Hard to Believe…

It is hard to believe but we are coming up to the one-year anniversary when everything I knew about being a middle school teacher pivoted to such an extent that I’m still recovering from it. I would have liked to say that I regularly kept a journal of my experiences of suddenly switching to remote learning last spring, but I got caught up in all of the craziness and found myself overwhelmed pretty much all.of.the.time.

First and foremost on my mind back in March was what was going to happen to my kids — my students. I felt like I had been forcibly separated from them. I think we ended up muddling through it all as best we could though.

The start of the 2020-2021 school year was chaotic at best. But eventually a routine was established–that kinda worked. The one bright spot was that I had to switch up what I normally teach because it didn’t translate well online–which makes total sense because online learning looks vastly different than face-to-face learning (as it should) because of the philosophy and strategies that are foundational to each respective learning environment.

Since I teach a semester course, I get a chance to start fresh every 20 weeks. In fact, I had a new crop of middle schoolers who began showing up in my Zoom sessions last week. =) One of the first assignments I had them do was record a short video in Flipgrid titled “My Favorite Thing!” The purpose of this video was for me to get to know how to pronounce their name, learn what they’d rather be called (aka nickname), hear how they speak and articulate, and find out a little bit about their favorite thing. And, better yet, I got to SEE their faces. What I love about middle schoolers is their personality…it runs the gamut, and I love it!

It is hard to not be able to see their faces in person…but it’s even more hard because in the remote learning environment non-verbal cues and small talk are basically non-existent. And, I really miss that. But I’m hoping that since this is basically my third attempt at teaching world history online that I’ll do a better job this time around. #fingerscrossed

I have a new unit planned for Quarter 1 that follows the principles of Understanding by Design (Ubd). The Operation: Hamster Wheel unit from last semester turned out WAY better than I could have ever hoped, so I am working hard to create a UbD unit for Quarter 1 that encompasses what I’m supposed to teach my students. As I love creating and designing, you can imagine that I am in my happy place right now. I am looking forward to the weekend when I will have a huge block of uninterrupted time to plan, play, recreate, and redesign. It’s a messy process, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

During this pandemic, we need to find the silver linings where we can. And I’ve found it with my middle schoolers. Those who say that students are losing out being online are ignoring the silver linings that these children are finding themselves. But that’s blog post for another time.

Six Days

it be like that sometimes

On November 12, my school re-opened for in-person instruction.

On November 20, we received word that our school was moving back to fully distance learning.

We lasted six days.

Our hybrid model allowed parents (and students) to choose whether to attend school in-person or continue with distance learning. At the beginning, our in-person students comprised a little over 50% of our school’s population. By the time we received word that our county was moved back to the purple tier, the number of parents (and students) choosing distance learning was over 55%. We had changes almost on a daily basis.

The numbers in the zip codes for my school have been going up exponentially (in line with many areas in our state and country). But in one particular zip code (where more than 50% of our students live), the case rate doubled in one week’s time.

Double digits.

Yikes.

My administration (especially our new rockstar principal) has worked tirelessly to get the school ready for the teachers and students. He has been nothing short of AH-mazing. Our custodial staff has also worked diligently to get our rooms configured to allow for six feet of physical distancing. They moved furniture to two storage units; they installed plexiglass shields on student desks; they put together and delivered plexiglass shields for teachers. The amount of money poured into purchasing hand sanitizer, paper towels, gloves, face shields, masks, thermometers, signage, portable hand-washing stations, touchless water bottle refill stations, plexiglass (of all shapes and sizes), external monitors, and cleaning supplies was probably astronomical. We also hired more custodial staff to clean the quads and bathrooms between passing periods. I don’t know the entire cost, but I know it was A LOT.

And now our school has closed for in-person instruction.

We lasted six days.

I have no words.

But…I am upset at the fact that, once again, I was unable to speak directly to my in-person students about moving back to fully distance learning. We were told wait until the district sent a message to all families at the conclusion of the school day. I felt like a fraud all day on Friday knowing that this would be the last time my kids were going to be able to see each other and their teachers for awhile and they had no clue.

I’m kind of glad I had to wear a mask so that they couldn’t see what my face was likely portraying.

But I hated that I had to post an announcement after 5PM on a Friday to let them know that everything was going to be okay – instead of assuring them of that fact in-person.

It sucked. Just like it sucked March 13.

Six days.

T-Minus 6 Days

March 13 is a day that will forever be seared into my mind as it was the last day I spent time with my students in the physical classroom. Since then, along with many dedicated teachers, I have worked tirelessly to provide meaningful learning opportunities that hopefully established a sense of “normalcy” and camaraderie online. I cherish the moments I had with my students last spring as they were a neat group of kids.

Fast forward to today, November 3. Last week, we were given word by my district that our school was among the Tier 2 Schools (not to be mixed up with the tiers used by the State of California to determine covid infection rates) which would be opening for in-person instruction on November 12. In spite of my concerns, erratic emotions, and general disbelief at having to return while cases are increasing in my school’s zip codes, I have to admit that my current administrator (he’s new to us this year, but he is certainly not new to this position as this is his 35th year in the public schools) has worked so diligently and thoughtfully on our behalf to ensure (to the best of his ability) that all teachers would feel safe when returning to in-person instruction.

Full disclosure: I am not comfortable returning to in-person instruction. Not only do I worry about my husband who has a compromised immune system, but I also worry for my own general health. The data and reports about the severity (or not) or the longevity (or not) of the symptoms are big red flags for me.

Working at a Title I school, I am sensitive to the needs of our most vulnerable students. I have heard too many heart-breaking stories about their homelife and the day-to-day struggles that many of their parents face. I know that many of my students do not have their own devices let alone reliable Internet connectivity. The push to close the digital access gap is real, folks. I mean, it’s been around for far too many years, but this year…the gaps are glaringly obvious. So, yes, I get that my students would benefit more if

  • They were in a physical classroom so that they could receive immediate support from their teachers
  • They could easily have access to two hot meals a day (breakfast and lunch)
  • They could interact with their peers to develop important social skills
  • They had reliable access to technology devices and the Internet
  • They had a safe place to be while their parents worked
  • They knew an adult was readily available if they needed help
  • They had the opportunity to be with their friends and make new ones

Yes, I realize that this is but a short list of benefits for my students.

But, I also know that more than 50% of our parents do not want their child to return to in-person instruction at this time. In fact, today I found out that more parents and students are opting to continue with the distance learning option out of concern about their health and safety.

So why are we going back to in-person instruction at this time? Well, it’s certainly not because the students will receive more instructional time (in fact, they are going to receive less instructional time than if we had stayed with the fully distance learning model). It’s also not because returning to in-person instruction will give students the opportunity to develop social skills–how is that possible with wearing masks and maintaining six-feet a part at all times? Students are not going to eating lunch together, they are not going to hanging out after school with their friends, they are not going to be engaging in many of social celebrations and activities that we used to have pre-March 13.

In fact, what awaits our students are desks measured six-feet a part or tables with a plexiglass shield down the middle. Their expressions are going to be hidden behind masks which they have to wear the entire time while on campus. Our students have to abide by one-way hallways. No short-cuts allowed. They are limited on what they can do during the passing period as it’s no longer about hanging out with friends in the quad. Students are going to still be served lunch, but it’s grab-and-go. No socializing over food for them.

No club activities.

No after school sports.

No enrichment programs such as robotics or photography.

Oh, and did I mention that they will have reduced instructional minutes with their teachers?

So, I guess I’m not seeing the overall benefit to returning to in-person instruction at this time especially when taking into account the added stress of possibly contracting the virus with the increased number of contact between people. This is not only a concern of mine, but for my students as well (yes, I have surveyed them multiple times so far this year).

I am a career educator. This is my 26th year in the classroom. I love my students. I love my colleagues. And I love teaching. But in light of the limitations we have to work with at this time, I do not see how the benefits outweigh the costs of returning to in-person instruction in six days.

Someone needs to get me off this roller coaster called 2020.