Would school be in-person, remote, or hybrid? It was anybody’s guess.
For teachers, the end of summer is always a hectic time. Teachers can be found setting up their classrooms, writing lessons plans, attending staff meetings, and stocking up on school supplies. The start of the 2020–2021 school year did not involve any of these traditional benchmarks. Just over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic showed no signs of abating. Vaccines were not yet available. Trump was still president and denying the severity of the pandemic. All while the public engaged in a vicious battle over whether or not to reopen school buildings.
Decisions about school reopenings were left up to state and local governments. The end result was a bizarre patchwork of contradictory policies. Some schools were entirely in-person; others were entirely remote. Several school systems chose a third option known as hybrid school, in which students were separated into cohorts and rotated days for in-person learning. Depending on the school district, parents were sometimes allowed to choose whether or not they wanted their children to go to school remotely or in-person. There was no consistency. Decisions varied from school district to school district.
As of last summer, very few school districts made a decision. Teachers were consequently paralyzed. Would the school buildings be reopened? Would it be safe? Would school still be held online? Would there be a hybrid option? Could teachers with preexisting medical conditions continue to teach from home? No one knew. There were no answers. If a decision was made, it could change the next day. Without any definitive answers, many teachers planned for the worst. Instead of buying discounted pencils and graph paper, teachers frantically bought overpriced cleaning supplies and PPE. Some preemptively wrote their own obituaries, while others left the profession entirely.
It was a torturous time for teachers. On a pragmatic level, they had no idea how they were going to do their jobs. But on a personal level, teachers were deeply unmoored by the public’s flagrant disregard for their safety.
In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that I am the daughter of two veteran public school teachers. As I watched my parents embark on their forty-second and thirty-eighth years of teaching, without any answers as to how they would be teaching, I wondered how other teachers would cope in the upcoming school year. Now that the 2020–2021 school year has ended, I wanted to delve into these stories. I interviewed fifty teachers throughout the country about their experiences during the past school year. We discussed how they taught, safety in schools, COVID-19 protocols, PPE availability, quarantine procedures, the public’s views on educators, and how the pandemic could impact education in the future.
My interviewees held nothing back. They shared with me deeply personal accounts of trauma, hardship, despair, and systemic corruption. Although I had initially planned to write one article, the information I was provided was so overwhelming that I decided to break it down into a four-part series.
Let’s start at the beginning: how were teachers going to teach? Well, no one really knew. The overwhelming majority of respondents, seventy-eight percent, stated that a decision was not made as to how they were going to teach, whether it was in-person, remotely, or hybrid until August or September. Even if there was a decision, it was subject to change. Fifty-six percent of the teachers I interviewed said that how they taught changed throughout the year. Sometimes, with just a day’s notice.
Coping with that uncertainty was difficult, to say the least. Teaching is a profession that necessitates meticulous preparation and foresight. When teachers didn’t know if school was going to be online, in-person, or hybrid, they found it nearly impossible to create lesson plans. As one teacher explained, “It was highly frustrating especially, as teachers, we plan and know what we are doing ahead of time. I was scared, nervous, and did not know what I was doing.”
A lesson plan that was created for the classroom might not work in an online format. To address this problem, some teachers were required to create lesson plans for in-person, virtual, and hybrid teaching, effectively tripling their workload. That was a lot to ask of teachers, who were already stretched too thin. Moreover, much of this additional work was for naught: “…sometimes we were asked to get ready for a change that did not occur. There was a lot of work done that ended up being unused when the Board [of Education] chose another path.” It wasn’t just difficult for the teachers: students also suffered. According to one teacher, “I had to plan so many back-up lessons and plans for if things were to rapidly change again. Students were thrown off of routines and lost learning progression because of it.”
Virtually every teacher that I interviewed said that not knowing how they were going to teach negatively impacted their mental and physical health. Several teachers reported an increase in stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and mental and physical health issues. Some required medication for anxiety, depression, or insomnia. One teacher shared a particularly gut-wrenching experience of how this uncertainty impacted her health and family relationships: “I spent a lot of money on Amazon and slept a lot on the weekends and fought with my spouse a lot. I cried every day and I got so stressed I developed golf ball-sized-lumps in my armpits.”
The vast majority of respondents, seventy-four percent, did some form of hybrid teaching during the past school year. As previously mentioned, in a hybrid school setting students were separated into cohorts and alternated days that they went to school in-person and remotely. For teachers, however, this form of school meant that they were in the building every school day. They were responsible for teaching both the in-person and remote students simultaneously. If this sounds overwhelming, that’s because it was.
One teacher described hybrid teaching as a terrible combination of two independently challenging jobs: “It was beyond difficult. You take two things that are hard; teaching and remote teaching and put them together.” Teachers had to supervise and teach students in their classroom, enforce COVID-19 protocols, teach students who were home, and monitor the online chat. This arrangement proved to be a nearly impossible task. Teachers simply could not equally divide their attention three different ways and give all students the attention they need. Both groups got shortchanged. It became less about teaching and more about containing the chaos. As one teacher explained, “It was like air traffic control and about as stressful.”
The difficultly of hybrid teaching also varied based on the subject area. In other words, some subjects were more conducive to online and in-person instruction than others. A choir teacher discussed with me the impossibility of teaching both in-person and online instruction: “Kids at home could sing, but my students in-person couldn’t sing unless we went outside. If we went outside, I would lose the [internet signal], so the kids at home couldn’t come out.”
Math and science teachers also struggled to create lessons that could be done by students both remotely and in-person. Scientific labs can’t be done at home. How were science teachers supposed to instruct students who couldn’t perform the labs? One science teacher explained their solution: “I ended up videotaping myself doing the lab and posting the video for students to get their data from.”
Math teachers experienced similar problems. Answers to math problems can’t be typed easily on a computer. Math instruction also can’t be adequately given without an interactive visual aid, like a whiteboard. A math teacher talked me through how she addressed these problems to accommodate both sets of students. The teacher would use a tablet to teach the lesson and demonstrate math problems. The tablet screen was shared on her computer, which could be viewed by students at home and in the classroom. To turn in their work, students would take a picture of their notebooks with their school-provided Chromebooks and turn in digital copies on Google Classroom. It was an incredibly challenging system that took months to develop.
Teachers who teach special education or life-skills students found hybrid teaching to be particularly daunting. Students with educational delays require consistent routines and uninterrupted attention from their teachers. Hybrid teaching obliterated this dynamic: “I teach life skills and my students were on the computer and in-person. The virtual students received most of my attention and my paraprofessionals managed the students in my classroom, as I taught generally to both. I was essentially chained to my desk.” As far as the actual lessons, very little could be taught: “Special education students learn better in-person. Discussions were a flop for the most part.”
Hybrid teaching was clearly overwhelming for most teachers. In spite of the difficulties they faced, teachers did the work anyway. Teachers rose to the occasion, as they so often do. They tolerated an exponential increase in their workloads, taught themselves new technology, and did their best to accommodate their students at school and at home. I want to thank all of the teachers who I interviewed and made who this series possible. Your hard work and sacrifices should be recognized and respected. Please return to my page next week for part two.