Your teachers are not all that okay at the moment. There is a very real conundrum that we are trying to solve in our own morals; do we bring school back and risk infecting teachers and students’ family members with underlying health issues, or do we send kids home to learn over Zoom, with a significant hit to learning and mental health? We are trying to become amateur rocket scientists who can craft the perfect blend of performance and safety, while plummeting through the atmosphere in a tube that is actively on fire….

I am a specialist teacher, which means in normal school times, I get every classroom in the school once a week for technology and coding. Sometimes in teaching, some ‘expert’ jumps up at a conference and says something like, “Your students will benefit from you getting to know them and making a connection,” like it’s a glorious revelation. I didn’t realize that I had been properly in a funk until I got back into the classroom after the Thanksgiving break, and I found myself actually making connections and chatting with kids in my Zoom sessions. In normal times, I would do it all the time. If a student made a funny comment about something, I would pause for a second and have a laugh with them before returning to the lesson. The kids work hard in their homerooms, and I want the technology lab to be a safe place for them to relax a little.

The current situation makes these human interactions much more difficult to have in an organic sense. The Kennewick School District is on an elementary A/B hybrid schedule; A students attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, B students attend on Thursdays and Fridays, and on the other days, students are learning from home.

While in school, students stay at their desks while wearing masks except for when they are eating breakfast and lunch at their desks. There is a little extra recess time, but students have to stay in their grade level’s section of the playground to limit cross contamination. In order to maximize the value of in-person instruction, specialists teach the students over Zoom, from their empty school classrooms, on the days when they are home in half hour sessions. The district has provided Chromebooks for students in grades 3–12, and iPads for grades K–2 are going to be provided in the next few weeks.

Some of my specialist colleagues assign activities for students to do while they are in the Zoom session, but to me that sounds like a chaotic scramble to try to remotely assist students across a fragile connection with low motivation levels and little success. We do have some leeway to shape our lessons to match our community, and many of my students do not have stable home lives, and most of their experiences with technology happen at school.

Our attendance numbers for remote Zoom sessions are improving but are still fairly low. As a result, I am focusing more on giving the kids a half hour of merriment and education with me. We will watch something fun to start, then I’ll read a technology based read-aloud book, and we’ll talk about my ‘subject of the week’ before we have a short fun video to finish. The students seem to enjoy it, my attendance numbers are fairly stable, and we’re not scrambling to try to work out logins and web links.

The problem for me comes from the schedule. We try to keep every class separate to have the most benefit, which means our school specialists have ten half-hour Zooms a day. I tweak the lessons depending on the grade level, but after doing the same lesson twenty-odd times, I find myself almost reciting parts from memory while my thoughts wander. The read-alouds are great until you read them forty times in a week.

Lately, I have been feeling depressed and sinking into a funk. It took the Thanksgiving break for me to realize that what I’ve been missing is the back-and-forth interaction with the students and colleagues. On my first day back, I made an effort to stop the lesson for a minute between activities and ask everyone how they’re doing. It was a small gesture, but right away, kids were turning their cameras back on, smiling and giving thumbs up, and having some good natured banter in the chat. I stay in my classroom as much as possible to stay safe and healthy, which means I’m not socializing with my friends and colleagues at all. I can’t do much about that, but getting some of the interaction that we all miss so much during my Zoom sessions makes a difference.

I asked some of my classroom teacher friends how they were doing right now. One said, “People are meant to be with other people, and children especially need social interaction.... We need to be putting the children first because they will not get these crucial years of their life back. School closures are only widening the gap between those who have, and those who do not.”

Another said, “I feel like I am only 80% of the teacher I used to be. I am so preoccupied with making sure students are following guidelines such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing, I feel like I am not as engaged as I once was. Plus, the environment is just uncomfortable. And when I do not feel comfortable, I cannot be 100% of the person I need to be.”

These two friends have different perceptions, but what really strikes me is that they both have the welfare of the students as their main priority. In fact, all the teachers who I have heard from have always been ultimately concerned about the students, whether it be their learning, health, or development.

You can’t really tell if you’re out of the fog until you can see the stars. I can’t see a vaccine improving matters too much in the near future. We may never get our normal back, but I really can’t wait until I have students back in the computer lab.

In the meantime, I’m personally stuck between wanting to keep our community healthy and wanting to prevent our students from missing out on some of the foundational cultural experiences and vital education the classroom can provide. As we work this out over the next few months, I will be striving to keep my students happy, healthy, and entertained, while also striving to look after my own mental health as I goof around in front of a webcam in an empty classroom.

Mark Russell is Technology Specialist at Westgate Elementary. Twitter: @badbarky

Main image courtesy of Mark Russell