This spring they left their classrooms and, for the first time, were asked to teach from home – with uncertainty around how long and simply, how. This week, schools are asking teachers to return amid new uncertainty around how the coronavirus pandemic will respond to the protective measures they’ve put in place. Small cohorts of students. One-way hallways. Masks and face shields. Added sanitation efforts and synchronous learning.
And as they step up to that task, teachers have also been asked to hold second their own feelings about the return to school. Like any parent or student, many are both excited and scared. Some are sad about closing off their personal lives, once again, to keep their students and schools safe. Others are longing for the community school brings. Some fear death. All crave normalcy. Most are anxious about the learning either way, and feel they are scrambling to plan for an atypical semester after years of experience.
Many are all of these at once. The nuances that dictate their individual response to the school reopening discussion are personal, and multi-faceted – just as they have been for students, parents and administrators alike.
There is no one clear-cut solution for anyone.
It is far from a normal September.
But it’s here. And amid that uncertainty, this is how teachers are returning to school this week. Personal nuances and all.
Lisa Forsgard spent this spring alone, after her husband Chris Kibbe died from pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after school went remote in March.
Her grief was emotionally isolating on its own, but it came on top of a pandemic that also demanded physical isolation.
Until her school family went out of their way to remind her of their presence.
Students and colleagues from North Attleboro High School flooded her mailbox with condolences. Some left socially-distant cookies on her porch. Others planted birch trees in honor of her husband.
Long before the pandemic and his death, students had dedicated the 2019-2020 yearbook to Forsgard. When she finally received a copy last week, she also found a page dedicated to Kibbe inside.
“It was an emotional day,” she said.
It also reaffirmed her decision to return to the classroom. She needs that community now more than ever.
“It was a sign for how much this school comes around you when you’re down,” she said. “As a teacher, I need to be in person. I need to be with the kids. Teachers can’t live without a community around them.”
Forsgard’s doctor tried to advise her against it. She’s older and has some health issues that make her high risk.
But after 29 years in the district, she couldn’t imagine not coming back.
“This is who I am. This is what I do,” she said. “I’m not ready to retire. Financially, I could probably take a year off. But emotionally, I could not. I asked myself, ‘Would you come back at all after that?’”
Instead, she is taking every precaution. She bought a face shield and will up the cleaning practices she has put in place over the last decade: The garbage can, a hotspot for germs from tissues, is far from her desk. She will wipe down desks more frequently than ever.
After a few days in the building, she feels better.
Getting up to speed on the new technology and coronavirus protocols is overwhelming, but will come with practice, she said. There’s a new schedule and she’ll have to figure out how to support her students in class and at home.
But she is excited because teaching public speaking, theater and video production is a bit harder online. It will also allow her to reconnect with students in the Gay Straight Alliance, virtually after school.
“I think, as long as I keep myself safe and my students safe, everything will be OK,” she said. “I am happy to be back.”
When the first cohort of students arrive at North Attleboro High School in person on Thursday, Jeremy Thornton isn’t sure if he will be there to greet them.
Thornton spent the summer preparing virtual lessons for his 10th grade chemistry class, assuming the district would grant him special permission to teach remotely because his wife is at high risk of death if she catches coronavirus.
Last week his application to do so was denied.
“I’ve been up all night for nights thinking, ‘What’s going to happen? Am I going to teach or not teach?’” Thornton said. “Getting that rejection letter was staggering to me. It felt heartless. I was well prepped for the start of the school year — I had one month of lessons prepared. Now the kids are never going to see that.”
Thornton said he feels the administration is doing the best it can to attempt safe in person learning for the majority of students and teachers, who aren’t high risk. But the lack of accommodations for teachers who are is concerning.
“If I get the virus, my family will get the virus as well,” Thornton said. “I’m not saying I want to teach remotely forever. I’m saying, let’s see how things pan out. I don’t want to step in the door on day one. They offered us such little choice and just assumed everyone will come back.
“I would be ready, too, if I didn’t think my young wife would die prematurely because a kid coughed in my classroom. More time and analysis is what I need to feel comfortable; show me you can operate the school for some time with no cases. There are so many unknowns. It’s scary.”
Thornton wants to teach his class remotely, with the students in school in a study hall classroom. Instead, he said, the school department gave teachers one option: Show up, or risk reduced pay and no health insurance.
Thornton questioned the logic of that for students, too.
If high risk teachers leave completely, their positions will likely be filled by substitute teachers to start — who will have to battle synchronous learning and new technology with no prior training.
“They’re telling me my instruction is not as valuable as a random guy walking through the door,” the teacher of 10 years said. “That’s concerning to me.
“I feel bad not seeing my kids directly. My class is hands on, nearly every day we’re doing an experiment. But that being said, with all of the restrictions in place, we’re not going to be able to do that in the classroom this year anyways.”
In the spring, Thornton designed at-home labs testing the pH of soil and analyzing calories in different foods.
“You’re going to throw away that quality education just because I’m not seeing my kids once a week,” he said. (North Attleboro students will attend school in person two days a week, but will attend each subject in person only once.)
He requested a meeting with Superintendent Scott Holcomb as a last plea to teach remote.
Holcomb said Friday the issue of teachers who have applied to teach remote due to health concerns is still under negotiation, along with several other topics. He added, however, that “every decision this year is not an easy decision,” and said he and district administration are approaching these decisions with emotion, kindness and care.
Until Thornton hears back, he hasn’t decided what next week will hold.
On Wednesday, when all students show up for the first day of school remote, he will log into his Google classroom, too.
But come Thursday, he might stay home.
A colleague was struggling to get her computer set for a remote professional development session at Hurley Middle School in Seekonk last week when Britt Eddy decided she needed to step in.
She asked the teacher to move away from her desk and then leaned over to figure out the problem.
And then came the thought, “If this happens with a student, am I allowed to do this?”
Eddy is not sure.
And the issue is even more complex because she works in special education, providing sixth graders with extra support.
“If my kids need me, they need me,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to comfort a child or help them behind Plexiglass 6 feet away. I feel helpless, and my job is to be a helper.”
Eddy is uncertain about how this year will go.
Her year typically starts with a week with just her students. They tour the school, practice their lockers, take pre-academic assessments and go over school rules.
This year, that’s not an option. There will be no lockers, and her students will stay in their individual homerooms without group meetings in Eddy’s classroom. She will travel to them instead.
“It’s going to take time to figure each kid out,” Eddy said.
She is trying to be proactive by — making videos to help with that process. She’s filmed the school tour and has a clip showing “this is me with and without a mask,” to build comfort among her students.
She has six weeks of hybrid lesson plans, but is hesitant to do more — because nobody knows if in-person schooling will last that long.
“I do believe our administrators have worked all summer long to make our building safe, but kids are unpredictable,” she said. “There’s so many unknowns with this virus. We’re doing the best we can, but we don’t know enough.
“To go off into the unknown is a sort of cognitive dissonance.”
That conflict shows up everywhere.
She loves school. She tells her students the best part of teaching is that, every day, someone will say or do something to make her laugh out loud.
But school this year is putting limits on her family. Her daughter is high risk and has already started taking a different route around the house. They have separate laundry days.
Eddy has to cut off contact with her parents, who live 3 miles down the road. She worries about no Thanksgiving or Christmas after a year that already stole so much time from them.
But she understands the perspective of her students and families, too.
She called distance learning in the spring, “crisis learning.” Teachers weren’t allowed to grade students because of the unlevel playing field, and she realizes because of that, parents felt little learning was actually taking place. If that has to happen again this year, it will look totally different, she said.
“We went out on Friday with no plan for Monday,” she said. “I understand parents are worried. We’re worried, too. Parents are stretched. We’re all stretched. There’s no easy answer here. But parents and teachers should be acting as partners, not against each other.
“As we get into the school year, this will get easier. Being in the building this week, there was some semblance of normalcy. I think when the kids get there, we’ll feel better about what we can and can’t do. But I would feel better overall if there wasn’t a raging pandemic going on while we do it.”
Kimberly Birkett is thankful for the extra days of professional development.
The Norton High School English teacher isn’t personally worried about the health risks of returning to school – she is young, unmarried and has no health issues – although she empathizes with those who are.
But in a year that looks different than the last, she was grateful that the state’s teachers unions secured an additional 10 days of professional development to help educators get organized and feel out the expectations around synchronous learning.
“Every day I get a little more comfortable,” she said. “Although, I never thought as a teacher I would be sitting through workshops on sanitation protocols. But I want to keep my kids safe and myself safe.”
She is excited to return to the classroom for her sixth year of teaching.
“It’s been half a year, and that’s crazy to think about,” she said. “It’s hard to develop a relationship online. It’s easier to connect with students face-to-face. Even with masks on, I’m excited for that human contact.”
Planning, however, was a new challenge.
Birkett said she is returning to her “first year teacher ways” of planning lessons one week at a time – instead of an entire semester – unsure how the hybrid schedule will work out or if the school will go remote if there’s an outbreak.
Flexibility as a teacher is always important, but even more so this year.
But in some ways, she is also more confident. The spring, she said, was emergency remote learning.
“Now we understand what we’re doing,” she said. “We have the training. If we go remote, I think it’ll be fine.”
She is grateful for the chance to attempt a hybrid model at first. It allows her to use some of the live lessons she’s already developed over the last six years, instead of starting out totally new.
Teachers were asked to take on extra work this spring, she said. And it seems the same will be asked of them this fall, too.
So criticism of teachers that came around reopening discussions was frustrating, Birkett said. She had to get off social media for awhile to escape it.
“A lot of people just assume teachers don’t want to go back to work,” she said. “We want to go back, but we want to be safe and do it the right way. Unless you’re an educator, you don’t know what that’s like. I’ve just tried to focus on the people supporting teachers and who understand that this is new to all of us. We have the same anxieties as parents and kids do.”
Alex Hatzberger took distance learning in the spring as an opportunity on top of a challenge: “How can I increase access to my material at all times?”
When a student is out sick, how could they still access material tailored by him – and not secondhand notes from friends or generic textbook chapters?
Over the summer he recorded 10 full lessons on different physics topics he teaches at North Attleboro High School. He plans to create more.
“I’m trying to develop something with the technology we have so that the students in class have access, and the students at home have access,” he said.
Sometimes, that is challenging.
Professional development over the last two weeks asked teachers to figure out how to integrate technology into the current curriculum and material, Hatzberger said.
“It’s still a challenge for me to figure out what I want to include, what I don’t and when I want to include it,” he said. “It’s a lot of spinning wheels.”
Many things about this school year seem to be spinning.
Hatzberger said initially this summer, he looked at coronavirus numbers and hoped the district would start off the year fully remote. Then as numbers dipped some, he was grateful for the hybrid approach.
He misses his students.
He starts and ends each class in casual conversation – asking about weekend plans or what movies they recently saw. Distance learning in the spring was too hectic to focus on that, and he lost the rapport the classroom provides.
“I missed that community with my students,” he said.
He is nervous that someone will get sick – whether that’s him and his family, or his coworkers or students. And some things still feel unknown: “Is it safe to stand next to a kid for five or 10 minutes when he has questions for what to do on a lab?”
It is a juggling act, he said.
“I really want nothing more than to be back in my classroom, with all of my students in front of me,” Hatzberger said. “That’s my ideal workday. Not having to worry about them catching the virus or me catching the virus or not having to worry about preventing anybody from getting sick.
“But I am excited to see the kids again when they return. Nervous – it’s obviously different. It’s not our normal circumstances, but I’m hoping for the best.”
Kristin Pickering has a new after-school routine.
She will enter the house she and her elderly mother share through the garage, go up to her apartment upstairs, strip and shower, and throw her clothes in the washer before the rest of her day can continue.
The threat of coronavirus is real to her mother, but also to Pickering, who is high-risk.
But she has no choice but to return to school this year because financially, she can’t afford to take a leave of absence. She owns a house and is the sole caretaker of her mother.
So, part of her back-to-school prep was getting her finances set to make sure her mother is taken care of in the event Pickering does get coronavirus and dies because of it.
She tries not to let that weigh on her too much.
“Reality is, I could walk out of the door tomorrow and get hit by a truck,” she said.
But her sixth grade classroom at North Attleboro Middle School feels different.
She’s not comfortable with the distance between herself and her students, or that they will eat lunch in her classroom with their masks off. The cleaning supplies provided to sanitize her room have chemicals that come with caution labels. And she is worried about ventilation and the virus lingering in the air after mask breaks.
“I question how much teaching will be able to happen around all of the other things we’re now supposed to pay attention to,” she said. “Normally we’re purely focused on academics. Now it’s, ‘How do I keep my kids safe? How do I keep myself safe? How do we keep our families safe?’ Many of my colleagues are high risk. I’m high risk.
“I have no idea what my students do when they leave me. I have no idea of my chances of getting sick, and if I get sick, I will likely die from it.”
She is trying her best.
She’s in a personal lockdown, limiting her social circle to school and home. She told a teacher friend in Foxboro, “See you at Christmas.”
She took six cases of books out of her classroom, which was tough as a reading teacher. She set up her own space around her desk that students will not be allowed to enter – which was tough because those connections drive her teaching.
“I’m a caring person and I want to help kids,” she said. “Now, we’re not able to get close to them.”
She credits the middle school’s administration for helping her feel prepared academically and for the effort this summer that went into mapping one-way hallways and other safety procedures.
But she is still concerned and frustrated that the upper administration and school committee aren’t providing accommodations for those with health problems.
She realizes, this year, however, there isn’t any one perfect solution.
“People say, ‘Well, you got the spring off,’” Pickering said. “I have never worked so hard in my life. I understand people are frustrated. It is incredibly difficult to have your kids home for six months. I understand the need to go to work. But I think people sometimes forget we have our own struggles, our own anxieties, our own families, our own health issues.
“I just feel sometimes their response is, ‘You chose this. So get in or get out.’ I find it disheartening. We work hard. We look at the kids in front of us as our own. They’re our kids. We want the best for their well-being, emotionally, safety-wise and academically. I want people to understand this is not an easy job ever, but it’s even harder now. Cut us some slack. I think this is a colossal undertaking.”