On Teaching In a Global Pandemic: Before the Storm

Hi. I’m Ali. My students call me Mrs. BG.

This is what I look like today–August 22, 2020. In a little while, I’m headed out the door to be a soccer mom for my own kids at a socially-distant & masked outdoor game. 

I’m a teacher in a large Iowa high school, and I’ve been teaching for 17+ years. I love students–especially teenagers. I love my job. I really enjoy planning for students and thinking with them. The conversations we have? They regularly astonish and delight me. True, I’m not a fan of the paper load that comes with my job or the lack of boundaries the work invites.

…and yes, it’s true that I only get paid for 10 months of the year. 

But everything else about my job is just wonderful. I’m lucky to do meaningful work in a cutting edge district with a democratically-elected school board. Our leaders really believe in students and teachers doing the work of education and they do everything in their power to make that work possible.

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW

First, and most importantly, we’ve lost several students this summer: an sweet eighth grader, a recent alum I was close with, and a beloved rising senior superstar. These losses are grievous to our community–especially after losing three other students earlier in this school year (another much-adored recent alum and two bright and beautiful members of the class of 2020 (here and here).

To be frank, facing another year in which we may see as many–or many more–losses among students, faculty, and staff is nearly unbearable.

But as for the school end of things: while we initially hoped to begin the year in a fully online model, our governor made that impossible (see “Background” below, if interested). So, we moved our start date back several weeks to September 8 to buy some time. Then, this week, we found out that 40-60% of our students and families have elected the optional 100% online academy for first trimester. The remaining 60-40% will be using an A/B day model for hybrid learning. Our master schedule was trashed and our administrators are scrambling to create a new one that takes all these numbers into consideration.

At this point, I’m mostly at home still, just occasionally dropping off loads of supplies to my classroom. I’ve done some things I would have done in a regular summer: I developed easily accessible “apps” for classes I’m likely to teach. I updated my Canvas pages, and began planning opening units. I made my teacher calendar and grade book for the year. I’ve purchased sanitizer, Kleenex, sticky notes and index cards and flare pens and scotch tape in bulk. #CostCo, am I right?

But I’m also doing things I have never done before:

  • Buying PPE – silicone mask spacers, masks, ear-savers, face shields, glasses de-fogger, etc. Thank goodness for Etsy!
  • Shopping for Scrubs & other clothes that can be rewashed in hot water every day.
  • Researching online & hybrid teaching methods. My district even purchased access for us to a course on the topic (yes, I KNOW I’m lucky).
  • Thinking a LOT about how to build social/emotional connections in an unpredictable learning space.
  • Looking for voice amplifiers and air purifiers (too expensive, but on my wishlist).
  • Crying.
  • Trying to figure out how to rearrange 38 seats so that students have six feet of distance between them–and what to do with the other 18 desks in the meantime.
  • Looking into mini-fridges for our basement in case I have to move downstairs to live separately from my family during quarantine or illness.
  • Writing final letters to my family, sorting through old photographs, and updating my will/trust & password logs. I wrote out specific instructions for how to take care of our budgies in case I’m not around to do it for long. I also helped my brother, a respiratory therapist, write his will this summer (Rocket Lawyer’s $5 offer is unbeatable).

None of these things have ever been part of preparing for a school year before, and it seems like maybe… they shouldn’t be?

BACKGROUND (OR, HOW OUR GOVERNOR MADE BACK-TO-SCHOOL IMPOSSIBLY DANGEROUS), For Interested Readers:

In July, our board voted unanimously to begin the school year online until the pandemic got under control, but three days later, our Governor proclaimed that all school districts were required to offer at least 50% of their instruction in-person (face to face), but that parents should be able to choose a 100% online option.

[FWIW: This is the same state government that has refused to issue a mask mandate because “individual Iowans can make their own choices based on where they live,” but has also said my city is not allowed to institute a higher minimum wage in our own city than anywhere else in the state.]

When we suggested the governor was claiming state control over an issue that should be decided locally, she told us she would not give us credit for instructional days that used an online-only model — unless her office had approved it. This is particularly nuts when you consider that if PARENTS choose an online model, the days count. But if the school chooses it, they don’t.

Then her office released these crazy metrics:

For comparison, The WHO recommends schools be closed for face-to-face learning when the 14-day average positivity is at a 5% or more, most scientists put it at 3-7%, and even the politically revised CDC guidelines formerly considered 10% problematic (they no longer assign numerical value to “substantial community spread” on any of their easily accessible documents).

As a result, together with several other large districts and ISEA lawyers, our district crafted a statement of legal defense for going online, and our school board read that statement at an early August meeting.

Then our Governor said “Defy me, and you’re defying the law. I will take away the licensure of your District administrators.” When questioned about the impact on students, faculty, staff, and maintenance crews–including sickness, long-term illness, and death–she said that those things are just “scare tactics.”

At that point, things started to actually become dangerous to our community! We are talking about people’s lives, after all. Plus, the licensure threat was quite personal and retaliatory. Our district, together with several others (and the ISEA) is now pursuing legal action against the governor’s interpretation of law in order to return local control to local school districts and our elected, local, representative school board officials.

She says she’s “disappointed” that we are pursuing “legal action” instead of working “cooperatively” with her on “return to learn” plans that “prioritize students.”

Well, we’re disappointed in HER. We’d like our students to live. We think THAT is what it means to prioritize them. She’s the one asking us to kill them, their parents, their grandparents, and our community with rampant spread of a virus other places have controlled reasonably well is the solution.

 

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