Women at Work Teaching in the ‘new normal’

Back to in-person teaching: New protocols, more stress

Educators must balance teaching online and in-person; keep their classrooms disinfected and their students engaged; and find ways to ease anxiety about their own health risks.

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Based on the data available, in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in February 2021.

From the moment she arrives at the Atlanta-area high school where she works, Jina Meadows begins the process of protecting herself, her coworkers, and her students from the coronavirus that has gripped much of the world during the past year.

Upon first entering the building, Meadows has a temperature check before responding to a Covid-19 screening that pops up on her computer at log-in. If her answers indicate that she is not experiencing any virus symptoms or hasn’t been exposed to someone infected, she is granted permission to remain in the building and continue with her workday. 

After passing the morning screening, Meadows heads to her ninth-grade English classroom. Some of her students arrive in person; others attend virtual classes. For the in-person students, she often issues reminders to pull up their face masks.

As many schools across the country return to in-person learning — some for the first time since March 2020 — schoolteachers such as Meadows are returning to a different work environment. Masks are recommended, if not required. Hallways are dotted with reminders to remain socially distant at all times, and the corridors have newly installed hand-sanitizing stations. 

Instead of preparing for the next lesson between classes, many teachers are disinfecting their classrooms and reminding students to wash their hands, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Much like individual state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. school districts have taken different approaches to reopening classrooms. For example, Meadows’ school began the process in September 2020, slowly adapting a hybrid schedule that combines both virtual and in-person learning.

“School districts are basically getting two teachers for the price of one because we simultaneously have to teach kids online and the students who are sitting in front of us at the same time,” Meadows said. “Our lessons have to be interactive for both the kids at home and the kids in-person to make sure that we are keeping all of them engaged because it’s nothing for the students at home to just log on, then start watching Netflix.”

For Nekaybaw Brooks, an Atlanta-based fifth-grade social studies instructor, her schedule includes teaching from school on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, while teaching from home on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

All of her school’s teachers are expected to return in mid-April, with students following a few days afterward. While the staggered schedule was intended to assuage fears and ease students, teachers and school staff  into their new environments, it also has meant a lot of extra work for school teachers. With so many new procedures, some teachers are struggling with maintaining a positive outlook amidst the disruption. 

Shaione Simmons, who teaches transitional kindergarten and kindergarten, builds a cough box as she preps her classroom at Madison Park Academy Primary on March 25, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. (Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

A recent survey shows that teacher morale across the U.S. has taken a big hit, with 85% of respondents admitting that overall teacher morale at their respective schools is significantly lower, a stark increase from the 63% of teachers who said morale was low in March 2020 when schools first closed campuses at the start of the pandemic.

Meadows admits that she struggled initially with the thought of returning to school. “I wanted to quit every day,” she said. “I felt like nobody cared about us, like we’re only important until other people have to sacrifice. We’re expendable. 

“I actually had to get on anxiety medication because it was affecting everything,” Meadows said. “I couldn’t sleep and once you can’t sleep, everything else goes downhill.”

All of the educators interviewed for this story agreed that a smooth transition back to in-person teaching requires good communication and careful planning. They said that much of their stress and fears came when their school districts struggled with consistency amid mounting pressure to reopen before all appropriate measures were in place, resulting in reopening plans constantly changing on a sometimes near-daily basis.

“Our implementation was actually supposed to begin in early November 2020,” Brooks said of her school’s plan, which emphasized not returning to the campus until there had been a three-week decline in Covid-19 cases within the state. “The date continued to be pushed back because that decline was not present until relatively recently.”

Meadows’ county school district remained transparent throughout the planning period, keeping staff abreast of every decision, a fact that has made her feel a lot more comfortable. “We knew that we could contact the superintendent with our concerns. He made himself readily available to listen to us,” she said. “They sent out links to school board meetings so we could stay informed. Even now, they’re always reaching out to us to make sure we know what’s going on and are feeling supported.”

Danielle Williams, a high school administrator in the Houston-area, said talking with her school’s administrators helped her, too. “I was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to have enough space to maintain social distancing in the classrooms and cafeteria, but I was able to voice my concerns to the principal and other administrators on the team.” 

Many American school teachers are still adjusting to the changes in their work environments, but maybe less fearful after the release of the Covid-19 vaccines. Several states have placed school staff in the front of the line to receive the vaccine. 

In Harris County, Texas, Williams’ school district administrators started contacting their staff with vaccination information in December 2020. In Georgia’s Fulton County, schools rolled out Project Vaccinate 2021 in mid-March, which gave teachers the chance to get vaccinated.

Although the pandemic has been difficult, many school teachers said that remembering the reason they became educators has been key to pushing forward.

“We’ve definitely been holding each other up. The students have been holding us up, which is something that we need,” Meadows said. “We’re all checking in on each other. It’s been hard on all of us but seeing how the students look forward to interacting with us is a good feeling,” 

The cover illustration was created by SHAN Wallace, who is a nomadic award-winning visual artist, photographer, and educator from East Baltimore, Maryland. Her recent project “The Avenue,” named for Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, tells a story of the culinary histories embedded in the journeys of Black people from Africa to the Americas, and from South to North. Website: http://shanwallace.work/, Instagram: _yoshann and @sisterswithstories, a visual storytelling and archive that engages and explores Black woman-and-girlhood, sisterhood and survival.

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Episode Teaching in the ‘new normal’