Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

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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’ll put my positive pants on no matter what. I just need to know if these are sweat-positive-pants or dress-positive-pants. HA-HA-HA-HA!” I barely get the maniacal laugh out before I physically recoil from myself. Did I actually just say THAT? I’m answering yet another friend/family member/acquaintance’s inquiry about how I feel about going back to school this Fall. The truth: I’m terrified. Nope. That actually doesn’t capture it. What’s the word for when you wake up in the middle of the night to Google how to hang plexiglass from a ceiling DIY style after checking to be sure your will is up-to-date? Wait — there’s no precise word for that level of half-anxious planning for both best and worst-case scenarios simultaneously?

We’ve been waiting for a school re-opening plan all summer. It’s August. Our school board was set to vote on one last week, but community members were not in agreement, so they delayed. I am trying not to show my opinion one way or another, as I feel I’m supposed to be neutral. “You’re lucky to have a job right now,” I get reminded a lot.

I hit up a local outdoor flea market with my thirteen-year-old daughter last weekend. We joked about all the jewelry and clothes we’d buy when we got there, but we both knew the truth. I was on the hunt for face shields because I have no idea if they’ll be supplied or available when I have to go back to work.

My daughter is the same age as the students I teach — seventh grade. I love my kids. I call my students my kids. It’s not unique. You’ll find most educators do this because we really feel that they are, well, ours. We feel that when they are entrusted to us, we have a duty and responsibility to protect and nurture them as one of our own. I remember when I first became a teacher over ten years ago. I couldn’t wait to be asked what I did for a living because I was so incredibly proud and full of passion. It felt noble and purposeful and a little like magic to have the privilege to be working with young people.

Does it feel like magic now? I don’t know. I get texts from last year’s students, sometimes in the late-near-to-midnight hours. “Mrs. Groen — I’m worried about going back to school. Can you help me?” I wish I was magic. That I had some way to reassure them (and myself) that it’s all going to be OK. But, I just don’t think I can. I’m still trying to find my positive pants for whatever the plan will be.

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Amanda Groen is a mother, middle school educator, and yoga instructor. She treasures her starfish collection and believes in lifting others up.