When Bijoun Eric Jordan returns to his classroom later this month at Frederick Douglass Academy VII High School in Brooklyn, his class sizes will be limited to no more than 11 students. But that’s not enough to put the veteran teacher at ease about going to work during a pandemic.
“There's a lot that's up in the air, a lot that we still don't know and that we're not going to know,” said Jordan, who teaches junior English, AP English Lit, and Spanish I.
He was right. A little over a week before school was set to begin, things changed: the city announced it had reached an agreement with the unions that represent teachers and principals to delay the opening of school by ten days. Schools in the city will now open for in-person instruction on September 21.
Jordan, who’s 38, calls the plan to bring students and teachers back to the classroom “bold” but questions if it was the right decision.
“I just don't believe that we can reopen 1,800 schools throughout the city without there being some level of increased infection,” said Jordan. “I think it's just reasonable to understand that that's very, very likely to happen.”
A recent poll found that 82 percent of teachers share his concerns. But policy has not always aligned with widely-held opinion. While some schools will start the year teaching remotely, many others are opening for in-person instruction.
Throughout the country, educators are stepping into unchartered territory. Without adequate training in distance learning, they worry about mastering new tools, how to keep students engaged in distracting home environments, and what to do about inequities that have been made worse by the pandemic. Perhaps most unnervingly, many who are returning to school, like Jordan, feel unprepared to battle a virus that thrives in precisely the kind of crowded, confined spaces in which they’ll be working.
The stakes suddenly feel unbearably high. Before, if a teacher didn’t do his or her job well, a student might perform poorly on a test. Now, that same student—or the teacher, or a family member—might contract a deadly virus.
This year, we will be following a group of eight educators as they navigate teaching during Covid-19. They come from small schools in rural areas and large schools in big cities. Some have been in the classroom for 20 years, and others are just starting out. They primarily teach in traditional public schools and range in age from late 50s to mid 20s. Some come from well-to-do districts with lots of resources, while others work in districts that struggle to provide the basics. Their student bodies vary from nearly all Black to nearly all White with one that’s majority Latinx. A few schools have sizable Asian populations. They teach kids from kindergarten up to high school seniors. What ties them all together is their desire to be there for their students and guide them through this difficult time.
In some schools, teachers are being asked to sanitize desks and other high-touch areas after they’ve finished lessons—between classes, for example—and sometimes with only meager supplies.
Dr. David Serota, an infectious disease physician and researcher who teaches at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, says this type of work is ultimately important when it comes to slowing the spread of the virus.
“If someone with COVID-19 coughs, their respiratory droplets are chock full of virus that might land on a doorknob, for example,” said Serota. “If someone then touches that doorknob and rubs their eye or scratches their mouth, they could become infected."
But what happens if a student gets sick at school? Will these teachers, now working double-duty in a janitorial capacity, be held responsible? The possibility makes teachers anxious.
“I think they're worried that they're not actually going to be teaching, that they're going to be more doing behavior management and safety management,” said Jo-Ann Finkelstein, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago who’s seen a number of teachers over the years. “I've heard teachers say, ‘I didn't get a degree in cleaning; I don't want to spend my whole day cleaning.’”
Finkelstein, who holds a doctorate in psychology, says that with “so much uncertainty and unknown,” it’s only natural to feel some anxiety during a pandemic.
This comes as some politicians and parents are comparing teachers to grocery store clerks and medical personnel and arguing that, as essential workers, they should go back to the classroom despite safety concerns, and without the rigorous safety plans that better funded companies and institutions can afford.
Ximena Montez, who started school remotely this year, has heard those criticisms. She teaches gifted ed at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“I find it really sad how many people are just angry at the system because of what's going on,” said Montez, a 19-year veteran, echoing the sentiments of teachers across the country, who feel powerless as they watch their safety take a backseat to broader societal concerns about the economy and the stresses of working from home. “It's not something we can control, and sometimes it feels like it's being taken out on teachers.”
Other teachers have chosen to retire—in New York state, retirements are up 20 percent from last year—rather than take on the increased risk and deal with the finger-pointing, and many who are back in the classroom can’t help but worry about what the year may bring.
Concerns about the risk of contracting Covid-19 caused Mandy Warren to decide to forego the classroom this school year. The Colorado fourth-grade teacher with 14 years of experience was granted permission by her district to teach remotely.
Her district started the year with distance learning and will reevaluate at the end of this month.
That uncertainty didn’t sit well with the 36-year-old who has an infant daughter at home as well as a two-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepdaughter.
“The caregivers of my two littles are my parents and my husband's parents who are both in their late 60s and have some underlying issues,” said Warren. “I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I exposed them to it.”
In Chicago, the heart and soul of a county that accounts for more than half of the Covid-19 deaths in Illinois, veteran teacher Ayanna King is also concerned about the collateral damage of school re-openings.
While King seems unfazed by her own health risks, she is worried that one of her colleagues at Saint Ignatius College Prep, or their vulnerable family members, will get sick. Still, she sees both sides of the contentious debate around re-opening.
There are real and pressing non-medical risks for kids, particularly for children with serious disabilities or mental health issues—those who rely heavily on a network of school supports, from aides to assistive technology—and for students from low-income families who depend on schools for healthy free or low-cost meals, as well. It’s a difficult balancing act, according to King.
“I trust that we're going to do what we can for students,” she said. “I definitely lose sleep at night afraid of someone getting sick and dying still. But I don't know what the answer is.”
Concerns About Student Engagement
Some of the teachers we spoke to are also worried about how to teach effectively under these unusual circumstances.
Rachel Furhman started a new job in August at Chalmette High School in Chalmette, Louisiana, a traditional public school about nine miles east of New Orleans.
The 24-year-old says her biggest concern about this year is how she and her colleagues will keep their students engaged.
At her school, parents were able to opt their kids out of in-person instruction in favor of online only. To keep classes small, the rest of the student body was divided in half based on last names and attends the physical school on alternate days.
Furhman notes that when most schools went to remote instruction last spring, teachers and students had already established connections. But that won’t be the case this year.
“I think it's going to be hard to build those relationships that can really help get students on board with the course online,” said Fuhrman, who’s marking her fourth year in the classroom.
She says going back and forth might make it more difficult for students to adjust.
“It might be harder for them to learn our classroom expectations when they're in the class one day and then they're home one day,” said Fuhrman, who teaches ninth-grade math with a special-education focus in a general-education classroom.
She’s also concerned that students won’t react well to the way she’s forced to teach this year.
“For the sake of being as safe as possible, the plan right now is really going to be stand at the front of the room and lecture, which as teachers, we know that that's not necessarily the most engaging for kids.”
Jordan, who will be teaching students face-to-face in his Brooklyn classroom later this month, will also be teaching in a hybrid model: approximately 50 percent of students will be at school on any given day. The district allows parents to opt out of in-person instruction; those children will be taught strictly online.
While he’s concerned about safety, Jordan believes his students will learn more by attending class in person, even if only half-time.
“I completely understand the reason why we need to open schools,” said Jordan. “If the spring taught us anything, it's that remote learning is not nearly as effective as in-person instruction. However, I think that it could be a mistake in the long term.”
Making Distance Learning Work
Some districts decided it was just too risky to reopen at all under the circumstances, and opted to begin the year teaching remotely.
Cheryl Costello teaches chemistry at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California, a suburb of San Francisco.
Her traditional public school started the year with online learning, and the 15-year-classroom vet says she’s excited to give remote instruction another shot.
“We're teaching through a different lens than we did in the spring,” said Costello. “We're more aware of students' need for connection, and we've learned a lot of new tools over the summer.”
But she says she’s still a little nervous about some aspects of distance learning.
“My biggest concern is being able to teach live and keep students engaged,” said Costello.
Yet the 57-year-old says she believes her district made the right decision.
“I think it was the safest option,” said Costello.
Elizabeth Skopec is in a similar position in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
She’s excited about beginning the year online and says it will be nothing like the spring, when regulations issued by the governor put a strain on teachers.
“We weren't allowed to let kids' grades fall below where they were in mid March,” said Skopec, who’s been teaching for the past 12 years. “We were asked not to meet with kids live and make it mandatory, so that made teaching directly a little bit more difficult. Overall, the spring was kind of difficult for everyone.”
Skopec teaches English at Naperville North High School, a traditional public school and is starting the year with a lot of optimism.
She says she expects her students to see remote learning this year as “novel and engaging.”
“This is a good opportunity for us to use all the skills that we always try to teach kids about perseverance and risk taking and problem solving, and not being afraid to fail. So I think that that's what we're all getting ready to do this fall is figure things out hopefully collaboratively.”
Stephanie Messer is entering her second year as a kindergarten teacher at Hazelwood Elementary in Waynesville, North Carolina, a town nestled between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains about 30 miles southwest of Asheville.
She’s excited about the coming year, but wondering how she can create developmentally appropriate lessons online and keep the spirit of her play-based classroom alive.
“My biggest concern is how I'm going to get those kids up and moving and learning things through wonder and exploration and not just staring at a screen and doing some type of worksheet,” said Messer.
But she has faith that she can make it happen through the videos she’ll be recording for her students.
“They're going to be nervous and scared,” said Messer, who worked as a kindergarten assistant for six years before becoming a teacher. “I'm still nervous and scared that I'm not going to be doing everything right. But if we work together and work really hard, then I think that we'll do fantastic.”