San Francisco, California

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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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Yo class!

I wait. Crickets. In more normal times, I would hear a ragged raucous chorus answering back: Yo Teach!

Silence is deafening on a computer screen.

At school, we would line up on the ramp outside Room 37. I would ask them all to do the least interesting dance sensation sweeping the nation — The Ramp! Arms down at the side, standing straight, eyes making contact with me. Not much of a dance, but it provokes some smiles from my 22 third graders and helps settle us into the fun in store when we enter for a day of questioning, thinking, singing, writing, wrestling, and so much more. I’ve been in the teaching game long enough to know you are never really in control of a gaggle of human squirrels.

Distance learning is a screeching halt to the community, the camaraderie, and the coloratura of the class experience. I have been teaching for over 20 years. I smile looking back on a legacy of third, fourth, and fifth grade classes. We have composed operas, gotten dirty on Mount Davidson, rocked hard with Ms. Susan, racked up the field trips, learned math and history through three amazing Giants World Series wins, chicken danced, learned, laughed, cried, and hugged it out. I now look at a Brady Bunch matrix of silent and confused faces on a Zoom screen in the days of distance learning. Uggh.

I feel for the kids. It is just cruel to keep a kid in a veal pen of an apartment and suggest that a computer screen and e-chats with teachers and friends are any kind of replacement for the wonderful human squabbles we enjoy in person. Like gorillas in need of social grooming, they are hurting for personal connections.

I feel for the families. Moms, dads, grandparents, lucky uncles and aunts are now asked to take up part of the mantle of making the teaching happen right there under their own roofs. This is tough business. We need to work it out together. We need to be part of Team (insert Kid’s name here) to make meaningful learning happen and still stoke the coals of joy, curiosity, and compassion. Yes, we will meet some standards, but the real task is to help our kids to love learning, be proud of the progress they make, and be resilient in the challenges they face. We need to keep them happy and healthy. Tough task indeed.

And yet. My courageous colleagues and I are still approaching our days with joy and hope — working our tails off to make some of it translate through a mix of Zoom, Google Classroom, See-Saw, YouTube, and good old fashioned writing and drawing pencils, markers and crayons. There is a way to do this in this difficult time. It will be weird and it will be wonderful.

Though the audio is nightmarish to navigate with a group of righteously freaked out kids, I still call out to the new crop of brave third graders coming back (kind of) to school:

Yo Class!

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Johnny Hansell is a writer, artist, therapist, opera impresario, scientist, squirrel choreographer, nurse, cat herder, peace maker and all the other things that come with being a public Elementary school teacher. He has taught at West Portal Elementary School in San Francisco Unified School District for 21 years Johnny Hansell is an illustrator (Great Giants Stories Every Young Fan Should Know) and an editor of the Quarantine Kids paper, the Not Normal Times (NOT NORMAL TIMES, Issue No. 3). All kids are welcome to contribute thoughts, drawings and written musings. When he’s not teaching, Johnny paints, rides bikes, chases frisbees, plays vintage baseball, dances real crazy and howls at the moon.