For some teachers, every day feels like another nightmare. For others, it seems just like any other year, just with masks.
Districts in several states have already started reopening for in-person instruction, remote learning or both. Teachers in these places report facing a range of emotions and situations — for which their teacher training programs never prepared them.
In some places, school reopenings have been marred by upheaval, with COVID-19 outbreaks already forcing hundreds of students and staff to quarantine. In other districts, teachers say business has continued nearly as usual, only with added precautions. HuffPost spoke with teachers around the country whose schools have reopened, and their experiences are especially instructive as other districts continue to navigate and negotiate their reopening plans.
Smith Jean-Philippe, a high school biology teacher in Maryville, Tennessee, has been back at school for about a week, and he said everything feels fine.
“It’s a totally normal year. Or whatever the new norm is, just with heightened awareness and hand-washing,” said the classroom teacher of 19 years.
Kids in his district are not required to wear masks, but they have chosen to for the most part. Buildings are half as full as they normally would be, as the district is starting out with a staggered attendance schedule.
“I have my mask on, and for the most part I feel safe,” Jean-Philippe said.
There have already been at least 39 reported COVID-19 cases associated with school reopenings in the state, according to The Tennessean.
Other teachers around the country have protested in-person reopening plans. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union representing 1.7 million members, has even said it would potentially support “safety strikes.” In July, an Arizona teacher died from COVID-19 after teaching in a classroom with two other educators.
High school computer science teacher Suzy Lebo in South Avon, Indiana, said “every day is very scary.” Her district provided families with a full-time virtual option, but the vast majority decided to come back in person.
“With 3,000 kids, it’s pretty much business as usual. There’s no social distancing at all and the classroom looks the same as it did when we shut down in March,” said Lebo, who has been teaching for 34 years. “Many of our classes are 30 or above, so I’m not the only one who is having kids just sit elbow to elbow.”
Kids in her school are required to wear masks, except when eating lunch in the cafeteria. Students have respected the mask mandate for the most part, although Lebo teaches Advanced Placement classes, which may skew the sample of kids she interacts with. She likens the mask mandate to kids using their cellphones during class ― one or two will always flout the rules. She sanitizes her classroom between periods.
Lebo can’t do the class bonding activities she normally would because they might require students to get physically close, and she has heard from other teachers that some kids aren’t talking as much in class as they usually would.
I think parents don’t realize how close kids are here at school. It boggles my mind that anyone thinks this is a good idea.
Suzy Lebo, teacher in South Avon, Indiana
After reopening in late July, several students and staff members at her school have already tested positive for COVID-19, and those who have come into close contact with those people have been notified. But Lebo said she doesn’t know what will happen if a critical mass of school community members come down with the coronavirus, and she feels left in the dark about the school’s containment plans. She’s paralyzed by fear that one of her colleagues or students will get sick or die.
“I think parents don’t realize how close kids are here at school,” Lebo said. “It boggles my mind that anyone thinks this is a good idea.”
She said she sees kids savoring the days they have together, knowing full well that it might not last.
“It’s not normal, obviously, and not meant to be normal,” she said. “I don’t think they like it, but I think they tolerate it because they don’t like the alternative, which would be virtual or some other option.”
Even teachers in districts that have started the year online-only say kids — the ones who are logging on, at least ― seem relieved and grateful to have a schedule and instruction. Teachers are still working to track down the children who haven’t checked in.
“I think some of the older kids are out working with their parents ― they have parents who are painters and construction workers and housekeepers,” said Theresa Wagner, who teaches middle school physical education in Nashville, Tennessee. Her district is remote-only until after Labor Day, and she suspects that date will be delayed further.
Her youngest students, in fifth grade, have had the most difficult time adjusting to remote learning, mostly due to their lack of familiarity with the technology. She said the rest of her students who have signed on seem enthusiastic and engaged.
Jacob Frantz, a high school chemistry and coding teacher in Queen Creek, Arizona, has also started online learning. His district is set to return in person later this month. He said his students seem happier than ever to have the structure of school and see the faces of friends, even from behind a computer screen.
“They all openly say they’re really excited to be back,” he said. “You can see it on their faces.”
His high school is relatively affluent, but he suspects that some of the students he can’t track down are working low-wage jobs to help support their families. He expects others are simply having technology issues.
He’s been especially worried about the district’s LGBTQ students, who have been stuck at home for months with parents who might not support them.
“There are students that aren’t showing up to online classes, and at this point I’m beginning to have significant worries,” he said. “We are mandatory reporters ― we are one of the first people to see if something is going wrong in these kids’ lives. And a lot of kids don’t have that right now.”
Recarlo Williams, a social worker with Decatur County Schools in Georgia, has been checking on the students he works with ahead of schools opening this week. He’s been trying to get a sense of their emotional states.
Williams’ district is providing both in-person and virtual options, and he has found that some of the most vulnerable students, such as those living in public housing, are more likely to opt for virtual. He said he believes they’re more likely to have been impacted by COVID-19 or to know someone who has been.
“The kids are looking for some sense of normality and a routine,” Williams said.
But some teachers think that any sense of normality will be short-lived.
Frantz’s district in Arizona has already seen cases of COVID-19 pop up in the past few weeks — even though there’s only about 100 teachers on campus — and nearly 2,000 kids are set to return when schools reopen in person later this month.
And as teachers and substitutes continue to step down, class sizes continue to balloon. Frantz said he’s worried there simply won’t be enough staff members to supervise kids on campus.
Even teachers have had a difficult time keeping their masks on all day, he said.
“I’m terrified about what’s going to happen to our district,” Frantz said. “I worry we’re going to reopen unsafely like our state did back in May and end up stuck online for a lot longer.”
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