High Anxiety

The trees out back are bare and cold rain is drizzling down on the deck. I’m watching a squirrel climb up the railing and attempt to reach the bird feeder. First it shimmies up the narrow metal pole and steps tentatively onto the squirrel-proof “hat” that tilts and swerves under the weight. It tries to lock its feet on the pole and slide belly first down to a perch where seed spills out just two inches from its mouth. The squirrel loses its balance, hangs upside down for a moment, then scrambles back up the pole. It hops gracelessly back to the railing, avoiding a 10-foot drop to the ground. A sparrow flits to the feeder, pecks at the food and flies away. The squirrel tries again and again. 

Teachers in Maryland have been ordered back to school starting on Monday, March 1st. The Governor, the Central Office, and the Board of Education expect that teachers can just fly in like birds to a feeder. But what they’re asking us to do is perform more like the squirrels. Coronavirus has killed more than 8,000 people in Maryland and has infected hundreds of thousands. Teachers have been left completely on their own to find vaccines, competing with each other and those over age 75 for the few scarce resources. 

While other states have rolled out the vaccines effectively, Maryland’s has been confusing and chaotic. Starting on January 18th, when they announced people in the 1B priority group were eligible, I logged in every day, sometimes multiple times per day, trying to register for a vaccine. By the time I finished typing in my contact information, appointments would disappear. Twice I had legitimate appointments confirmed, then cancelled. Colleagues were texting about new doses available – hurry! Teachers were getting turned away from scheduled appointments after waiting in long lines. Teachers were driving three hours to other counties to get vaccinated. I waited in line for two hours at a super center, expecting until the last minute to get turned away. I cried with relief when I finally got that first shot in my arm. 

I want to go back to school desperately. Online teaching is a poor substitute for in-person learning. Like everyone else, I am concerned about the mental health of students. Since I work with English Language Learners, I am concerned that their language and academic skills have suffered. I am worried that students whose best community is inside a school building are not getting the support they need. I miss my students, the ones I have now and do not really know, and the ones I had last year and don’t see passing in the hallways any more. Teachers long to get “back to normal,” but we won’t do it with wishful thinking.


Getting vaccines for teachers is just the first step in a safe return to school. Adequate CDC measures like PPE and physical distancing, cohorts of no more than 60, and sanitizing shared surfaces is manageable. But coronavirus has airborne transmission. Ventilation is a major concern, especially in older buildings. For many teachers the dread of contracting the virus and bringing it home to vulnerable family members is all-consuming. We don’t even know if those who are vaccinated can spread the disease to others. Why are we rushing back to school buildings before these safety measures are in place? 

About 60 percent of students in my district have opted to remain at home and continue virtual instruction. Teachers are not being given this option. In fact, many have been denied their legitimate ADA requests, giving the school system power over their medical health. The focus has been so strongly on a return to the physical building, but what about the majority of students remaining virtual? How will teachers instruct both virtually and in-person at the same time? Will they be getting less of an education because they remain virtual? 

The Superintendent of Schools was “perplexed” by the union’s No Confidence resolution. Then the principals union sent a letter blasting the reopening plan, and the SEIU paraeducators union joined in. Educators understand how teaching and learning operates, and have thought of every possible scenario. We are not to blame for the pandemic. The Board of Education has succumbed to outside pressure and made decisions without the input of key educators. If we are going back into school buildings, then we need a districtwide plan that allows for common sense, compassion, and competence. 

It’s as if climbing up a metal pole, hanging on with our back feet, and stretching to reach a nearly-impossible target were normal. Teachers are planners, not squirrels.

This is what teachers are being asked to do

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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