Returning to School in the Midst of a Pandemic: One Teacher’s Perspective

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

The inevitable is upon us. After months and months of rising and falling data about the ill, the potentially ill, and the dead… being quarantined and wearing masks is still, advisably, the best option for prevention. So it would make sense, then, that we're heading back to school.

Oh, wait...

I have my opinion on this. No one has asked me to share it, but here goes. While difficult for me, it would seem I'm not alone in trying to discern the best course of action for myself and for my family as I decide what to do going forward. Like many, I don't have the financial luxury of early retirement or quitting. I love what I do and want to continue doing it, but at what price?

I've heard every version of the going conspiracy theories, each one sillier than the one before it. No matter what the going belief is, the facts are that the new school year is about to start and many of us are going to be holding class in person.

While most teachers would agree that returning to learning is important, there are a lot of us-a majority, in fact-who believe virtual learning may be the safest way to do it. It may even track to say very few of us want to be a Guinea pig in the health experiment of "Let's Go Back and See How It Works Out."

For me, It's personal.

Within my personal social circle, there are more than twenty verified cases of Covid-19 illness. Within my immediate family, there are seven. The death count for both of my groups is at seven and hopefully it will go no higher.

Their illnesses, deaths, and residual complications break my heart. I don't know why they got it-masked, unmasked, in-contact, indirect contact, etc. What I do know is that only one of them had a known underlying condition. They were healthy, then they were sick.

To Mask Or Not To Mask: Is Returning To School Safe For Children and Teachers?


Ask the CDC if you should mask. You'll be told yes. Ask the CDC if we should return to school. You'll be told yes. The CDC even offers a free decision-making tool for families struggling with the question, should my child go to school or attend school virtually?

If we even need a decision-making tool of this sort, is there really even a question about whether there are safety risks? If we're required to wear masks, distance, stay in our classrooms, and limit the number of people in gathered groups, then it seems beyond reasonable to postulate that virtual learning is probably the best, and safest, option.

My teacher friends and I have discussed this question since March. What's right? What's best? What's healthiest? What about those of us who have autoimmune disorders? What if we have kids at home who are considered "at risk" What if I have cancer and am still in treatment? What if I have a kid with disabilities at home? What if my elderly parents live with me and they have a long list of health issues?

Isn't it reasonable to ask, "Is it safe to return?"

The current living generations have never witnessed a pandemic and in reviewing the history of the Spanish Flu, it's clear no one knew what to do in 1918, either.

I'm watching my own district work diligently to employ strategies, provide tools, and launch education initiatives so that everyone in our district knows as much as we possibly can. Moreover, they are working hard to provide us personal protective equipment and plexi-glass safety screens for teachers to stand behind while teaching…like a salad bar sneeze guard. We're supposed to spread out the kids but we know we have room size constraints. We're supposed to only have a certain number of students using restrooms during passing times. We're to monitor activities and movement as best we can. Clubs and activities have been altered but as of yet, we're not sure what that means. Not sure if it's been decided if we will or won't take temperatures. That will definitely take away time from instruction but it is what it is.

But does it make sense that local football teams are still practicing and that the marching band is revving up for their time under the Friday night lights? Will there be people in the stands? Will there be a snack bar? Can we use the restrooms?

I throw my hands in the air and ask no one in particular, "What's the right thing to do?" No one has asked for my perspective. We've not been given a chance to choose to teach from home or teach in-person. We have been told what will be done.

Most of us have read all the information we can get our hands on and we're still left confused. And the more we learn about Covid-19, the more confusing everything seems to become. We learned we shouldn't wear a mask for more than 10 hours before changing them out. We learned we should figure out how to determine if it's allergies or if it's Covid. Should we stay outside? Is sunlight helpful? How much sunlight is too much? Is it safe tor masks to be left to hang from rear-view mirrors between uses?

We teachers just need definitive answers and I just want to be ASKED instead of TOLD what to do. Yeah. I'll own it. I'm acting like a baby.

I'll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want

First and foremost, I want this to all go away. I don't want any other people to be sick or to die from Covid-19. Pie in the sky? Maybe, but it's what I really, really want.

I want my students to come to school. I want my special education kids to know that we are safe to be in close proximity, that we can hug and high-five whenever we want. It's what I really, really want.

I don't want to worry about decontaminating supplies every day. I don't want to be concerned that desks and chairs should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after every hour or so. I don't want to be the handwashing police. I don't want to think that every sniffle or any cough could mean something worse than allergies. I don't want to take off my school clothes in the garage and throw them immediately into the washer and include an additive meant to kill germs, viruses, and bacteria because plain old laundry soap won't do that. I don't want to think that my car needs to be sprayed down after my trip home from school every evening. I don't want to think that my peers and I are following all the appropriate protocols but those who enter our building are not.

I just want to guide my kids in their learning and whine about paperwork just like the good old days.

I don't want to spend my budget money in ways that protocol feels like it's leading me to do. I want to buy things that make learning fun.

I just want everyone to be happy, myself included. The one solid gold nugget of joy in this moment is that we are all working hard to make school joyful. Our staff has no time to worry about social cliques. No one has time to size up new staff members. We have figured out there are better things to focus on. Camaraderie has come from collaborating and navigating the Best Practices we learned back in the spring.

I want to be able to walk throughout my school and my classroom, and heck, even my community, mask-free. I'm tired of making sure my masks are changed out after so-many-hours of use. I want to see my parents. It has been months. They are abiding by their doctor's orders and at ages 85 and 90, I will honor that with them. They live too far away to go visit through the glass windows and doors of their home. I cringe to think I may never see them again in this lifetime if this doesn't all end soon.

I hate thinking that a cool and practical back-to-school gift for my grandkids is a mask. I'd rather buy them something fun but they asked for masks. Are you kidding me? Coronageddon must end!

But in all of this, districts are still considering in-person learning.

Is there a Right Answer?… Or Even a Right Question to Ask?

Someone once said, "Ask for help not because you're weak but because you want to remain strong." While state and district officials spent the summer creating plans and courses of action for this fall, the big three winners seem to be having students attend school virtually, attend school in-person, or a hybrid option that combines the two.

I know enough school officials in enough states to have asked one simple question: "Were there any Teachers on your decision-making teams?" Asking representatives of fifteen different districts, all said no.

Keeping in mind that district leadership is often comprised of former classroom teachers, I felt a bit more heartened to know that these people remember what it was like in the trenches, so to speak. But I couldn't help tempering my thought process with the fact that their decisions were made from offices that are removed from the general hustle and bustle of the masses. In my heart, I know these people worked diligently to honor the best interest of everyone in the school setting. But still, did anyone ask the teachers for ideas? Some of my colleagues say they're worried about the erosion of safety protocols between home, the classroom, the lunchroom, then the bus.

In the case of my own district, we will be starting school in-person. Students also have an option to participate in the newly created virtual learning academy. We are a relatively small district so only a handful of teachers will be needed for the new V.L.A. Those teachers, some of whom left the classroom for the virtual realm, have no clue what their job will be after the end of the pandemic. Will they be laid off since their services are no longer needed? Will their role expand as families decide they enjoy the flexibility that virtual learning may offer? Will they slide back into their old positions? Will they have to be placed in new positions? One person I spoke with said that all she can do right now is focus on what is here and now. Her strong faith in the district and sense of peace about whatever comes in the future drive her to do what's best for her family. For now, it is to be at home while working. Another peer has quit teaching completely. He doesn't want to put his family's safety at risk. Sadly, this is a wonderfully talented teacher and this will be a huge loss to his district and school.

But teachers who have virtual students assigned to their rosters are expected to also provide virtual instruction to those students. Panic has set in for some of us because we need to give our best during the day but then, after contract hours, we are also expected to do the same for our virtual learners.

Such high expectations. So many questions. So few answers.

A recent survey indicates that 65% of responding teachers want schools to remain closed until the pandemic ends. Also, 20% of teachers said they would probably not return to the classroom in the Fall. Many will opt to simply transition to retirement.

Yes, there will be significant learning loss in our students. Yes, it will be difficult, at best, to regain. Yes, current information indicates children are at an apparent lower risk of getting Covid than adults, but at the same time, they can be asymptomatic carriers. In Michigan, a reported 30% of union members told their union they will be leaving the profession before the 2020-2021 school year begins, much earlier than they had originally planned.

When It's Time For the Bell, I Won't Be Tardy; I'll Head Into the School Year with Confidence and Peace

Not gonna lie, I'm nervous about it but I'm still planning to go to work. Do I want to? No. However, I see the merit in working with my special needs kids in person. I love my students and want what is best for them. I also want what's best for my family. It is definitely what I want for all of our school communities.

Everyone understands that the school is the pulse of a community. When the schools get back up and running, a sense of normalcy unfolds and life can move on. But will we actually remain in school or will we be sent home again? Will we be left to flounder while working our hardest to provide meaningful learning to our students? Only time will tell.

One thing none of us should do is apologize for feeling the way we feel. Feelings of hesitation and frustration are not bad. They are to be expected. Remove the pressure of perfection. Embrace flexibility. Be as prepared as you can. You will do the best you can because you always do.

Best wishes to everyone for a positive school year. If you're sent home to teach, may you find creative ways to make the most of it. If you're short on PPE, may those come quickly to you. If you're feeling nervous, may someone be placed in your path to bring you peace. If you're feeling bold, may you speak your truth with composure. If you're feeling creative, may you reach out and share your ideas with others. One way or another, we will make this year great and it will be one worth remembering.



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