Teachers look forward to the start of school each fall, but this year things are different.  The pandemic brings many changes and raises questions about everything from standard classroom routines to potential Covid outbreaks.  

We’ve heard from school districts on how they plan to adapt.  We also seem to hear constantly from community members and social media users who claim to know what’s best for schools.  But what we don’t hear is what teachers think about their new situation.

Teachers can be a compliant, team-playing bunch, which may make them less willing to publicly share opinions on controversial subjects.  In addition, some districts make it clear that they do not want their teachers making public comment on any kind on controversial topics.

School isn’t usually controversial, but this year it is.  Should instruction be online or in person? Should certain activities, sports, chorus, etc. be cancelled?  How can social distancing be achieved in a system not designed for that?  The list of questions seems endless.

So, how do teachers feel about starting school during a pandemic?  I spoke with several to find out.  For reasons cited above, none of those teachers are quoted directly and no names are mentioned.  All of them work at elementary schools in districts that are starting the year with in-person instruction, or are employing a hybrid model where some students will physically attend school while others do their studying online.  Either way, it’s the same thing for teachers.  They will be physically back in the classroom with students.

What follows is a summary of conversations I’ve had with a variety of teachers in southeastern Pennsylvania, presented in an interview format. 

How do teachers feel about going back to school this year?

The first thing every teacher says is that they really want to be back in the classroom with their students.  But where optimism and excitement usually thrive, this year there is also nervousness, worry, and stress.  The anxiety comes from the covid risks for everyone involved; the students, the staff, and the families of both.  The extra stress comes from having to learn and teach new routines and procedures, and in some cases, having to prepare lessons for both face-to-face and online instruction simultaneously.

Most teachers I spoke to said they were concerned about the safety of going back to class in person, but as the new year approaches, they have their heads buried in the work and details that need to happen in preparation for classes.  They don’t have time anymore to spend thinking about whether or not going back in-person is a good idea.  That train is leaving the station, and they’re on it.

Are teachers satisfied with the district’s safety protocols and procedural changes?

For the most part yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they feel safe going back to class.  The difficult thing about it is that schools are set-up completely in contrast to how they need to be for social distancing.  Hundreds of students arrive each day in busses, they flood the entrances and hallways during transition times, eat together in large cafeterias, work together in groups, interact at close range dozens of times per day, and spend all day together in fairly close quarters.  No matter what precautions are taken, there just aren’t great solutions to every issue.

Do teachers think Covid cases will go up during the fall?

Unanimously yes.

How concerned are teachers for their own health and safety and that of their students?

As mentioned previously, most were somewhat to very concerned up until a few weeks ago when the work associated with preparing for school began taking more brain space.  Still, the concern remains.  Some cite disappointment with the federal government’s pandemic response and feel that we should be in a better position than we currently are.   

How concerned are teachers for the health of their housemates and family?

The thought of bringing Covid home from school and infecting family members has some deeply worried.  Kids, newborn babies, elderly parents, spouses…  All are in as precarious a position as the teachers and students and it’s an uncomfortable spot.  Some are less worried than others, but it seems to be on most teacher’s minds.

Do they believe the district made the right decision about returning to in-person instruction?

Opinions on this vary widely and reflect the complexities of the issue.  The more passionate answers came from those who believe their district should have started the year with online instruction, rather than in-person.  Those favoring a return to in-person instruction might best be described as cautiously optimistic.

How will everyday routines be different from a normal year?

The obvious change is masks.  All day, everyday.  For some, maybe face shields too.  Plans are in place for many things, but they’re all just theories until you see how they work in real life.  Nobody really knows what to expect yet.

Do teachers think the in-person, back-to-school plan will work?

The short answer is no, as most seem to think Covid cases are going to go up, prompting schools to revert back to doing everything online.  

The more nuanced answer leans toward yes.  If, as many think, schools will soon be switching to distance learning as cases rise, some teachers suspect the real plan is to get everybody through the first several weeks of school as safely as possible, while teaching students how to navigate and be effective in a revamped world of computer-based learning.  Then, when the seemingly inevitable shift to fully online school occurs, both teachers and students will be ready.

If needed, are schools more prepared to teach online than last year? 

Yes.  Last year was a mess by all accounts and it was nobody’s fault.  It was a nearly impossible task to complete, almost literally overnight.  For a sports perspective, imagine being the quarterback of a football team, having played very well in the same system for many years.  Then one day, the coach tells you that starting tomorrow, you’re going to run a brand new offensive scheme.  And you have to throw the ball with your non-dominant hand.  New scheme, opposite hand, no time to prepare.  Not exactly a recipe for success.

But since then, the teachers I’ve spoken to all agree that better plans, technologies and procedures are in place for this year, so that online instruction should lead to a lot of actual learning. 

My Opinion

I taught music in a public elementary school for 25 years before retiring a year ago.  I understand the benefits of having kids be physically present in school.  But to me, the whole thing is an experiment with public health.   

It may in fact, work out just fine.  But if it doesn’t, people are going to get sick.  Some will be kids.  Some will be staff and their families.  Will some get severely sick or even die?  We don’t know.  As the spouse of a teacher, I worry about her health, and I resent being drawn into the experiment myself regarding my own health.   

But if schools are going to physically reopen, I prefer a more staggered approach, bringing students back one group or grade level at a time, adding others if things go well. Many districts in my area are starting with everybody present from the first day, which seems like a bigger risk. Is either plan perfect? No.

Recently, a local newspaper covered a story that could be summarized as follows:

A nearby school district convened a virtual board meeting this week at which they approved plans to have students report for face-to-face instruction this fall.  The meeting was held virtually in accordance with the Pennsylvania governor’s rule, limiting the size of a public gathering to 25.  

Twenty-five.  That’s roughly the size of one classroom.  The schools on the verge of re-opening each contain dozens of these “maximum public gathering size” classrooms.

The irony would be comical if the stakes were lower.

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