I have anxiety – mixed with optimism – as students return to my classroom

We're in a better place than a year ago, but concerns and challenges abound

NEXT WEEK I will be back in my classroom welcoming a new batch of sixth graders to the new school year. In some ways, this end of summer period reminds me of the uncertainty and anxiety of last summer, but this time things are different. I have a swirling knot of sometimes contradictory emotions about this return to school — anxiety for myself and my students’ wellbeing in a time marked by the Delta variant, relief that school will be back full time and students won’t be isolated at home as many of them were in 2020, and an acceptance that things will be unpredictable. Here are some of the things weighing on my mind as I set up my classroom.

We are still enduring the pandemic.

This summer has felt like an emotional roller coaster. At the end of the school year in June, I came home and tossed my collection of masks in a bottom drawer of my desk, thinking they would be like artifacts from a weird time in my career. As the summer rolled on, it became clearer and clearer that the Delta variant, overly optimistic projections, and a sinister movement of vaccine hesitancy all combined to reverse so much of the progress we had made in the fight against COVID. Despite this, I still feel much more confident than I did at this time last year.

We have new therapeutics, more people are getting vaccinated, we know so much more about this virus than we did, and we also know how to mitigate risk in our schools. We still have to be smart, vigilant, and proactive in keeping COVID at bay. 

Leadership matters.

Throughout the pandemic, leaders have had to make tough decisions and balance the interests of many different stakeholders, often with strident, mutually exclusive views. In going back into the classroom this fall, I am feeling very fortunate to be where I am. Here in Massachusetts, we have higher vaccination rates than many other states. At the end of the last school year, I had many of my sixth grade students — most of whom turned 12 during the year —  take time to get vaccinated and I worked in a school with an almost universal vaccinated status among staff.

This fall, because my students are only 11 at the start of the school year, it is on teachers, district leadership, and policymakers to help keep these unvaccinated students safe. I was very happy to see the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education give Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to mandate masking in our schools. I am ready to wear mine knowing that it is a proven way to mitigate the spread of the virus.

I am also heartened to see my district and my local union working cooperatively with the School Committee to ensure that we have the resources we need and the protocols in place to plan for the unexpected. We have strong policies in place when it comes to masking, building air quality, and contact tracing. These are all important tools school leaders have at their disposal, though the most important goal is to build and maintain trust between teachers and policymakers. 

The loudest voices do not always represent the majority.

One of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of this back-to-school season has been the focus on the most contentious, most extreme voices around things like vaccine mandates, masking, and other mitigation strategies. Common features of both news accounts and social media around the reopening of our schools have been images of sign-wielding picketers at anti-mask demonstrations, school board meetings that devolve into shouting matches, and even threats of physical violence against teachers or health care workers. 

What seems to be missing is the majority of community members, parents, teachers, and students who agree that we need to take mitigation measures to protect all of us from this virus and its contagious new variant. I am fortunate to work in a town where there is general alignment among leaders, teachers, and parents about how to collaborate to make this school year a successful one, though I know that many of my teaching colleagues elsewhere in the country do not work under such a consensus. 

We have hard work ahead of us.

Aside from the pandemic, this is going to be a challenging year for all teachers and students, with many chances to capitalize on new opportunities while facing real hurdles. We know that students have had gaps in learning since March of 2020, and that inequities that existed before are now greatly exacerbated. We will be helping our students build and reinforce their academic skills and knowledge, while also helping them process the anxiety, trauma, and social isolation many of them faced during the last 18 months. 

Our guidance counselors will be especially burdened this year, and all school staff will in some ways be mental health supports for our kids. One danger we face is that once begun, the school year slips back into a “normal” routine without fully addressing many of the challenges this pandemic has illuminated for us. Student mental wellbeing, systemic racism, academic inequality, and aging building infrastructure were all preexisting conditions in our schools.

Meet the Author

The pandemic has allowed the community at large to reconsider just how important our schools are, and I hope that focus continues. Reopening school and welcoming my new students into my classroom is just the beginning of a very long year ahead. I am optimistic by nature, and I know this year will be challenging, but I am excited to see my new students and start this work together.

Stephen Guerriero is a sixth grade social studies teacher in the Needham Public Schools and is vice president for communications of the Needham Education Association. He also serves on the national policy advisory board of Teach Plus, an organization that promotes teacher voice in educational policy decisions.