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When the COVID-19 quarantine forced me to teach from home, it was craziness for the first few weeks. But then I soon started to get more adjusted to life in my little cocoon. My family members and I were fine staying at home and social distancing. We felt safe and secure. We still do for the most part. We’ve avoided indoor dining. We meet friends outside and keep our distance. We wear masks to the grocery store. We feel like we are doing what we can to stay safe.
But now, school is about to begin again. So, I’m heading back to my classroom soon. My world is about to suddenly open back up again. And I’m not quite ready for this change.
Many schools are reopening in the fall. Some are using hybrid schedules, and some are in the building five days a week. Some are mandating masks, and some are limiting visitors and field trips. Each school is trying to figure out ways to encourage learning while maintaining safety standards. But honestly, I still feel a bit anxious about returning to my classroom.
As a high school teacher, I have a homeroom of 20 students followed by five classes of 30 students each. That’s 170 students that will enter and exit my classroom every day–five days a week. I’ve avoided hugging my parents for the past four months due to social distancing, but now I’ll be crossing paths with 170 teenagers on a daily basis. And those 170 teenagers will cross paths with hundreds more teenagers every hour as they change classes.
And teenagers aren’t the most hygienic of creatures. I hope they are washing their hands and using hand sanitizer. I hope they are wearing their masks and staying away from their peers. But in reality, teenagers have a tendency to feel invincible and do what is easiest for them. I cannot guarantee that they will take the safety measures seriously.
Students are already attending practices and games for various sports. They are breathing all over each other in indoor spaces. Extracurricular activities will be underway soon as well. I fear that all of these germs and droplets could infect my students. And they could carry this infection into my classroom.
Some of my colleagues are nearing retirement age. It is not abnormal to be teaching next door to an educator who is in their sixties. The contact with students and teachers is extremely dangerous for teachers in this age group. To ask them to interact with 170 students each day seems risky to me. They cannot back out of the profession now because their retirement would be in jeopardy. They have no choice but to come to school each day and hope they can stay healthy. I am concerned for these coworkers.
I completely understand both sides of this school reopening debate. On one hand, I love being in my classroom and teaching students. I get to know my students better. The interactions are genuine and authentic. My teaching methods are more effective. I much prefer being a teacher in a classroom over being an online teacher. I understand why working parents need their kids back in school five days a week so they can report to work. I know that students need social interactions and time with friends to maintain their mental health. I recognize all of these factors.
Yet, I still cannot feel 100% comfortable about heading back to school. I will experience fear and anxiety on a daily basis. Every cough and sneeze will send shockwaves throughout the classroom. Every change of class, hundreds of students will pass one another in the hallways, and there will be risks involved. Every sport and activity will open up opportunity for the virus to spread. I don’t want to become exposed to COVID and take this home to my family.
I don’t know what to do.
I have to remind myself that it is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious about this change. There are a lot of unknowns in this world and specifically in the plans to return to school. When we cannot control situations, we feel lost and powerless. But there are things we can do to feel better about the start to the school year.
It is crucial for students and teachers (and parents too) to find ways to calm their nerves during this crazy time. Everyone will be on edge this fall as we face a school year that has been defined by a pandemic. This is uncharted territory.
So, how do we calm ourselves down during these stressful times?
It can be helpful to take action involving the parts of the situation that you can control. Here are some action steps to take:
If you feel that something isn’t right about your school’s reopening, speak up. You can write to your governor, your mayor, or your school board to address your concerns. If you have a strategy that would help make your school safer, reach out to your principal and offer your suggestion. Perhaps you want to make sure there is hand sanitizer in every classroom. If so, send an email to your principal to find a way to make this happen. You can advocate for your own safety and the safety of your students.
You have control over your classroom. Space the desks out as far apart as you can. Ask students to hand sanitize at the start of each class. Post all class work online to encourage students to stay home if they are sick. Find time to get outside during the school day to breathe in some fresh air. Making a bunch of little changes can make this situation much more manageable for you.
You are not the only one who is feeling overwhelmed and scared. Perhaps set up a Zoom meeting among teachers in the school who would like to discuss how they feel and how they are coping with the upcoming new school. Reach out to start a conversation with your principal about ways to support the community of teachers in your building. You don’t have to feel alone in this. Having a group of teachers on whom you can rely can make a big difference in keeping your mental health more stable as the school year begins.
As all teachers explore this new territory in education, there will be challenges and changes along the way. It is normal to feel overwhelmed at times, but hopefully, you will be able to control what you can and find support to help deal with the things outside of your control.