Community Spotlight – Delivered at Sanctuary Community Church in Iowa City, IA – August 30, 2020
A little later than usual, Back to School time has finally arrived. In an ordinary year, many of us would be part of the big mob in that back section at Target, buying notebooks and binders and mechanical pencils. Yellow busses would practice their winding routes through our neighborhoods. Cross Country runners would fly across First Avenue in their lithe groups, and the sound of football players smacking into one another’s pads would echo across Bates field.
Parents would breathe a sigh of relief while also getting ready for bittersweet photos on front stoops. Kids would be dressed up for the first day, and even the schools would be polished & extra fancy with waxed floors and fresh paint, empty lockers and clean desks.
But this year, there’s no mob at Target. The Cross-Country runners don’t flock. And in Iowa City, we learned yesterday that our district will begin with two weeks of all-online learning. There will be no sigh of relief—and none on the horizon for many parents and students who actually need (or just could really use) that sigh.
For teachers—or at least for me—this moment feels like cancelling Christmas. Sure, I knew it wouldn’t be the same this year. Definitely not as social. Six feet apart, everyone in masks. I wouldn’t actually see many of my students’ faces until spring, if even then. It would be face-to-face without faces.
I mean, this is my season! We start the magic! We have the first discussions and solve the first problems, act out the first scenes, and set up the comforting routines.
Instead, it’s a time of chaos. In fact, this summer has been so chaotic and uncertain on the teacher side that I didn’t find out WHAT I was teaching, WHERE I was teaching, or even HOW I was teaching it until the day before yesterday. My schedule for first trimester is a wonky, color-coded nightmare, and just this morning I realized even the color coding is wrong.
Meanwhile, our state “leadership” has determined “metrics” that will send us all back to in-person school well before the World Health Organization or the CDC recommends. And the funny thing about that is—as much as I want to be back in my familiar classroom, back with my beloved students, back to any kind of normal—that was never actually possible this fall. My teaching friends who have gone back say its unnerving and terrible to see chairs filled with masked teenagers who aren’t allowed to talk much to each other for fear of spreading illness. Their students prefer online days—just for the chance to see one another’s expressions.
Pretending that any of this is normal creates another kind of chaos: fear.
While I know statistically most of my students will be okay–they’re highly unlikely to become severely ill–losing even one of them fills me with unshakeable dread.
But I’m also afraid for myself and my colleagues. We are the adults, those most at risk, who will be spending our days with large groups of humans in poorly ventilated buildings using common bathrooms and eating spaces, while having little access to handwashing.
So I’m doing back to school — differently. I’m buying scrubs and shirts that can be washed in hot water. Face shields and masks and ear protectors and headbands. I’m still debating about a voice amplifier, since I don’t think students at the back of the room will be able to hear me through all the PPE.
I’ve also done some other, more personal, things to prepare for the eventuality of face-to-face school. I updated the file with all of my passwords and logins, compiled detailed instructions for how to take care of our parakeets, and wrote a final letter to my family.
I know that’s a little gloomy and macabre. But so is sending students and teachers back to in-person school in the middle of a global pandemic.
Still, if I pause…
…if I stop and think about just this moment, just this day—it’s good-ish. Here in Iowa City, we have two weeks of online learning guaranteed, and it’s possible that the worst of this terrible wave in our county and state will be over by the time we are face to face—or mask-to-mask—with our students.
I’ve got exciting plans to make online learning dynamic. I know lots of teachers do. Many of us spent our summers anticipating online learning, studying tech tips, and figuring out how to mobilize our imaginations for a different kind of school.
But what it really comes down to–at least this morning–is this: part of me is utterly delighted that (at least for these two weeks), I’m going to see all my students’ faces, even though it’s just on camera.