My students will soon all return, and I’m thrilled
After 13 months of Zoom, hybrid, and stress, a real classroom again
ON THURSDAY, I will have a full class in my classroom for the first time in 13 months. Though I know the risk of COVID spreading in our schools is not zero, we are at a point where bringing all kids back is the right move. Having said that, I recognize that I am speaking from a point of privilege – I am fortunate to have been vaccinated, to work in a district with the resources to keep my students socially distant, and to even have a classroom with windows that open. I also know that the anxiety and trepidation that my colleagues within and outside of my district feel are real.
But I have seen how challenging it is for students to have suffered from isolation, from academic and emotional setbacks, and how inequitably the burden has fallen on families. When I consider where we were in our frenetic and fraught conversations about opening schools last August, I can see how far we have come. My students are very good about keeping their masks on, keeping their distances from one another physically (with reminders – they are sixth graders, after all), and what I get from them is an overall sense of being glad to be back in school.
When we were looking at the terrible COVID statistics of this past fall and winter, opening schools even in a hybrid model was an act of faith, and the result of so much work. My district brought students back hybrid the third week of September. Doing so required hours of planning at the school, district, and classroom level. Our local teachers union, of which I am an officer, negotiated in good faith with our district separate memoranda of understanding to address health and safety, teaching and learning, and the expectations we had for students, staff, administration, and families. Only through cooperation and tough conversations were we able to strike the right balance between risk mitigation and student wellbeing.
Yes, there were positive cases in the school community. We all lived through the collective trauma of the second and third waves, and are still grappling with the consequences of the toll they have taken on all of our lives, and particularly on our and our students’ mental health. Given this, I still believe that a caring school community is the greatest asset to our kids and families.
Right now, I am finalizing my new class rosters. I’m organizing my seating charts, and the custodians have put neon pink X’s on the floor with duct tape to mark precisely where each desk needs to be. I’m hoping for warm spring weather, because I know that my classroom windows will be open all day to bring in fresh air – though I haven’t decided how I’ll handle things when the beginner band class practices in the parking lot just outside.
I will not miss planning activities for the kids in my room and for those on Zoom every week. I will still be participating in the district’s voluntary COVID surveillance testing every week. I trust my colleagues, and I know we have done everything in our power to help our students all come back a little bit closer to normal. Sometimes, I do have doubts, especially when I look at social media or hear from fellow teachers who are not in the same mindset. Many schools do not have the resources mine does. We know that this pandemic has hit our communities of color hardest, and that includes teachers and education support staff of color. We know that the economic hits have been hard and lasting on those that could least withstand them. We have an obligation to make sure that resources and planning are direct and purposeful in addressing inequities built into the system. Much of this work will also go on beyond the ebb of this pandemic, and should continue to keep equity as a guiding principle in all educators’ work.As for me, on Thursday morning I will be wearing my favorite mask, one that shows a giant octopus from an ancient Greek vase, and welcoming the two halves of my cluster to meet each other. For the first time this year, all of them will be there in person on the same day in front of me. And in that moment, I will be so glad to see them.
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.