For the first time in seven years, I’ve got my own classroom. I’m teaching all the classes I requested. I don’t have a homeroom. Like a miracle, I have both my planning periods in my own classroom! When my crazy colleague starts the unhinged fuming, I don’t have to sit in the cramped department office and listen – I can just walk away and close my door! This must be how it feels to win the lottery!
My students seem engaged and polite. The new cell phone policy (no cell phones out during class) shows that administrators listened to teachers and support us. During the union-negotiated early-release day, our leadership team hosted a staff barbecue out by the football stadium — while other schools forced teachers to sit through three tedious hours of professional development. A focus on mental health seems to be more than a box to check.
We opened a brand-new Wellness Room next to the counseling office, staffed by a full-time social worker. The district hired two therapists to meet with students during the school day. My school is focusing on trauma-informed practices and approaches to teaching holistically. Laughter fills the halls, kids are pumped for the Friday night football games, and student clubs are thriving. I want so desperately to say that we’re back to normal, but the new normal is not as rosy as some would like to believe.
Last week I received the worst possible news that a teacher could receive. One of my students died. I don’t have any details about their death, but my gut tells me it was a direct result of the isolation and angst caused by two years of pandemic. Even though I only knew this child for four weeks, I’d already claimed them as my own. This death affected me profoundly. I had to deliver the news to my second period Honors English 12 and then go on with the lesson. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my teaching career.
On the last day of instruction for high school seniors, I greeted many for the first time. “Nice to meet you,” I said as student after student took a seat – every other desk remained empty to keep social distancing. Our last hybrid Honors English 12 class began. Does anything encapsulate this disjointed year better than welcoming students and sending them off on the same day?
“I didn’t want my last memory of senior year to be clicking the ‘Leave Meeting’ button,” said Kaleb. Yet, that’s exactly how 60% of the class of 2021 ended their 13 years of public education in my school district. The students who opted for in-person instruction started returning to the building on April 6, alternating A weeks and B weeks so that we could stay six feet apart in the classrooms.
The result is that students couldn’t sit with their lifelong friends until the last week of school, when they collapsed the A-B weeks as more community members got vaccinated. Any seniors who wanted to return in-person could do so. Suddenly, 15 students in a class felt jam-packed. It was great to hear their voices again and see those beautiful eyes looking up from their laptops.
On the way out, Aaron gave me his senior photo, a little wallet-sized memento – the facial hair visible above his lip caused me to smile. I’d never seen his full face. At the Senior Farewell Party earlier in the week, Marta and I posed for a photo outside the football stadium, maskless for the first time. She’s been in my class all year, but I didn’t know she wore braces. Her nose and mouth looked different from how I imagined it.
Bidding adieu on Zoom was anti-climactic – even though teachers made little speeches about resilience and perseverance. “Does anyone want to turn on their camera to wave goodbye?” A few faces popped up briefly on my screen, but most virtual students just disappeared when class was over. Some have chosen to skip the in-person graduation ceremony in two weeks as well, remaining enigmatic little black boxes in perpetuity.
It’s too raw to process what this pandemic year has meant for young people. I’m a married woman with decades-long friendships to bolster me throughout the year. However, I’ve been back at school for two months, and have nearly forgotten how to make small talk. Kids will be affected for the rest of their lives in ways we can only imagine – a new kind of PTSD will take hold as a year of social isolation becomes a silent national crisis.
I hope that our school system will examine some of the old policies and procedures. What used to seem so normal — 18-year-olds asking for permission to use the rest room, penalizing kids for missing a due date — already seems antiquated. We will need to teach students how to talk to each other, how to interact as a class. We need to address the deep mental health challenges that will affect teaching and learning.
But the graduating class of 2021 will be on their own to figure it all out, to heal from the traumatic year. I hope that they’ll be okay as we send them off to “the real world.” I hope they’ll teach us all how to be resilient and persevere through hardship. I hope they come back to say hello and introduce themselves again one day. These seniors will remain in my heart forever.
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.