How 4 Teachers Across The Country Feel About Schools Reopening

“Teaching is my whole identity.”

Backpacks rest on school steps. Teachers explain the debate around school reopening.
Frederic Cirou,Getty Images

Though back-to-school season is imminent, it’s uncertain what that will look like with COVID-19 cases surging across the country. New data from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that children under the age of 10 are very unlikely to contract and spread the virus, while children over 10 can spread it just as well as adults. In Israel, schools reopened, then closed within weeks after a rash of COVID cases left nearly 7,000 students and teachers quarantined. The same thing happened in South Korea, a country that similarly had a very low case count prior to reopening. But in America, coronavirus is nowhere near under control, with over 40 states reporting rises in case counts, which suggests that reopenings will only magnify the current virus explosion. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are preparing their wills ahead of inevitably contracting COVID-19.

Below, four teachers tell Bustle how they’re feeling about the start of the new school year.

Virginia*, 36, 5th Grade Math, Georgia

I want to go back to the classroom as soon as possible. Teaching is my whole identity. I don’t know when we’ll be back in-person, because the district wants everyone to be healthy and safe. But I can’t even imagine an 11-year-old being asked to keep on a mask all day, yet alone a kindergartner.

Virtual learning was really difficult in the spring and caused a lot of stress. If parents were using the only computer in the home to work, kids couldn’t connect with us. One of the kids I teach is autistic and thrives on his routine: go to school, come home, do homework. It’s disruptive for a lot of kids to be thrown off their schedules, but it’s especially hard for those with special needs.

A lot of my students live in apartments — they've been in close quarters and stuck inside for months now. They miss P.E., recess, and being outside. Plus, our school serves a very low-income area, and a lot of our kids eat free breakfast and lunch there every day. It’s a lot of stress for kids to not know where their next fresh meal is coming from.

That’s why I’m so gung-ho about reopening. I know a lot of other teachers are nervous, but I just want to see my kiddos.

Lauren, 28, High School English, Illinois

In April and May, love for teachers was at an all-time high. We were called heroes who could drop everything and switch to online instruction. I don’t need that praise, but I can’t fathom how we went from that to wanting to put students and teachers back in schools without masks on. [Ed. note: on July 17, the Governor of Illinois filed a preemptive lawsuit to require mask-wearing in schools.]

There’s a lot of talk about the academic gap. But for me and many teachers I know, we can get students where they need to be in-person or online. The bigger concern is for larger support.

In my career, I have reported multiple incidents to the Department of Children & Family Services and gotten students the support they needed. But it’s far more common for a puffy-eyed student who’s overwhelmed with schoolwork, just had a grandparent pass, or went through a breakup to come to me after class. It’s reassuring for them to know there’s an adult outside their home who will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. But if I can’t see a student face-to-face, I can’t intervene if they need help.

So many parents need their kids to be in school so they can go back to work. I get it, but that’s not what a school system is for. We had to be very forgiving of grades when we closed school in March. Not all students had WiFi, a device, or a parent to guide them. But some students just shut down — they’d think, “I have a solid B, so I don’t need to do any more work.” That shows a tremendous problem where students are taught to value grades and test scores, not growth and inquiry. We need to do a better job coming up with creative ways for students to explore their interests, remotely or face-to-face. That needs to be the priority as we go back to school, however we go back to school.

Jane*, 30, Elementary School Art, New York

As a teacher, my biggest concern is that this is now being politicized. The buck keeps getting passed down from the president to governors to mayors to school districts. I am very lucky that I’m in New York, where they have been pretty outspoken about using scientific data and metrics for school reopenings. Here in New York, they’ve announced a hybrid plan for public schools, with students in school one to three days a week, and a fully virtual option available for those who want that.

Parents and politicians rationalize going back by saying, “Well, teachers will stay with their 10 kids a day, eat lunch in their classroom, and stay put.” But as an art teacher, even for kids doing hybrid learning, where students are in-school for a few days and online the rest, I’m teaching 300 kids a week. No one has answered my questions about what precautions will be taken since I'm seeing so many more children. They keep saying, “We’ll tell you closer to the start date.” If I get sick and I see 300 kids, does the whole school quarantine? If I teach in a classroom where a teacher or a kid is sick, am I quarantined for two weeks? I don’t know if anyone has any answers, honestly.

Parents are very concerned about social and emotional consequences if kids aren’t in school. But if we go back, we can’t give hugs, high five, or play during recess. To me, it seems more socially and emotionally damaging to give a kid a time out for giving their friend a high five than entirely virtual learning. And God forbid a classmate gets sick and dies, or a teacher does — that’s a difficult thing for an adult, but it’s traumatizing for a kid.

Emily*, 26, Elementary School Language Arts, Vermont

My school is definitely concerned about having 750 students in one place when we return in the fall. We have to order new desks and plastic dividers, but we’re not sure how we’re going to be enforcing social distancing or masks, especially since they’re not mandated in Vermont.

Our principal is encouraging us to focus on digital media in-person so teachers and kids will be comfortable with these tools if we have another lockdown and go back to remote. My biggest concern is students who were so done with virtual learning by the end of the year, and are dreading coming back knowing we’re going to have to go online fully again.

Teachers have to get creative to make remote learning better this time around. I’m creating choice-based units, hoping it will be more fun and engaging for kids to pick their own lessons. I created a Google site that our class will be putting all their finished projects on and a Bitmoji classroom with a Bitmoji that looks like me in it and links that will change based on what we are doing.

I feel pretty good about going back in-person right now, though I don’t know if I’m being naive or not. We know our state is doing OK and can hopefully continue to do so. Though that may change. Who knows?

*Names have been changed.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.