The mid-March shutdown of businesses and schools meant that our homes weren't just our homes anymore — they were our playgrounds, schools, and offices. Shifting the metaphorical walls around inside the house depending on what you need it to be at a given moment remains a challenge, especially for parents. But teachers, whose "offices" are classrooms for dozens of students, had a unique challenge: perform their job remotely while parenting their own children. And now they must perform the same feat in reverse — return to the classroom part-time, at least, while managing their own kids, who may or may not have full-time schooling.
Teachers are nothing if not resourceful. To get through the past semester, those I spoke to filmed tutorials in their backyards, set up makeshift offices in their living rooms, and even built fake school room backdrops for their Zoom classes. I chatted with nine educators, in the U.S. and abroad, to see where they worked and what they think is in store for the 2020-2021 academic year. Many worried about the wellbeing of their students and most expressed a desire for school districts to offer firmer plans for the coming school year.
Sarah, a high-school English Teacher in Michigan
Sarah Ashman and her husband eliminated their home office in 2019. “Then 2020 came and laughed its ass off at us,” she says. Fortunately Sarah, a high school English teacher, says her laptop allowed her to do most of her work (including guiding her kindergartner’s distance learning, when she’s not “tearing the house apart”).
Her desk is sprinkled with reminders of life during a pandemic. Her copy of The Kite Runner, the last novel she worked through with her sophomores before schools closed, reminds her that she still has some of those papers to grade, months later, because she struggles with the ethics of grading when students do not have equal access to resources. The "Ironic" mug where she keeps her pens and pencils is a sad reminder of her tickets to a July Alanis Morrissette show that was cancelled.
She found it hard to overcome the general malaise. “The brain fog of quarantine made lesson planning and assessing work a lot more difficult, as did the added stressor of keeping my own little human engaged in her learning.”
Man, do I miss faces. Teenage faces. Curious, loving, trouble-making, sad, happy teenage faces. I will never again take for granted how much I love my students.
“I am still luckier than 90% of Americans dealing with this, but man, do I miss faces. Teenage faces. Curious, loving, trouble-making, sad, happy teenage faces. I will never again take for granted how much I love my students. I miss them so damn much it hurts. I honestly don’t even know what I want for the fall. I miss my job like mad, but having seen the messy germ containers my students are, I worry about the ability to do things safely. We will see.”
Whatever Michigan's reopening looks like, it will involve students and staff wearing masks.
Day, a fifth-grade science teacher in Connecticut
Day Mitchell’s “fake classroom” was on point. Homemade motivational posters on butcher paper hung on her kitchen wall, providing a nifty background for her fifth grade science lessons on Zoom. But not all of her students got to see it. “Many don't have regular or any access to technology, so in addition to teaching live, we also had to develop hard-copy lessons that could be made into packets.”
“All hours were office hours," she says of the adjustment to remote learning. "It is very difficult for me to set boundaries and only respond at certain times.” At the same time, she had to coordinate the Zoom meetings, classwork, and virtual after-school activities of her twin first-graders, Cassady and Parker.
She says the semester ended “with a whimper.” Attendance began to dwindle; during her last homeroom meeting, only two students showed up. Connecticut aims to provide "access" to full-time onsite learning for all children. Day thinks it will probably be in-person teaching with some safety modifications. She also expects that there will still be an element of online learning for students, both for those who aren’t comfortable returning to school and as a safeguard in case schools become unsafe once more.
Lauran, a preschool teacher in Connecticut
For Lauran Pancoast, figuring out distance learning for a play-based preschool curriculum was a challenge. And doing that while caring for four children and supporting an E.R. nurse husband who works in a COVID-19 hot spot certainly didn’t make it any easier.
But with the help of her creative staff and amazing board of directors, she managed. Her home office helped, too. She has a “good behavior” ticket system for the older children to help keep things under control.
After days full of virtual meetings, childcare, and homeschooling, Lauran spent evenings prepping for the next day before her husband got home from work. “After all he sees all day, it's nice for him to have a person to talk to about some good stuff before he goes to bed,” she says.
Looking back she is glad she got to spend more time experiencing her kids' "day-to-day growing up." "I never would have gotten to do normally as a working mom and I am so grateful for that.”
Lisa, a high school English teacher in Indiana
Within a few days of beginning distance learning, Lisa Baltes realized that the kitchen table wasn’t going to work out — it was too inconvenient to keep clearing everything away for meals — so she created a space in the corner of her living room. Her children, Greta and Will, would often join her there to do their own school work or nap on nearby cots she set up for them.
I moved to individual Zoom calls because the students will listen far better if we are talking only about their work.
While she felt well-supported by her administration, Lisa says that students started to tap out. “The encouragement and reminder emails never ended,” she says. “I moved to individual Zoom calls because the students will listen far better if we are talking only about their work.” She send a greeting card by mail to each student when it was announced school wouldn't reopen for the 2019-2020 school year.
The logistics of transportation are complicating district plans for the fall semester, Lisa says. "I really hope I’ll see my students in class at the first of the year, but I don’t feel confident about that.” The Indiana Governor has advised that reopening in the state won't be a one-size-fits-all plan.
Elizabeth, a special education teacher in Oregon
When the state closed schools on March 12, Elizabeth Carroll had already been on a leave of absence for two weeks to care for her dying father. Upon return, she had to conjure a workspace on her kitchen table.
If they could just commit to Plan X, we as teachers and parents could take the summer to mindfully plan ahead.
“The kids I work with are all highly impacted and tend to need a lot of one-on-one adult support,” she says. “This is not a situation where I can host weekly video meetings and teach a lesson to a whole group.”
Work was done sporadically, “between breaking up wrestling matches." All her students are on IEPs — individualized educaion plans. Mostly, things got done when her sons were with their father or after they went to bed.
Like most teachers, Elizabeth isn’t sure what the fall has in store; things are changing so rapidly that it’s difficult for districts to make a plan — blue prints for reopening are due by August 15. “If they could just commit to Plan X,” she says, “we as teachers and parents could take the summer to mindfully plan ahead.” Still, she’s ambivalent about all possible outcomes. “The kids in my classroom are least likely to benefit from distance learning… but the least likely to be able to following distancing/hygienic procedures.”
Rachel, a Christian-preschool teacher in California
“I started the quarantine filming in my backyard so people wouldn’t see my house mess,” she explains. “But the weather made all kinds of challenges. It would rain, the neighbor’s chickens were loud," and on.
When they return in the fall … they will have a lot of social growth to make up for.
Her sons’ room, she found, was the only space she had that ticked all the boxes: good lighting, no distracting wall art, space, and no messes. Once a week she was able to be alone in church to record a preschool worship service. The schedule wasn’t easy, particularly when she had to factor in arguing with her 11-, 8-, and 6-year-olds about getting their work done. “I would sit in my "office" and cry,” she says. “My children refused to do homework, I hadn’t gotten any of my hour of videos recorded, and I had been on two hours of Zoom with preschoolers. It’s so damn hard.”
Looking to the fall, Rachel doesn’t think California's proposed hybrid model, encompassing some distance learning for pre-school, is sustainable. “Social development and classroom behavior are even more important developmental goals in pre-K than letters and numbers,” she explains. “These are goals that we as teachers can barely touch through a video conference or pre-recorded lesson. When they return in the fall … they will have a lot of social growth to make up for.”
Jamie Matsuoka, an English teacher in Tokyo
Space is at a premium in Jamie Matsuoka’s apartment — she has no dedicated office or desk and often found herself sharing a dining table with her teen and two tweens — so her workspace was relatively bare bones.
Jamie and her school are already looking toward the fall semester. “At this point we are planning to return to campus but our return will be cautious and gradual,” she explains. There will be a thermal camera by the campus entrance monitoring staff and students.
For the first two weeks of school, students will be divided into two groups for half day sessions and the cafeteria will be closed.
Once inside, all students and staff will be masked. (They can come off for certain sports) For the first two weeks of school, students will be divided into two groups for half day sessions and the cafeteria will be closed. Classrooms will be reconfigured and student movements and migrations limited. She’s exhausted just explaining it, she says. But the solid, detailed plan in this Tokyo school is in stark contrast to the near universal “we just don’t know” of many American teachers.
Ashley, a fifth grade teacher in New York
Ashley P. made a workspace for her son, Teddy, at the kitchen table, right across from hers. However, he decided under the table, with his dog, Joy, was much more fun.
Finding balance was hard. “I was tired. My son was tired. .... He hated [distance learning]. I don’t blame him. Our district was not prepared." Two months in, she says they still didn’t have a lot of answers.
She describes the district, where she teaches and Teddy attends, as socio-economically diverse; specific needs vary wildly from household to household. “No one “needed” the same things, and many kids were serviced by bus routes that became meal delivery routes.
She tried to do what she could to engage her fifth graders, including sharing photos from her eighth grade production of Peter Pan, but was hard. “At our staff meeting Friday afternoon, you could see it … everyone had hit the wall.”
In early July, New York City announced that its school districts will not reopen fully for fall.
Anna, an elementary school ESL tutor in New Jersey
In the closing months of the 2019-2020 school year, Anna Fielind was teaching her students, facilitating her kindergartener’s distance learning, and completing graduate courses. Each course of work sat in neat piles on around her kitchen table turned classroom/office/lecture hall.
If we keep living the way we are all summer we definitely won’t be back to in-person classes.
“When they announced schools were closed for the rest of the year … I cried on my lunch break," she recalls. "We have students who are in unstable homes that I’m so scared for. Long breaks and summer are scary enough for these kids. School is the only place where they’re safe.”
She’s also worried, to a lesser degree, about her own child, Anthony. Though she notes he gained more independence as time went on, she has a sense of “mourning” for everything missed out on — field day, graduation, bonding with friends.
She’s not sure whether her school will reopen in the fall — New Jersey plans to offer in-person teaching — but she hopes that it can happen for at least the first two months to lay the foundations of a “positive classroom community” she says made distance learning possible this spring. But only if it’s safe to do so, and in that regard she’s skeptical. “People want kids to return to school in the fall, yet they’re acting like the virus no longer exists. If we keep living the way we are all summer we definitely won’t be back to in-person classes.”