By Todd Bloch
I teach science, so I’ve been trained to make observations. From what I observed in the fall, I’ve drawn some conclusions about why in-person teaching and learning in a pandemic is difficult to sustain—and not necessarily for the most obvious reasons.
In Warren Woods Public Schools in Macomb County, where I teach middle school science, we developed and implemented some reasonable safety rules and procedures to return students who chose it for face-to-face learning in late September following a remote start.
Nothing looks or feels like it did before.
From the outset we offered a virtual academy, and half of our students chose that mode of learning. Our reopening involved K-12 students five days a week. The high school did an A-day and a B-day, so three classes daily.
Our middle school ran a full schedule every day for the students who returned with about 20 kids per in-person class, so distancing was possible. In normal times our lunchroom tables sat 30 people, which changed to eight with restrictions.
All of our virtual academy teachers were required to teach from school buildings except for people with health conditions. When students came back, I was teaching virtual classes to start and end my day with in-person classes in between.
Our staff is stretched incredibly thin to make what we’re doing work. I don’t know where we will place virtual students if they want to come back to in-person learning in coming months because every room is full and every teacher maxed out to accomplish distancing.
Educator burn-out is a big concern.
Worry about students, colleagues, friends, and family becoming infected with a potentially fatal airborne virus is stressful—especially when community spread is rampant. There is risk involved in gathering people indoors for several hours a day, even with safety procedures in place.
Within that challenging context, teachers are struggling to manage their workload. It’s hard to hear while teaching in a room with 20 spaced-apart kids while wearing a mask and face shield. It’s awkward, and the students are reluctant to participate.
The kids have been pretty good but not perfect with the masks. They want to hang out with their friends and pull the mask down below their nose, which may be understandable but all of us in the school setting must continually push back on it.
Meanwhile, it’s difficult to engage kids when we are asking them to sit still and apart, wearing a mask, behind a plastic shield. The ways we’ve transformed our teaching over the past many years to encourage active learning, group work and collaboration is not possible to do right now.
In addition, we don’t have enough staff to maintain a reduced-capacity face-to-face school and a virtual school, so educators are doing double-duty. Most teachers were not trained to teach virtually, and students aren’t used to it either, so the learning curve is large. And technology issues are a regular struggle.
This winter as regular cold and flu season melds with COVID-19 and more school employees get sick, we simply won’t have the staff to move forward. Not enough substitutes are available in jobs that require them. There is a limit to the extra duties that educators can take on.
With everything else going on, state- and federal-mandated test requirements hang over us.
Some kids learn well virtually. Some need face-to-face but can’t physically go to school because of family health concerns. Some learning translates easily in a digital realm, and some gets tossed out when students can’t be in a room with their educators.
It’s clear we will need to continue with masks and physical distancing through the rest of this school year, and we will likely be moving back and forth between face-to-face and remote teaching as COVID-19 infection rates dictate.
Yet we continue to shift time and resources toward mandated testing and away from our best efforts to help students learn and cope. In the balance are high-stakes teacher evaluations, which last we heard are moving forward as if nothing has changed.
I wonder how an administrator who’s never before taught online can evaluate a teacher who’s also never taught online. How can they evaluate a teacher who’s doing online and face-to-face at the same time?
What about the added stress of performing duties during a pandemic? I worry about getting sick or bringing the virus home to a vulnerable family member who’s had a heart bypass and liver transplant. We have all suffered different traumas as this pandemic has played out.
We need support to get through this the best that we can.
I’ve taught for 20 years, and this is hands down the hardest stretch of my career. I talk with educators all over the country, and everyone is in the same situation: They go home at night paralyzed by a combination of fatigue and anxiety from all that is on their plate.
I worry about a brain drain if we start losing educators who can retire anytime but so far have chosen not to.
I miss what used to be. One in-person eighth-grade class of mine that began with our delayed reopening was a group of kids I taught last year. When I walked in and saw them—even behind their masks and plexiglass shields—I felt a moment of relief, though they couldn’t see my smile.
We all miss normalcy, but what we need to focus on developing right now is consistency, compassion, and cooperation.
We need our communities to mask up and our leaders to listen to us on the frontlines.
Read more stories from the series, “What it’s Like: COVID Vignettes”: