Teaching during a pandemic: Everything is changing

  • It’s August now – the month when teachers traditionally decorate their bulletin boards, prepare their lesson plans, and get ready to welcome a new group of students to their classroom.

    At least that’s what happens in a normal year.

    This year, of course, belongs to COVID-19. It has changed everything about life as we knew it – health, employment, even grocery shopping and how we interact with one another. And right now, there’s a huge focus on our schools. Will they open? Can they open safely, or is online learning better right now? And if schools do open, what exactly is a teacher’s role in enforcing safety measures like social distancing and the use of masks?

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    Teachers, school-bus drivers, administrators and school workers will be the next category of front-line workers in the pandemic, joining health-care workers and providers of essential services. Many are worried enough to consider quitting or retiring; an Education Week Research Center poll in May surveyed nearly 2,000 educators – about half of those were teachers – on their feelings about returning to school in the fall. When asked about whether they were considering leaving teaching before the pandemic, 82 percent said “very unlikely;” yet that number fell to 61 percent after coronavirus closed the schools in the spring. And when asked if the pandemic would make them more likely to leave, 37 percent said they were “somewhat more likely to leave” and seven percent said they were “much more likely to leave.”  Those who were surveyed are also worried about underlying health conditions; nearly 36 percent said they have such a health condition, and nearly 70 percent cited a loved one who does.

    Another survey, conducted by the Michigan Education Association, found that nearly a fourth of educators in that state are considering leaving their jobs. A USA Today-Ipsos poll conducted online in May found that 20 percent say they are “unlikely” to return. And teachers who are mothers of their own children must balance the need to care for their students with caring for their own kids.

    “Like many working parents and caregivers during this pandemic, I have struggled to balance work with child care, home schooling and keeping my family safe from COVID-19,” writes Heather Mace, a teacher-mentor in Tucson, Arizona, in a post printed in The Washington Post. “It was exhausting, stressful and ultimately unsustainable. For that reason, like many mothers, I am weighing the difficult decision of whether to opt out of the workforce when school resumes in a few weeks.

    “If districts don’t address the unique needs of teachers with children, many teachers will make the tough choice to prioritize their families over their students,” Mace continues. “This means they may quit the profession precisely when we need them most.”

    Mercedes Schneider is a Louisiana high school teacher with 28 years of experience who has published three books about education and is the writer of a blog called Deutsch29. On August 2, she wrote about preparing her classroom to teach during the pandemic:

    “My desk is bare except for my roll book, my Plexiglas clipboard (which may prove useful as a barrier) and my hand sanitizer. No Kleenex on the desk since an open box of tissue could become contaminated by COVID-19. No classroom set of books, either, so I dissembled the bookshelf to make room for socially distanced student desks.”

    She writes about moving her podium and reading stool farther back from her students, and notes that she’ll have to clean her room between classes.

    “As for the socially-distanced student desks: I usually have 29 student desks in my room. However, in order to meet the six-feet-distancing requirement (and with the only bookshelf in the room dissembled), I can fit 14 desks without blocking doorways or without having to pass through the rows in order to reach my desk from the hallway entrance into my room… I also purchased three sets of scrubs to wear in lieu of my usual professional clothes. Our superintendent notified teachers that as per frequent teacher request, wearing scrubs will be allowed. (They are easy to wash.)”

    That’s a snapshot of how two teachers are feeling right now.

    If schools open, many will follow the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Considerations for Schools: Operating Schools during COVID-19.” The guidelines outline a school system that operates very differently from the past:

    • Classrooms should be smaller.
    • Small groups of students should stay with one teacher throughout the day and not mix with other groups. Unless attendance is staggered, this will make more teachers necessary.
    • Students should be spaced six feet apart and should not share any objects. This will necessitate the complete rethinking of classrooms where students sit in pods together and help one another. The CDC also recommends that all students face the same direction, another change especially for classrooms of younger students.
    • Masks should be worn by staff, and by students as much as is feasible, especially older students. The CDC acknowledges that wearing face coverings all day will be hard for younger students.
    • Hand hygiene is critical. Hand-washing done correctly and the availability of hand sanitizer, tissues, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, and no-touch trash cans are cited, as is covering coughs and sneezes with tissues.
    • Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. Door handles, drinking fountains (if they remain available), gym equipment, playground equipment, any shared toys or supplies, need to be cleaned between uses. Schedules need to be designed to include more routine cleaning and disinfection.
    • Open doors and windows to increase circulation. This is a vast departure from most schools today, which keep doors and windows locked as a precaution against active shooting incidents.
    • Hallways should have one-way routes and students should stay six feet apart in lines.
    • Shared spaces – including cafeterias, playgrounds, libraries – should either be closed or frequently cleaned and disinfected.
    • Students should bring their own meals, or eat in classrooms instead of a dining hall. In addition, disposable utensils and dishes are preferred.
    • Gatherings and field trips should be virtual if possible. Nonessential visitors to the classroom should be limited.
    • Staff and students need to stay home when they are sick, when they suspect that they may have the coronavirus, or when they have been exposed to someone who does. The challenge? Many people who have the virus are asymptomatic, but can still spread the virus.
    • And schools need preparations for when someone becomes sick. This includes communicating to others, isolating and transporting those who are ill, create an isolation room for those who may have been exposed, waiting 24 hours and then cleaning and disinfecting the areas where the sick person has been; and notifying health officials and close contacts.

    Whew, you say. That’s a lot. And here’s the thing: That’s not even all of it. The CDC has separate pages for cleaning and disinfection, hand-washing, face coverings, social distancing, managing stress, higher-risk populations, and more.

    During this time of multiple challenges, teacher-self care is likely to go by the wayside – but that’s a mistake. Staying healthy and well is more crucial than ever. In addition to practicing COVID-19 precautions, the ability to practice self-care will have a direct impact on a teacher’s mental and physical health. Teachers looking for continuing education courses right now might consider Dominican University Online’s Teacher Self-Care series, including “Teacher Self-Care: Managing Work and Life” (two credits, EDUO 9053), “Teacher Self-Care: The Science of Gratitude”  (two credits, EDUO 9052), “Teacher Self-Care: Building Social Connections and Support Systems” (two credits, EDUO 9051) and “Implementing Self-Care for Educators” (one or two credits, EDUO 9054).

    And in the meantime, stay safe.

    Photo credit: Ana Belen Garcia Sanchez  via iStock photo