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.
My school year hinges upon certainty. The first bell rings at 7:55 am and the final one at 2:40 pm. Lunch lasts 27 minutes. On the first of what has always been 180 days of school, I wear my favorite black-and-white dress and recite the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English to a class of 25 bewildered high school sophomores.
Certainty now is as dead as a Shakespearean tragic hero, and the memory of it haunts me. Ordinarily, my teacher summer is a golden time — after a couple weeks away from school, I think about possibilities: here’s a compelling new reading assignment; there’s a new idea for a writing prompt. I always resolve that this is the year I am going to nail the teaching of an essay introduction or a thesis statement or consistent verb tense.
In Massachusetts, each individual district is determining how to reopen schools, and superintendents had until August 14 to submit detailed, finalized reopening plans to the state. I may not know anything for certain about what the first day of school will look like until late August.
The uncertainty is making me anxious.
Instead of academic planning, I’m writing a will. I also have been assembling my own bucket of PPE: two spray bottles of Lysol; six bottles of knock-off brand wipes; four bottles of hand sanitizer; extra disposable masks; and a yardstick for swatting away students that come too close to me. After reading recent articles about the spread of COVID in schools elsewhere in the U.S., I immediately bought hospital scrubs, goggles, and a HEPA filter.
Throughout the summer, dozens of colleagues have been meeting for hours every week on Zoom to discuss strategies for teaching online. Because of my anxiety, I have not always brought myself to join them. Instead, I have tried to take solace in what I can control, which is how I spend my summer. I have focused on small joys: watching goldfinches perch upon coneflowers in my front yard; writing in my journal; participating in a nature drawing class at a local park; baking a cherry focaccia now that yeast and flour are again available.
And I focus on my past students. Sometimes we exchange emails detailing our summers; other times, we have Zoom reunions. I wish I could have seen each graduating senior in person. I miss them.
As always, I wonder how well I will connect with my newest group of 10th graders. That annual worry has magnified.
A new worry is how I will connect with students I may get to know only online or through a mask and goggles. A greater worry is whether we will be safe in any sort of physical classroom, and how much trauma each of us individually will bring to the school year.
I take some comfort in the certainty that I really do love my job. What I don’t know is if I soon will be uttering that sentiment in the past tense.
Lori Ayotte is a writer and a high school English teacher in Sharon, Massachusetts. She has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and English Journal. She has written and broadcasted personal essays on The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island.