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‘It’s going to be overwhelming’: 7 teachers on the start of a school year like no other

Fast Company talked to teachers across the country about their challenges, fears, and hopes for this uncertain time.

‘It’s going to be overwhelming’: 7 teachers on the start of a school year like no other
[Source images: Drazen Zigic/iStock; Ljupco/iStock; mallmo/iStock; Andreas William/Unsplash]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s Reinventing Education package. As millions of students begin school during a deadly pandemic and global recession, we’re highlighting the ongoing efforts to keep children safe in the classroom, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift. Click here to read the whole series.

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There’s no question: School looks different this year. Some students will attend in-person classes. Others will participate in a hybrid model, mixing online and in-person classes. Still others will stay entirely virtual, logging into classes from their bedrooms or kitchen tables.

With this, comes a lot of uncertainty—and not just for students. Teachers are gearing up for a challenging semester academically, adjusting lesson plans and figuring out how to translate lesson plans. Many of those returning to their classrooms have safety concerns. Some have even decided to retire early or leave their jobs. The majority (65%) of educators surveyed by EdWeek Research Center believe that schools should stay closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 even though most agree that they are better able to teach in a classroom than via video.

Full-time online learning has been proven to deliver lesser academic results than in-class instruction, according to a McKinsey report that also points out that there is no mandate to educate K-12 students in a distant learning environment. That means that thousands of kids could not get any instruction at all until their schools reopen fully.

Even with virtual learning, teachers have struggled to get students to show up and be engaged. A Quizlet study of proprietary data from more than 50 million active users globally revealed that when quarantines forced schools to close, U.S. students were 27% less engaged.

Fast Company talked to teachers across the country as the school year was about to get underway. They told us about their challenges, fears, and hopes for this uncertain time. We agreed to use first names only to allow them to speak frankly. Their interviews have been edited for clarity and space.

Jenny, English at a public high school in Missouri

Something to note about my school district is that we do have an equity issue. We have quite a few kids who don’t have computers or don’t have internet access or the only computer they have their parents took to work with them and they couldn’t get on the computer until 5 or 6 at night.

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A lot of my students, at least that I noticed, only see their friends at school and if they’re not at school, they don’t see their friends. So I think that that’s going to be a big challenge that we’re going to have in the fall, with the kids of getting them back on just the social, emotional aspect of things and all of the learning that they missed out on in the spring.

Our hybrid [model] is that kids will be at school two days a week and then we’ll have one day of virtual. So the same group of kids will be at school Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday we’ll be closed for a full virtual day. So teachers will still be there for meetings and we still have to push out virtual lessons. And then the other half of the group of kids will be there on Thursday and Friday.

Yes, I worry about myself, but I also worry a lot more about them.”

Jenny, teacher in Missouri
I am pregnant. So that puts me in a little bit of a higher alert as well. The school’s providing teachers with two cloth masks. They’re having sanitizing stations, I guess, but I don’t know exactly what that means. I’ve made an Amazon wishlist, so I’ve asked people to help me purchase extra hand sanitizer, extra masks for my classroom. Just things that help me feel a little bit safer.

I’m nervous about high school students keeping their masks on and me not having to get in arguments with them about putting their mask on and staying six feet apart. I’m also nervous about trying to figure out how to teach in a hybrid situation because I basically every day have to have two lessons: one for my kids that are in-person and one for my kids that are virtuals. So for me, that’s also another added thing on top of it. Not only am I trying to stay safe, but I’m also trying to have my kids actually learn stuff and it’s going to be hard to do that.

I’m worried about my own health, but I’m also really worried about my students. [When we’ve] had to practice intruder drills and stuff, I always tell all my students that I would jump in front of a bullet for any of them. And they’re like, “Why would you do that?” I’m like, “I’ve already lived a lot of my life. You guys have a lot of life to live.”

Yes, I worry about myself, but I also worry a lot more about them.

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Hear more from these teachers in a special Reinventing Education podcast mini series


Kimberley, 5th Grade at a public school in California

My district is allowing us to teach from the classroom without students. I will be able to get up, get dressed, and go to work every day. I will be able to put my hands on whatever resources that I need for whatever lessons I need to teach. I don’t have to cart everything home. So that’s a blessing, but actually making sure that I can see my students, as well as the design showing on my screen, [I] haven’t quite worked out the logistics for that.


More from Fast Company‘s “Reinventing Education” Series:


I have asthma. So my respiratory system is compromised and being in a classroom with 25 possible asymptomatic carriers is not what I signed up for. So I’ll be making the request to continue with the virtual learning if I could [because] I still wouldn’t feel safe [if the school did reopen fully], even if I did have PPE. I would not feel safe because children are just—I hate to say it—but they are little germ pools and I just don’t see them being careful enough.

We have to really decide what is most important: People’s lives or the education of kids. . . . In America, [education] is a gift because it’s free. It’s just not valued. I can honestly say for the parents that value education, even if their kids are not going to school, their kids would still learn because being a technological society, it is enough information online for kids to learn. But it’s tied to the parents and their expectations. But if parents and teachers really and truly worked together, the kids in this country could learn virtually. It’s not ideal, but the kids could learn.

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Owen, Photography and Film at a private high school in South Carolina

I feel pretty safe. I really feel [okay as long as] everyone’s on the same [page] with masks and with the hand sanitizing, with the cleaning and the mitigation standards that I set for my own rooms because I have two classrooms. I was a photojournalist for so long before I did this, so I’m used to risk. When things get scary, I tend to slow down and calm down, which is really weird. I also realize there’s a risk no matter what. You can get sick anywhere. But I also, as a teacher, I really love what I do and I love my students and the school. I just have a need to get back to that classroom.

I just have a need to get back to that classroom.”

Owen, teacher in South Carolina
We are also being trained pretty extensively this summer on techniques to teach online in case we go to this sort of hybrid method or full online. The idea of setting up these projects and goals and creating classes where it’s not really about coming to class every time. It’s about setting up your expectations and your assignments and allowing them to work at their own pace and to have options of the way they want to execute things. It’s a little more fluid and a little more autonomous the way we’ve learned to teach online. You have to be more clear and more detailed in the way you assign and getting them involved as groups together online.

It would be impossible for me to say, “Oh no, I don’t have any worries whatsoever,” but I’m pretty confident. I’m confident in the team I work with and I’m confident in my students. I am confident in myself. And it’s going to be weird and it’s going to be a little uncomfortable. And like this entire COVID thing has been, but I’m ready to dive in and hopefully, we’ll have a really successful year and hopefully, we’ll get a fix for this virus. That’s my dream anyway.

Tina, preschool teacher at a combination school/childcare facility in New York City

[The school administrators are] leaning toward two or three days with one group, [then] the other three days with another group. We had some professionals from the DOE come in to work with us because we’re going to be moving to the Google Classrooms, and they did give us a tutorial, and it’s very good.

What I need, what the teachers need, I would say, is just time and patience, and support. The materials, what we need to be safe, making sure the classrooms are set up the way they should be, making sure we have the proper ratios, making sure there are people there in case something happens, making sure our classrooms are clean, are set up. . . . Just hands-on support. If we need help, if things aren’t going [well], just an extra hand, an extra ear, if we’re having trouble if a kid’s having a hard time adjusting. I’m sure it’s going to be overwhelming for the kids as well.

Cathy, social worker/social-emotional instructor at a public high school in Minnesota

The first day of classes for students is September 8. It’s going to be distance learning. They’re going to review it on September 27 for a potential October 19 hybrid start.

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These are kids who don’t love school anyway, and the reason they showed up before COVID-19 was their relationships with teachers and staff and food. And we did some fun things at school, too, so we made them want to come and we rewarded them for coming. We lost that ability as soon as we went distance learning. Especially when you tell them they’re going to pass anyway.

Google Meet was easy to use, but kids don’t show up. And that was true with the teachers, too. Then they sometimes would show up randomly or they text the teacher and say, “Can we Google meet now?” And the teachers would say, “Sure.” So we would take what we could get.

Google Meet was easy to use, but kids don’t show up.”

Cathy, social worker and teacher in Minnesota
I’m a social-emotional learning [teacher]. And [Google Meet] is better than nothing, but it’s close to nothing for my kids because that’s not what they need. We’re group kids. We sit in a circle and we have processes and we do restorative justice and we do Circle of Courage and we’re face-to-face people. It’s better than nothing. Some contact is better than none, but there are kids who didn’t respond at all. So we’re losing people. I know we need to get back into a building, and then I guess that’s the curse of it all is I know what we need to do, but I’m really afraid to do what it is we need to do.

I’m 60 and was planning to cheerfully work for five more years. My brain is spinning in terms of, is there a way I can retire early? It’s really scary to go back.

Kamron, high school social studies in North Carolina (now teaching virtually)

The reopening of schools is very overwhelming for everybody—for school districts, for teachers, for parents, for students. And it has put people in a tough situation all across the board. A lot my teacher friends and the students’ parents have a lot of reservations. On the other side, there are parents who are wanting schools to reopen because they don’t have care for their kids.

I’ve just resigned from my full time teaching position the last week of July, because of concerns with COVID-19. I didn’t feel comfortable with the guidelines, and there were still so many unanswered questions. The decision was incredibly difficult. I just didn’t feel that the staff could be protected and stay safe. But I absolutely loved my school, the county I worked for, and all the staff who I worked with. It’s a small school of about 200 students and a staff of about 12. We were a family.

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Our high school campus was on the community college campus. So our building is shared with administration offices and the general public, moving in and out. It was not just teachers and students in that building. When I asked last week [the first week back for teachers] if the school had gotten any shipment of Clorox wipes or hand sanitizers or masks, nothing had been delivered. So, we were expected to go to this campus that we share with the general public, where there isn’t a mask requirement.

It just wasn’t a good situation, since teachers are expected to be in that environment all day. My fiancé and I both have chronic illnesses. Another major concern, both my parents are high-risk, so I wouldn’t have been able to see my family. We were told we had to report to campus to be compensated, so I was not comfortable with that. For me, I got a jump on things earlier. I thought to myself, “If we have to go back, am I going to be comfortable going back?”‘ My answer then was “no,” and it’s still a “no.” Our school starts back earlier than most, but the communication has not been great. We were given a survey, along with parents and families, but other than that there’s been no communication until our first week of school. And I’m sure this is not a unique situation.

In May, I started looking for online work. I was able to resign because I already had part-time virtual teaching work, but as a state employee, I’ve lost all my benefits. And I’ve definitely taken a pay cut, but what’s money if you don’t have your health?

Courtney, preschool teacher in Michigan

A lot of us thought it was just going to be maybe a few weeks. Our tuition-based program preschool is located in a high school and we provide childcare for basically, six weeks for 4-5-year-olds.

One of my biggest concerns with all of it was there were just so many unanswered questions and unknowns. I’ve been nervous about it since May. Back then, I said, as a public school, we should just stop what we’re doing and think about how we can make virtual learning a success for everybody, come fall, because it can be done. I know not everyone has this belief.

My very first worry and concern was that I was going to stop getting paid, at some point. So one, I was worried about job security and two, I was a little worried I had too much time on my hands. I like to be productive and to have something to do and I like to work.

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I was teaching on Outschool, and late March, early April, which I shared because [the platform] was offering free classes with the new crisis and shutdown. I was also providing support to families in the district with emails and weekly Zoom meetings. I’ve had [virtual] students since March. There was a lot we were doing for preschool. We did spirit days, to keep the kids engaged and involved, and we hosted on Zoom parent-teacher check-ins. And our center has an Instagram page, so from the start [of the pandemic], I started recording myself while reading stories.

I’ve heard from parents and other educators who are not familiar with an online platform is, “how are these children going to make connections with the teacher?” It’s a really difficult decision for families and educators. A lot of people right now are very nervous about virtual learning, they want face-to-face. But from my experience, it can be very positive even if it’s not traditional.

I was able to connect with [my students’] families in a different way than in-person.”

Courtney, teacher in Michigan
I actually really enjoyed being able to work from home and have the flexibility to spend more time with my husband, as well as having a nice balance while working from home. Also, I was able to connect with [my students’] families in a different way than in-person. If you think about it, from the public preschool point of view, a parent is coming in and they’re dropping their child off. You may get two to five minutes to chat. It is “what they had for lunch today?” or “here’s an extra change of clothes,” so you don’t always get a chance to have much of a discussion. Then, their child is in your care for the entire day, the parents come and the child is picked up; they’re taken home. The parents get a tiny snapshot into the day, like “so-and-so really like painting at the easel today,” but they’re not seeing how you’re interacting with their child or how you teach.

COVID-19 in general has opened up everyone’s eyes. Yes, face-to-face [schooling] works for a lot of people, there are also other ways to do it. And what fits one student might not work for another. We found out recently that our district will return to a virtual start to the school year, and several other surrounding districts are also taking this route. My “Early Learning” team does not know yet if we will offer virtual learning to families who enroll.

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