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.
Last week after learning my district is returning to school face-to-face, I saved a document for my spouse on my computer’s desktop. It’s titled Read If I Die. It outlines everything from where we keep the scotch tape (he always has to ask me) to my blessing for any future romantic endeavors he pursues.
If I survive the impending mid-pandemic return to school, I’ll turn 40 this spring. I have no children; they were never part of my life plan. From the age of 12, I recognized that the youth who are already here need more love and nurturing, and I felt a calling to provide that. My students are my kids.
I have other family, too. My dad died the day after Christmas in 2019. My aunt then died of COVID-19 in late spring, and my uncle followed less than two weeks later. That’s half a generation of my family gone within six months. I don’t want my mother to have to attend another socially distanced funeral, either as a guest or as the corpse. Quite frankly, I don’t want to attend another socially distanced funeral, especially one for a student. Between heroin and motorcycles, I’ve already been to more than enough student funerals.
I’m glad my pops — himself a retired professor at the time of his death — isn’t around to see all of this, to be honest. Last night while working on lesson plans to implement both in-person and online, I watched the season opener of his favorite MLB team and bawled. Forcing the season looked so wrong. Trying to do everything the way we always have just because it’s familiar and comfortable is dangerous. We’re about to find out how dangerous.
I teach on the top floor of a century-old building without air conditioning. Only half of the windows open, and it’s not unusual for the temperature in my classroom to flirt with 100 degrees in the first month of school. God only knows what the heat index reaches once you add in the Midwest humidity. Add in 25-30 teenagers. Add in the necessity for masks. Not a lot of learning is likely to happen if we return to school face-to-face, no matter what kind of superhero teacher I am or how meticulously I have crafted a positive rapport with my students.
In five years, how will my school’s leaders reflect on the decisions they are making now? If even one school community member dies, will this effort to keep our students from falling behind (… and behind what?) have been worth it? Could as much or more learning have happened more safely online? Teachers of all subjects teach critical thinking, data analysis, and creative problem-solving. Shouldn’t these disciplines factor more heavily in our plans to return to school?
Educators are often called upon to figuratively martyr ourselves, but if people in power have their way, the martyrdom may become literal. And this is avoidable.
I don’t want my spouse to have to open that document so soon.
Megan Neville is an educator, writer, and avowed cat person based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has been published in English Journal, The Academy of American Poets (Poets.org), The Boiler, Cherry Tree, Cream City Review, Jelly Bucket, and elsewhere.