cannot be everything for my students.

The reality is that whether or not we return to in-person learning next semester, teachers cannot continue to be the main source of social-emotional support for teens during a pandemic. So I am troubled when I look at my city’s plan and realize there may be no relief in sight for us in the upcoming school year.

During our nearly four months of distance learning, my own mental health wavered and, indeed, faltered at times, yet I felt an acute responsibility to maintain a certain degree of cheer and levity for the sake of my students. Even when my complaints mirrored theirs, I knew that I was an adult. I had to get out of bed and function. But I, too, felt hopeless and forgotten.

Unfortunately, I don’t think my school system intends to remember any of us anytime soon.

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Rabia Newton is a writer and high school English teacher. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has since found her way to the other coast where she teaches in New York City public schools.