Teaching in the Time of Covid

Contributed by Paige Barnett.

This is one science teacher’s personal account of being thrust into online teaching and learning.  

Covid log March 2:  “Dear Staff, As you are aware, there is much news and legitimate discussion regarding the coronavirus among our community and schools.  Administration from both the middle school and high school met today to talk about the development of the coronavirus and any potential impact to our school. We are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the New Jersey Department of Health, and the Monmouth County Health Department to keep our school safe from the spread of disease.”  Thereafter, our director outlined the precautions our school would be taking.

Background: As a pre-vet/animal science major in college. I had a fabulous microbiology professor who once used a lab to demonstrate how quickly disease can spread. I never forgot the lesson. The concept of quarantine is nothing new in the world of agriculture. It’s practiced regularly and with success in saving lives; because that’s precisely the point, to stop the spread of disease and to save lives.  Livestock can not cross state lines without health certs. Why? So that if disease breaks out it can be traced to the origin and stopped. It’s called practicing biosecurity.  I’ve experienced quarantine of entire farms and have practiced biosecurity measures and it works.

When Covid-19 cases were reported in Washington state, I began educating myself on the epidemiology of this disease. What gave me pause is the stealth of this virus with a two week, asymptomatic incubation period.  I teach in a private school where our students come from many sending districts.  My first thought was…”We’re (faculty and staff) sitting ducks.” 

The reality of this is, all teachers in all districts across the country are sitting ducks. Even before directed by our administration, I began teaching my students about proper hand washing, not touching their faces, and wiping down their desks before and after class.  They all, (I hope) will remember what I taught them about how disease spreads and will continue to protect themselves. Many of my students live in counties that were hardest hit by Covid-19.  While I can’t be sure of who lost loved ones, we lost two members of our immediate school community.  The grief is real.

Flashback to March 13th: We attended an emergency meeting on Friday, March 13th (go figure). We discussed how to proceed with online learning.  I hoped we could meet with students on Monday and walk them through the process, but alas, it was not to be. The dreaded email arrived March 15th stating we would be teaching online beginning Monday March 16th. To the credit of our administration, staff, and IT department we went live and online in less than 72 hours!  IT made sure students who didn’t have computers received one and a hot spot so they’d have access to online learning.  As for me, I began preparing a few weeks prior. I uploaded files to the cloud so I’d have remote access. I was familiar with how to use Zoom meetings and was already using Google classroom to upload assignments. That was the easy part. The hard part…interacting, creating and maintaining relationships with students via a virtual classroom.  

Nothing can replace teaching in-person. Nothing. I mean, forget about the fact that teaching science is a hands-on kind of learning. The real challenge is in maintaining robust relationships where we can gauge our students, read their body language, and adjust to their needs. This is lost in a virtual classroom. Relationships with the students are at the heart of teaching. Being able to create an environment where students can check their baggage at the classroom door and just be a student in a safe space is lost.  Aside from relationships, what normally could be accounted for in person such as homework, behaviors etc, now had to be sent in multiple emails to parents, administration and documented in our online school accounting and attendance system.  

Teaching online is, in a word, stressful. Very.

Fast forward to September:  Fall is quickly approaching. It will not be business as usual.  Districts are scrambling to prepare their schools with safety policies and procedures.  As for my school, I have concerns.  So many questions, such as will we be able to keep the six feet spacing? How will students move from class to class?  Will we have our ventilation system updated with U.V. filtration systems?  How will students use the bathroom?  How will students get their lunch?  How will students be held accountable for maintaining their distance?   I am already well aware that some of our elementary students are resisting the mask mandate.  What will this look like?  Will we offer remote learning for parents who choose to keep their children home?  I am concerned for our immuno-compromised staff and family members.  What will it look like if someone from our school tests positive for Covid?  

Is it worth the risk?  I say, no it’s not. I’ve voiced my opinions and I’ve even been asked by human resources if I plan to return to school. Will we receive hazard pay?  Do I get a choice about teaching remotely if I want or need to? I do plan to return, but putting my life on the line certainly was never something I thought I’d have to do for teaching. Suffice it to say, I will have to “put my affairs in order” before returning this fall. I’ve also ordered all the PPE I will need to protect myself. Never thought I’d have to order PPE for the classroom.  Wonder if I can write that off?  Oh yeah, right. The Trump tax reform took away write-offs for teachers who purchase school supplies.    

And now a little about science education.  It matters. It matters because the public should understand the urgency of how contagious Covid-19 is and how to best protect themselves.  Wearing a mask shouldn’t even be a question about constitutional rights. It is pointedly a matter of life-saving consideration for others. I am thankful for the knowledge I could share with my students. They understand the science of the situation and most importantly could prepare and protect themselves. What’s maddening, is that all of this –  ALL. OF. THIS. – could have been prevented.  It’s mind boggling to me that Trump dismantled the pandemic team.  In my gut, I knew that we were in for a long haul.  I just hope the people who have died will not have died in vain, that the masses will be motivated to vote their values and that their values include saving the lives of others.  

Godspeed to the teachers.

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