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.
I am neither scared nor excited to go back to teach this fall. Mostly, I’m in suspense, unable to plan, because, as one colleague put it, “My body doesn’t know where it’s going to be.”
My district offered parents a choice between hybrid learning (week on/week off) and remote learning at home. Teachers will be teaching both groups simultaneously — in school, wearing masks and face shields — using laptop cameras to teach the remote kids via Zoom. I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys Zoom. Doing so in a mask sounds even less effective and way more humiliating. And despite all the logistical hand-wringing, everyone I know suspects we’ll all be home this fall, whether or not we want to be.
As someone with young children, I wish elementary schools would stay open. But as a high school teacher and union member, I know it’s unfair for my elementary school colleagues to work in sweltering, stuffy buildings while I teach at home sipping tea. In my dream scenario, younger children go back and learn outdoors, under tents, if necessary, at least until snow flies. Extra staffers could be hired to extend recess and play games with students who aren’t in class. Camps have opened this summer with great results. I have to believe that young children are better off doing just about anything outdoors than being stuck at home screen-learning.
Older students could stay remote, with firm expectations to attend classes and engage in meaningful work. Teens could still come to school in person once a week to check in with a faculty advisory. Though advisories are imperfect, they could give teenagers a chance to see each other in safe numbers and provide a wellness check for the most vulnerable students — those needing medical and mental health services, and academic support.
I cannot relive what I endured last spring, when I taught full-time, parented full-time, homeschooled part-time, and prepared every single meal for four people for three months. Somehow my children solemnly observed my husband’s work zone but constantly barged in on mine. Every day I spun like a top trying to help everyone, and every night I drank to cope. I felt like a tattered, shrieking Betty Draper. It was ugly.
Thus I am hell-bent on hiring some kind of homework nanny to help my two kids, ages 7 and 10, even if it means cutting down other expenses, even if it smacks of obnoxious privilege. After last spring, I will eat hamburger buns for dinner to keep a babysitter on the payroll.
A veteran teacher once told me she could teach English in a cave with nothing but a book and a flashlight, meaning that the technology could be gone tomorrow, and maybe we’d be better off. COVID-19 has forced us to test her theory. I like to think that this fall, we’re still doing something of value together — haltingly, perhaps, and shrouded in darkness — in the conspiratorial light of each other’s company.
The writer is a gardener, a runner, and an avid fan of Elena Ferrante’s books. She has been teaching English for 18 years, and learning it for 45.