How I Get By: Four Days as an IRL Teacher During COVID

A third grade teacher puts on a brave face for her students—and resents the system putting her health at risk.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, United States
October 7, 2020, 11:30am
Hands raised in classroom
Photo by Paul Burns via Getty Images
The inside line on life on the job.

Jenna, a third grade public school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, didn’t want to believe schools were reopening this fall. After joining her union’s progressive caucus in its push for a teacher’s strike, and anxiously watching COVID numbers in her area, the 33-year-old (who asked to withhold her real name for fear of retaliation from her employer) was sure that something, anything, would stop the return to the classroom. But Jenna was wrong. The first week of October, she met the students she’d briefly taught over Zoom in September for the first time in person.

“I've just been so angry that we're coming back in person, because I don't feel like it's safe,” she said. “I feel like we've been abandoned by our leadership; at the state level, at the city level, and, obviously, at the federal level.”

Jenna’s school used to have a dual language program, and around 600 students. Now, that dual language element has been shuttered for the year, and she says fewer than 200 students total have elected to return for two days of in-person learning a week. (The rest opted for fully remote learning.) “Part of me is resentful that schools are open,” she said. “At times, I even feel anger at the families that have chosen to have their kids come in person, if they have the resources to keep them at home because, frankly, I feel like I'm at really high risk of getting COVID.”

Nonetheless, Jenna said she has savored connecting with her students, and is trying her best to balance her own peace of mind with creating a learning environment that even remotely measures up to the typical elementary school experience. Here’s how she made the first four days of her school year work.

DAY ONE

It’s June—oh my God, I just said June!—it’s September 29, 2020, the first day of in-person school. Obviously, I'm pretty fried. I just can't believe how many questions I still had unanswered going in today. As of the day before, I was emailing my administration to ask them some really simple things like, Can I pass out papers? Can kids hand me something? I still don't know these basic COVID protocols.

It felt really weird to be starting like this. And then it was also a rainy day, which is something you never want on the first day of school. I got to school this morning, and I just felt my stomach churning. It felt like the adrenaline of the usual first day of school, but mixed with dread. I was trying to set things up, but everything just felt so last-minute.

Then I went downstairs and it was so eerie, and almost dystopian, to see the scene down on the schoolyard. On a regular first day of school, you're walking down, you see your kids from last year, they mob you to hug you and say hi, you're chatting with parents, it's incredibly social, it's incredibly high energy. And this was… I found out there are only 74 students total, in the whole building. And the kids were just sitting on these little spray-painted leaves that were distanced (but not six feet apart), getting their temperature checks and showing their health screenings before they could come in. The sky was gray; it was just so creepy.

Even though I was way less prepared than usual, it ended up being fine… partially because I only had four kids. Normally, class sizes for my grade can be up to 32 or 35, and I typically have between 22 and 25 students. Today, I was supposed to have seven, and only four showed up, so that made everything a little more loose and relaxed.

I said hi to my kids, and it was interesting, having already met them virtually. They just felt very quiet, just kind of staring into space. That was when I started to feel something that I felt on and off throughout the whole day, which was sadness. This isn't how school should feel. It feels so unnatural to tell kids to stay so far apart, to have the masks on, to be seated at one table the whole day, to never come to the rug and never play any sort of cooperative games with movement. I feel really sad that the kids are missing out on that.

But, part of me felt weirdly satisfied that it was so different from normal school, because I think that some people had delusions, including our chancellor, about what school would actually feel like once it opens.

Within a minute of getting them up out of the line and walking, they were less than six feet apart. It felt like any sort of illusion of social distancing was out of the out the window pretty much immediately. I had a kid whose mask kept slipping down. I heard that in younger grades, there were just masks that didn't fit. We have the windows open. Kids would run up to try to help me, which is a very sweet instinct, but of course, it meant that they were in my space, and I was in theirs.

I even have one who I thought the whole time during virtual learning that the sound on her computer didn't work. But now that I've met her in person, I think she just is one of the quietest children I've ever met. It was impossible to hear her unless I got about a foot and a half away. Basically, I had to make a choice about actually keeping my distance and this child not participating at all, or getting close. I ultimately ended up getting pretty close and just trying to turn my head away. I don't know if I will regret that decision.

I tried to give them a lot of movement breaks, because they're truly just sitting at desks facing forward the entire time. We played Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light standing in place. The kids had lunch, and I set up these plastic shields around them that we got from our parents’ association—of course, some schools with less affluent families would not be able to do that. I think they provide more of an illusion of safety than anything, because obviously air particles can float above a plastic shield. But it did make me feel a little better. While they ate, I did a read-aloud.

After lunch, I had the kids do a little bit of writing, but I couldn't see it because I would be getting too close. In terms of checking their work, or having any gauge of what they're doing, without them having to share publicly, I'm really not sure how that's gonna work.

It was so weird that they never got a chance to just converse freely or to play freely the entire day. But I also understand that that's just not possible. Overall, the kids were great, really sweet. I asked them at the end of the day what the hardest part was, and their favorite part, and they said they liked having school in person, and that the hardest part was keeping the social distance, which I agree with. It was tough for all of us.

Right now, work is weird. Want to talk about life on the clock, personal finance, and what it takes to do your job? Email katie.way@vice.com with the subject line ‘How I Get By’ and someone will reply ASAP.

DAY TWO

I treated myself to some yarn after school yesterday, because I've gotten into weaving. And when I was getting the yarn, I got a text from my boyfriend who I live with, and he just said, “You did it, congratulations, I can't wait for you to get home and I can give you a squeeze!” which was just really nice. A few weeks ago, he was urging me to get a fake doctor's note and medical accommodation to stay home, and I was really worried that he wouldn't have a lot of sympathy for all my stress around being in the building. But it was nice to see we've both just accepted it a little bit, for better or worse, and I really appreciated his support.

Today I'm feeling a lot more energized, because we didn't have kids in the building. Our school applied for an alternative plan through the Department of Education (DOE). A lot of other schools’ plans were rejected, but ours was conservative enough that it got accepted: The A Group of in-person students comes Monday and Tuesday, the B Group comes Thursday, Friday, and all the kids are at home taking virtual classes on Wednesday.

Initially, all teachers working in person still had to come into the building every day, but last Friday, the union made a new agreement. Starting next week, I should be able to work from home on Wednesdays, which is nice. It's one less day in the building, even though I think I'm more likely to get COVID from the children than surfaces. I felt much more relaxed knowing that I wasn't going to have to be interacting with other human organisms in the same room.

I had a nice morning meeting with my kids, just on Zoom. We've gotten pretty used to Zoom calls at this point, since we did a week and a half of remote learning before they came in. Today we navigated some new technology: A kid shared their screen and drew a picture and we had to guess what it was. It was cool that that worked out—I try to notice the small victories. For the rest of the morning, I did a little bit of social studies, we talked about the continents, and then I did small breakout groups.

For the small groups, I was not teaching a lesson, I was really just helping them log on to an online math pre-assessment. It involved approximately five or six different steps, clicking on different tabs, opening different apps. Some kids didn't show up to the breakout rooms; a few kids did everything right but then they got an error message anyway—I suspect because they are on an iPad which was issued by the DOE. There are huge tech issues that we're still navigating. When those things come up, it actually makes me a little grateful to be in-person. Worst case scenario in the classroom, I can literally print out the assessment and hand it to them.

For lunch, a teacher friend brought me a salad and we ate outside. I'm trying to just be outside of the classroom as much as possible, and that was really nice, to get some sun. I put up a few more desk shields today. Tomorrow, I'm going to have nine kids, as opposed to four. I think in order to fit all the desks we’ll need, the students will probably have to sit five and a half feet apart. So that should be even more challenging to keep them away from me and each other.

After school, I just briefly met virtually with two fifth grade teachers. They have two of my former students who are Spanish dominant, and are still really just learning English, so we were chatting about how to support those students with technology. Those students are fully remote, so they've had trouble even logging in so far. I'm gonna probably meet with those students tomorrow, and maybe also make a tutorial in Spanish to help them out. I'm really happy that these teachers reached out to me! They told me they've been translating all the assignments, which is like way above and beyond, to try to help these kids get connected.

DAY THREE

When I woke up this morning, I was in the middle of a nightmare where I had 30 kids, which is 19 or 20 more than I have right now, and they were all high school aged. I’m terrified of high schoolers. In the dream, they refused to keep their masks on and they kept coming really close to me. It was very, very stressful.

Today, I met my second group of kids, Group B. There were nine of them and they were all actually here. They work great, and they really did their best. But once again, it just became clear that if any of them have COVID, I’m going to get it. They kept running up to hand me things, ask me questions. When they’re in a line, somebody is always getting too close, or they’re in a mask that’s too big so it keeps falling down—it’s a tricky balance, because I don’t want them to feel called out. So I'm gesturing at them, tapping my mask to pull it up, but also trying to smile with my eyes so they don’t feel embarrassed or like they’re in trouble.

I was noticing today how social distancing and all these protocols really force us to do the opposite of what we know is good teaching. In good teaching, teachers speak less and kids speak more, they're talking to each other, they're collaborating, they're building on each other's ideas. But right now in my classroom, everyone facing is forward, and even though I'm encouraging kids to share, they truly can't hear each other.

Ideally, anytime they're working independently, I do a circuit around the room and look at everyone's notebooks and take notes, to figure out what to do with small groups, what interventions kids need, etc. But because that would require me to get way closer than six feet from them, it feels like the only time they hear from kids is if they choose to speak in front of the whole class. The kids who do that are usually either very extroverted or very advanced in school and super confident. It just feels like a choice between instruction and safety, and I’m starting to compromise the safety.

It’s an internal conflict, for sure. I’m also talking a lot more than I wish I was, because the kids can’t hear each other and there’s so much to explain with all these new rules, so my throat hurts and I feel so tired today compared to yesterday, when I was teaching from home.

I will say there are certain plus sides. The small class sizes are a dream. Each student gave a ton today, and I’m getting to know them a lot better than I’d normally be able to do. And because I can’t do as much for them—I can’t pass things out, I can’t clean up their messes or open up their lunches, or put their little plastic sheet on the desk—it forces me to give up some control, and forces them to step up and be more independent, which is great.

But it's just crazy to think that whatever effort I'm putting into making my classroom a warm and friendly place will likely get negated at some point or will totally change. [Editor's note: Certain non-essential businesses and institutions, including public schools, are being shut down across Brooklyn and Queens thanks to rising COVID-19 infection rates.]

This definitely goes to show that it's not just classroom management that makes you so exhausted. There's just something about being with children and trying to express yourself behind a mask and talking a ton, and also being constantly aware of maintaining six feet of distance. I am so much more tired than I was last week when we were just teaching remotely.

DAY FOUR

As we finish up our first week, I’m actually not as exhausted as I expected to be today. This is the first time I've had kids for a second day in a row, and it feels like they're already starting to get the hang of social distancing when we walk around in line. I overheard another teacher calling it “zombie arms,” where you kind of stick your arms straight out in front of you, and you shouldn't be able to touch the person in front of you. I stole that, and it's been helpful.

They're also getting a little quicker with the routines in the classroom… but at the same time, they're also getting a lot more comfortable taking off their masks. They would take it off, drink water, and kind of leave it off and forget, or get up to throw away their trash from lunch and forget to pull it back up… so that’s a little stressful. They’re jumping out of their seats more, and I'm just realizing, like, I'm gonna have to crack down the way I'm afraid to.

I don’t want to be that authoritative teacher, I don't want to be strict in that way. I want a classroom where kids can move freely. But, with COVID guidelines, that's not really recommended. Once again, it’s a tension between best practices and developmentally appropriate rules.

I had a kid sneezing today, which is the first time I've had to consider, ‘Oh, do I send them to the nurse’? I think a couple sniffles does not qualify, but if she'd been coughing, I guess I would have. But it’s pretty confusing: In the nurse’s office, we have one isolation room and a backup. It fits a total of like three kids on a given day, but there's about 75 to 150 kids in the building. As soon as cold season starts, that's gonna be filled. And I don't really understand what we're supposed to do, especially because it's very common that kids come to school with a cold.

We got behind in the schedule at the beginning of the day, and then we had a chunk of time that was kind of unstructured. Normally, that's my worst fear, but this year I've been really trying to have better boundaries about how much work I do in my free time. I'm forcing myself to not read over a lesson plan a million times before I teach it and I’m not planning for every eventuality, because I don't want to lose my mind trying to do this perfect job when I know things could change really quickly at any time. It's been really good for me, and I think it's actually good for the kids. We had this extra time because I hadn't planned a super full day, and because of that, we were able to have some interesting, spontaneous conversations.

I ended up having lunch out in the garden, which is right next to where my students were having PE. It was so cute, because they had literally seen me 10 minutes before, but when they saw me sitting out there, I got a bunch of waves and enthusiasm. And that's just something you don't experience when you're teaching remotely. I started just feeling like, I could handle this.

And then, right after school, I get a text from my friend who's also the chapter leader for our union. It was sent to the folks on staff who were really organizing around striking before schools reopened. It was a study that the New York Times came out with talking about how the way the DOE is doing testing and tracing will most likely miss big outbreaks. She texted that article and just wrote, “People are going to die.” And, you know, she's probably right. That was very sobering.

That's just the tension I've been feeling all week. I’m trying to make the best of the situation, trying to focus on the positive, trying to be positive for the kids. And then at the same time, hearing the news and feeling really freaked out about being in a building with children in close quarters, and also feeling like, no matter the good and bad parts of what's happening right now, it's probably going to change.

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