The Challenges of Going Back to School

Parents, teachers, and students share their anxieties over starting the fall semester while COVID-19 is still rampant

We asked our readers how they were feeling about starting the fall semester, now six months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what they told us.

When Teachers Are the Ones Being Tested

Teachers being used as "part of the experiment" is not a huge surprise to anyone who has been a teacher in the U.S. and particularly Texas. I love teaching and being with kids, and most teachers I know feel the same, but even though people talk about how hard teaching is and how important teachers are, we are not really respected. Not getting paid the way we should to do what we do every day is just the beginning of a long list of ways we are not shown respect or really importance. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is once again being shown that talking about how important our kids are and how teachers deserve better pay, we [students and teachers] are being used as part of an experiment and the decisions about going back into school buildings are being made by people who have either forgotten or have no idea what a day in the life of a student and/or teacher is really like, or even worse, don't really care. Would you send your child, mom, dad, husband, wife, friend into a building where there was an active shooter? In this case, COVID-19 is the shooter.

Cheryl Jones has been a teacher in Texas public schools for 35 years.

Staying Virtual for Now

Watching what has been going on in this community feels like watching a train wreck. Even though I know some of our families are not happy with our decision to stay virtual until we know for certain that it is completely safe to go back, at least I know I haven't put any of my staff, students, or their families at risk. I think what Paxton is doing is unconscionable. I literally am up at night worrying for everyone out there. As a teacher, it's not possible to socially distance from students. How do you help with a math problem for one student across the room? How do you have a quiet conversation with a kid who is having a bad day? How do you comfort a crying 5-year-old? Or tie a shoelace? All from at least 6 feet away? I don't think so. They are asking for the impossible and people are going to get sick, if not worse. Schools should be reserved for daycare for essential workers right now and education should take place online when at all possible. At the very LEAST, CDC guidelines should be followed, and those have been scrapped. We have spent the summer working to really find ways to keep our kids engaged online and not stress our teachers out more with pingponging back and forth between online and in-person. Of course we would love to be face-to-face, but since we have the opportunity to be virtual, we are taking it.

Pam Nicholas is the executive director for Huntington-Surrey High School and has taught for 20 years.

"Every Day Is Blurs-day"

“Where once there were partitions to our days – school, work, lunch in the park, recess – now there are none. Every day is Blurs-day.”

Child care during the pandemic has been tough on every parent, but single mothers like myself have been hardest hit. Luckily I have a part-time nanny who helps in the mornings with schooling for the children so I can squeeze in five hours of uninterrupted work. When she leaves, I'm on my own with the two kids, ages 4 and 5, until bedtime. After that, I continue working to catch up on what I couldn't tend to while caring for the kids. Twice a week, their dad comes to watch them from 2:30-5pm and again on a Saturday or Sunday for the whole day. Even with these short breaks, I never really feel like I get any respite. Where once there were partitions to our days – school, work, lunch in the park, recess – now there are none. Every day is Blurs-day. It is an endless hamster wheel of tasks, hobbled together home-school plans, and endless anxiety. I need a break and would love, more than anything, for my children to return to school safely. But that's just it. There is no safe school so long as COVID-19 community transmission rates in Austin (and Texas) remain high. Schools can only safely and successfully reopen after transmission rates are successfully lowered, otherwise we are just putting out fire with kerosene. This fact pains me greatly because I understand the importance of social interaction for young children, as well as how paramount self-care is to single mothers. I'm dying to get my kids back in school, but I'm not willing to let them die just to be back in school.

Shannon L McGarvey is a single mother of two small children who now works from home full-time since the pandemic began.

The Closure Kids

The sense of loss, disconnection from your school community, and a deep emotional toll on kids: This is what school during the time of COVID has meant to so many families. Unfortunately, this is something that many Austin families, including mine, have already been experiencing for almost a year now, before the pandemic. The families of Pease, Brooke, Metz, and Sims have had to navigate the double impact of their campuses being permanently closed. This fall, kids are starting virtually in schools among strangers in a time when consistency can give them comfort. Closure kids will be thrust into new environments without the emotional mooring of the familiar. My child spent the first part of quarantine building a Lego model of Pease. She painstakingly recreated her kindergarten classroom and built the first-grade classroom she hoped to go into this fall. All her favorite teachers, the beloved librarian, and staff were there. It was her way of working things out, but I know that the process of recovery is far from over. The sad part is that Pease and the other schools didn't have to close. AISD and seven trustees took away the safe place for hundreds of children during this crisis. People talk about the joy of what they will celebrate "after all of this is over." For our school communities, there is no future joy. There is just permanent closure. May the new superintendent and trustees right this wrong after all of this is over and do right by children and families.

Diane Zander Mason has lived in Austin since 1998 and has two children who attended Pease Elementary.

Outdoor Learning

[Let's] talk about the movement to bring tents in to make outdoor school. In this city there are great disparities in COVID risk due to segregation of the city. Schools in areas with low case counts will be less affected by COVID, and by deaths that do result when school returns. Families, teachers, and staff in areas with high case counts will experience more closures, disruption, deaths, trauma. Outdoor school is safer, and bringing this to schools with the highest risk first, assuming a full rollout isn't possible, is key to mitigating the disparities for those who cannot choose to keep their kids home and those who are at highest risk of death from opening schools.

The author is an anonymous working parent of a kindergartner in AISD.

Crowded House

As a student, school has been difficult for me not because the courses got harder, but because I have siblings. Being the oldest of three makes it real hard for me to concentrate on the work that I do because either they are playing in the living room, arguing about something, or just being loud. Another problem is the environment in my house. At school there aren't many ways one could get distracted, but at home it's another story. There could be game consoles tempting you to play or just having the freedom to stop for a snack. Some may say that is good because you get more liberty to do stuff but for me, I procrastinate a lot, which makes it harder to work at home. While I wish to return to school in person, I also worry for the safety of teachers and other students, so I think it's best if we continue virtually.

Juan Carlos Ramirez is a rising sophomore at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.

Figuring Out Pod Learning on the Fly

With the pandemic, I recognized the need to keep more kids at home to enable distancing for students and teachers that must be in the classroom. First, I started a Facebook group to connect families in North ATX to meet virtually and pool resources. The group will also be used to form carpools when schools open to free up space on buses. I'm hosting a pod in my home for virtual AISD classes and encouraging others to volunteer as well. Obviously, hosting a pop-up microschool in your home is daunting! I spent hours searching online for ideas for temporary home-based school setups. I found plenty of articles on "Pandemic Pods," but I couldn't find any practical how-tos for desks, transmission risk-reduction, seating, etc. So I created a video of our makeshift pod school to hopefully inspire other families to take the leap.

Jennie Leon has an M.A. in teaching, a day job in recruiting, and is podding with her husband, three kids, and two pups.

TEA Isn't Prioritizing Teachers' Well-Being

I quit teaching two years ago and in my testimony, I even told the Texas House Public Education Committee I quit 50% because of STAAR testing and 50% because the [Texas Education Agency] does not prioritize the mental health and well-being of teachers and students. Watching TEA flip-flop back and forth and letting someone like Ken Paxton influence their decision-making that impacts thousands of educators, support staff, and students is disappointing to say the least. As of right now, I'm expected to report to campus full time starting Aug. 18, but I'm trying to get a doctor's note (which makes me feel like I'm a student) because in no way am I ready for that to happen. I'm a yoga teacher and mindfulness consultant but my anxiety has increased as that day gets closer. I can't imagine how other people are handling this without coping strategies. And I wasn't given the luxury of choosing if I want to work remotely even though I proved I can do my job from home this past spring, and I know teachers have not been provided that choice, either. Once again, Texas is not prioritizing its invaluable resource of expert educators and school staff. I'm angry thousands of teachers and support staff have had no real say in the reopening of schools and that TEA has created this preventable situation with no recourse – but can't say I'm surprised. If I can't get an accommodation from my doctor, I plan to resign. I like my job but I love my life more.

Cynthia Ruiz is a former high school English teacher of 14 years and works currently as an attendance specialist at Austin High.

Highlighting the Inequities

As an educator, we go above and beyond to protect children (allergies, bullying, school shootings), so why are we not doing that during a pandemic? Students who are from low socioeconomic status are most vulnerable to become sick and not be able to receive full medical support; this virus will only emphasize the inequities in schools. My school doesn't even have money to buy students pencils – how are they going to provide masks and sanitizer? How do you protect the teachers and custodians? We already lost a custodian before kids have come back to school.

Christine de la Torre is a seven-year science teacher in AISD.

The Privilege Gap

If you ask most kids, "What's your favorite part of school?" they're likely to say, "Lunch, recess, being with my friends." COVID – and our government not taking it seriously – stripped them of all three. Now, they only have the work. Oh, boy! The work often requires some parental assistance, which looks like my child and I sitting at the same table with laptops side by side, but we're privileged. I've had conversations with staff and privileged and underprivileged parents about our experiences, and what we've seen on and off Zoom classes at multiple schools: parents pressuring kids offscreen, kids consistently absent/not doing any work, teens telling parents they're on top of it but nowhere near, wi-fi/laptop issues like waiting over six weeks to get one from AISD (who centralized all laptops before delivering them as opposed to having campuses' staff delivering them to their families), different teachers using different platforms (BLEND, Seesaw), and privileged parents complaining about not getting their needs met on social media while not giving a damn about the mental health of district and campus staff. I applaud staff, who are mostly Black and brown, on the front lines handing out lunches, and teachers for all the work they do on- and offscreen. I asked my kids to complete all their assignments and respect the work of their teachers. AISD needs to have low-income housing on lots like Anita Coy to keep and bring back families we've lost due to COVID, and wi-fi towers in certain areas.

Vincent Tovar is an AISD dad to a fourth-grader at Govalle and a ninth-grader at Eastside, and is a member of PRIDE of the Eastside.

Pod Family Seeks Same

Since AISD has announced 100% distance learning for the first three weeks and then who knows, we are looking into creating a learning pod of incoming kindergarten students in the dual-language program. The idea is that we will hire a facilitator to lead the kids in hands-on activities, and perhaps help with connecting them to AISD's distance-learning opportunities as well. We will hold the classes at our homes and rotate to a new home each day. It's a challenge to find the right teacher and pod families who are on the same page.

Jodi Holzband is the mother of an incoming kindergartner in the Ridgetop dual-language program.

Distance Learning Has Its Upsides

As an educator, the transition from face-to-face to distance learning was not all that hard at the high school level. We were already using tools like Google Classroom, and most of our students have school-issued Chromebooks. As we begin a new year, teachers are making instructional videos and improving our online lessons, as well as thinking of new ways to get to know our students. Additionally, our district has worked to distribute mobile hot spots and taken other measures to ensure all students have internet access. Distance learning at the secondary level has some advantages – students can work at their own pace, I can give detailed feedback and answer questions quickly, and we can easily include a variety of internet resources. I'm only an email away if students have questions and have virtual office hours if they want to speak face-to-face. While I do miss being with the kids in the classroom, I can still get to know them through their writing. Distance learning may not be ideal, but it beats putting people needlessly at risk.

Elizabeth Ivey is a high school English teacher with 18 years' experience in Texas classrooms.

Time to Embrace 21st Century Skills and Strategies

We decided to deliver our summer programs online and had to quickly shift the model to meet the needs of students and families. We were fortunate to have a group of creative teachers and support staff who made it as successful as it could have been, albeit with things we learned and room for growth. Our department will be delivering instruction all-online in the fall, in order that the students who attend the school's comprehensive programs (live at the school) can have more space and fewer people on campus. The online model presents a number of challenges, but my concern is that so many people are not approaching it with a growth mindset, that people are deciding that it just "can't be done" or "doesn't work for my kids." It is different and difficult, but it is also worth the time and effort to get better at it. We have been talking in education for years about 21st century skills and strategies, and now when presented with an opportunity to put our money where our mouths have been, so to speak, we back away? This is an opportunity to push for equity in connectivity for families throughout the state, to utilize and maximize blended learning technologies, to enhance and achieve accessibility for all students.

John Rose is a teacher in the Short-Term Programs Department at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Workers of the World, Unite!

“If we are not going to take the intelligent, scientific, common-sense approach, then I hope that Texas teachers realize the power they have and refuse to return to their classrooms. If we all did this, imagine the impact we could have.”

It's very frustrating to watch, read, and hear news about parents wanting their kids back in school, but, at the same time, arguing that they should not be required to wear masks. I'm almost 60 years old and have dedicated my career to teaching, and it makes me very angry to think that some parents don't have the common sense or human decency to protect teachers and other school personnel the best way we can. In short, it is the ultimate insult to teachers and staff, with a close second being that we are even discussing sending students and teachers back to school at all, in the midst of the worst pandemic of any of our lifetimes, with infection rates on the rise. Let's get the numbers down, and then we can implement our plans to open schools safely. This is the way all of us, including our governor, should be thinking. If we are not going to take the intelligent, scientific, common-sense approach, then I hope that Texas teachers realize the power they have and refuse to return to their classrooms. If we all did this, imagine the impact we could have.

Christopher Nisley is a public high school teacher beginning his 32nd year this fall – maybe.

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