Bronx, 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 recently spent the night in the ER because I accidentally swallowed a toothpick, and I learned that wearing a mask for hours at a time is much different than throwing one on to walk your dog in the park. It’s really uncomfortable. It was difficult for me at 42 years old, even though I saw everyone around me doing the same thing. I think it’ll be a problematic expectation for the kids who will be asked to wear masks in classrooms without air conditioning for six hours at a time. How real is that going to be?

I teach English to recently immigrated students. Getting them to attempt to speak in English is a matter of building trust. If they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t take the risk of embarrassment by saying something wrong. They’ll just remain quiet. It’s called the affective filter. If they stay quiet, their language growth is slowed exponentially. I’d often try to compensate for this fear in many ways big or small, including sitting next to them so that they wouldn’t have to talk across a room full of native English speakers. Even a smile goes a long way if you don’t understand the words coming out of the teacher’s mouth. But with a mask? No more smile. I guess I’ll have to work on my eye expression or maybe just nod a lot. Listening to their English-speaking peers or their teachers will be even more difficult. I imagine them participating much less. As for me listening to them when they do speak up? It’ll be much harder for me to understand if the attempt is muffled by a layer or two of cloth.

I try to imagine what it’ll look like, and I keep coming up short. A small group of five or six, each kid spread out six feet apart, everyone already embarrassed to speak in a totally new language to someone inches away now having to speak up so that someone six or twelve feet away can respond. I’ve been speaking Spanish for close to twenty years now, but put me in a crowd of Spanish speakers and I don’t really feel like raising my voice, even if I have something important to say. So what’s to be expected from a twelve-year-old kid who suddenly finds herself in a new country where they don’t speak her language? Participation in discussion activities, a hugely important aspect of language learning as well as a building block to writing assignments, will suffer or disappear under the new guidelines.

This all assumes I’d even be in the room. With all the planning going on, I have yet to hear what will be the role of co-teachers like myself. For most of the day, I teach in the same classroom as the content teacher, working with my students learning English as a new language or really anyone who needs help. If the ratio of teachers to students in a room will be 1:9, how will I fit in? From what I’ve gathered, no one has discussed that yet.

So how can I plan for that?

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Eric Nolan is an English as a New Language teacher in the Bronx. He has an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida and has just completed writing a novel about public education.