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Coming to Terms with Pandemic Learning

Photo by Andy Saigh

I am an undying optimist to the point that it has become a running joke amongst my friends -- "Dude, you don't have to be positive all the time. It's okay to hate things once in a while."

Under most circumstances I find my boundless optimism serves as an advantage. It guides me through tumultuous days of teaching and personal stress. But because I have been out of the classroom since March, my positivity has turned into one constant feeling that I think most educators feel as well:

I am deeply torn about how schools should move forward this Fall.

In January, none of us could have imagined we'd experience a historic pandemic that would fundamentally shift our way of life. Yet here we are, rapidly approaching the Fall, and states are making recommendations not all of us agree on.

COVID-19 cases in Iowa are still rising dramatically, and Governor Reynolds has now opted to reopen schools at a 50% in-person core instruction rate. There seems to be little hope of a universally administered vaccine in the near future. In a recent article by Forbes, evidence suggests that based on infection rates, Iowa should statistically have a stay at home order in place. By our own Center for Disease Control’s standards, it is an unsafe learning (and teaching) environment. All of these compounding circumstances have caused my sense of inner conflict to substantially rise.

I am torn because I have family with health conditions that put them at a massive health risk if they were to contract COVID-19. Specifically, one of my family members is a teacher. He will most likely never step foot in a classroom again until a vaccine has been developed. What if I were to be exposed due to schools re-opening, became asymptomatic, and passed it onto him?

I am torn because I’m 24 and have a sense of protection that my youth affords me. I know others that have contracted COVID-19 that are a similar age as me, and within days their symptoms vanished and they felt completely normal. Nothing but a minor blip on the radar. Why should I fear returning to school in person?

I am torn because even with that sense of "security," I still know there are colleagues of mine that are at a much higher risk than I am. The amount of stress and anxiety that has developed from the potential of me putting my own family and coworkers in harm's way is something I don't quite know how to handle. This is a reality for most teachers, and it seems quite dystopian that this is even a consideration.

Of course, my concerns are not only limited to my family and coworkers:

Students. We truly miss our students.

Students are at the epicenter of a teacher's purpose, and we have been missing that purpose for so long. We know that our students are experiencing hardships that are harming them physically, emotionally, and mentally. We want schools to be open to serve as the safe-havens we know they are for so many students.

And we haven't even touched learning. Our students are falling behind, and most of us are uncertain what the true academic impacts of this pandemic will be. We know there will be gaps, but the ways in which to fill them are still unclear.

I feel responsible for my students’ safety, wellbeing, and learning. Being out of school has seemingly reduced my efficacy as a teacher. I have done, and will continue to do, the absolute best I can to reach my students and impact them through a virtual modality. Does it replace the classroom and my sense of impact there? Not even close.

School not only provides services that are vital to students, but it also considerably impacts parents and their way of life. Parents, particularly low-income and minority parents, have been hit the hardest. They are struggling with job losses, seeking additional income, raising a family, all while finding time to supervise their children’s learning. The desire for schools to be up and running again is clearly apparent.

Regardless of changing COVID-19 data, parent, student, and teacher concerns, some states, such as Iowa, have already made up their mind. Am I disappointed in Iowa and my politicians for choosing the plan they did? Yes. In my opinion, I truly believe schools should be virtual this fall. I can't stand the idea of losing a loved one or members of my school community to this disease. The contradictions between statements made by politicians and the guidelines they ask us to follow are beyond frustrating. They are threatening the health of so many, and once again are asking teachers to bear an impossible burden.

It is these inner feelings of frustration, worry, hope, and doubt that I still leaves me torn. I simply want what is best for kids while maintaining the safety and wellbeing of all involved in the education system -- two desires that are inherently at odds.

I remain optimistic. As I sifted through these feelings of complete contradiction, I have come to several conclusions that frame my perspective for this school year:

Conclusions to Consider

1. Politics aside, there will be no scenario that pleases everyone. This pandemic has brought to light the importance of context. Every school district has a unique population, geography, logistical schedule, degree of technology integration, and varying numbers of active COVID-19 cases. All of these factors largely impact the potential for schools functioning properly this Fall, which makes it important for us to realize that each plan a school district decides upon is likely highly contextualized. Our political outlook (in Iowa at least) is mandating 50% in person learning, but the factors mentioned above and what school leaders are willing to do will dictate what schools actually end up choosing this Fall.

2. When in doubt, give grace. Now more than ever, we need grace to maintain our unity as educators during this pandemic. I feel blessed that my family has remained safe, and I could not imagine being in the position to make the decisions our school leaders are having to make, especially decisions that could impact the health of so many. Make your voice heard and do not hesitate to take action on behalf of your health and safety, but know that there will be colleagues, parents, and other school leaders who will disagree with you. Giving grace doesn’t mean to allow ignorance or irresponsibility, but it certainly means understanding other people’s situation before giving unjustified judgement or vindication. We are more polarized now than ever, especially with the Fall rapidly approaching. Giving grace to others is one small step towards alleviating it.

3. Be ready to adapt. Regardless of how schools look in the fall, whether virtual, in-person, or hybrid, COVID-19 can rapidly alter those plans. Teachers are going to be tasked with carrying this load, and all we can do is remain ready to do so. Will it be frustrating? Yes. Will it be difficult? Unbelievably. We need to mentally prepare our minds and bodies to deal with this essential certainty that how we start school in the Fall will probably shift in some way.

Much to the chagrin of my closest friends, I remain an annoying and unwavering optimist. Have I come to terms with the thought of teaching through a pandemic? I don’t think I will truly understand how I feel until I am knee deep in “pandemic learning.” This situation is far less than ideal, to say the least. I often think about school and what it will look like. I think of all the students that will look to me with their masked and PPE-protected faces, or possibly through a Zoom box and say “I need help with this Mr. Flesch!” Through all of the frustration and my wishes for these circumstances to be different, I know I’ll have to muster the strength to show up for my students. As torn as I might be about this school year, I recognize my students have been hurting just as much, if not worse. The mission we have ahead of us is paramount and will require us to embrace discomfort like never before. Let’s at least take it on together.

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