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 keep thinking about Sharpies.
Teachers can pull Sharpies out of pockets the way magicians produce rabbits. I normally have two or three rattling around the bottom of my laptop bag. I was once in line at Starbucks when the Sharpie marker being shared between three baristas ran out of ink. They rummaged under the registers, desperately looking for a replacement before the caffeine-deprived hordes turned on them. I felt like a badass superhero when I stepped to the counter and offered three different colors for them to pick from.
But I’m thinking about one Sharpie pen in particular. It’s black, medium thickness. And it stays in the blue emergency bag that I keep on the filing cabinet closest to my classroom door. Our school’s emergency bags are remarkably sparse. No band-aids, no first aid materials. We have one flashlight, one sign with my name to help my students find our class if they get separated during a mass exodus, one copy of my class rosters, and one Sharpie marker. Why a marker? Someone asked that very question at a staff meeting. The nurse explained, in a completely emotionless tone, that the Sharpie was so we could identify students and write their names on their bodies in the event of an incident.
She was vague, but we all knew exactly what she was saying. You have a marker in case someone armed with a military-style assault rifle strolls onto campus and starts murdering your co-workers and students. When the shooting stops, we need you to walk through the carnage of your classroom, checking for signs of life. And where there is none, take out that marker and write the name of that precious child, that beautiful life snuffed out too early. She didn’t tell us where we were supposed to write the name — on an arm? A leg? But nobody asked any more questions. We shuffled out of the library silently.
That Sharpie tells me everything I need to know about teaching through COVID. We could have poured resources into prevention. We could’ve spent all summer enforcing mask use and social distancing. We could’ve sacrificed small pleasures for the greater good. We could’ve kept this from happening. But instead, we’re blindly barreling toward reopening even though we know teachers and students will die. We’re going to treat COVID the same way we treat school shootings. An unfortunate but unavoidable cost to doing business. There will be some new morbid addition to the emergency bag. Some simple tool made macabre by the expectation for its use. And like we always do, we will ask our teachers to stand in the doorways and use our bodies as human shields. And if we make it out alive, we’ll be the ones tasked with walking through the wreckage and counting the bodies.
Jen Coleman is a high school English teacher and mother to two monsters masquerading as toddlers. She has an MFA in creative writing from American University and lives in Alabama.