Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching During a Global Pandemic

This post is Part 1 of a three-part collaborative series on COVID-era teaching and mental health.

Look away, please, I beg you. If you came here hoping for a minute of inspiration, a funny story about teaching under COVID, a glimmer of hope in this dark, dark world. Please, read no further. I offer no such thing. No, I have neither joy, nor light, nor certitude, nor help for pain to offer. But I offer you my fear, because it is all I have. I offer you what someone once gave me, a moment to be scared with someone, so that when you press back into the dark, you will know that, of the many shadows that haunt these woods, some are assuredly monsters, but one of them is someone as alone and scared as you, perhaps more of them than we know.

If you are worried about returning to school in-person, or you have already returned to a blended learning model and you are anxious, you are not alone.

In August 2020, an NPR/Ipsos poll of Kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers revealed that 82% were concerned about returning to school in person. Nearly 30% of the teachers in our school districts nationwide are over 50 years old. This places those teachers into a high risk category if they contract COVID. Seventy-eight percent of the teachers polled expressed concern about the availability of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to facilitate safe in-person instruction. In North Carolina, our schools are operating in both fully remote and blended learning environments.

Before we jump into the minivan, I remind my two little daughters what to say to the masked man who will open the door next. “No, you have not been feeling ill, you do not have a cough, or loss of taste. No, Harper, your cat allergy is not COVID, but it would be best if you didn’t mention it.” I tie their masks, careful not to pull the tiny hairs at the base of their matching pony tails, and we head to school. We wait in a long line of cars, and when it is our turn, I press a button and the door slides open. A man points a thermometer at their heads while rattling off a list of terrifying symptoms, and we hear the beep. Then we all hold our breath as we wait to see the number, “You’re good”. He says. “Come on in.” I pull away and head toward my school, where I will be the masked man wielding the instrument of doubt, and I think, “What can Ido to make it less scary? Crack a joke? Tell them I am a parent too?” By the tenth car, I find no matter what I do, it will always be awkward to look a masked child in the eye and point a temperature gun at them while their parents watch. The best I can do is acknowledge it is awkward and welcome them.

Emerging research indicates that COVID-19 is causing additional stress factors not previously seen in the general population.

Known as COVID Stress Syndrome, the identified stressors are multi-faceted and include concerns about the danger of COVID, socioeconomic costs, xenophobic fears, trauma related to potential exposure, and compulsive checking of COVID-19 symptoms. To an extent, we have each experienced these stressors over the past nine months.

One night, when I was a kid, my older sister was in a performance at my school. We had to wait long after the show to drive her home, and by the time she came out, nearly everyone had left. I often think back on that feeling, walking through the empty school with my parents, looking down dark hallways, passing the cafeteria with only a single light glowing from deep in the kitchen somewhere. It was exhilarating, as if the world outside had ended, and I had some secret access to a desolate world that was just the shadow of society. I wanted to scream and yell down the hallway, feeling thrilled by how strange the familiar had become. As I walk to my first class this morning, I rush back to that moment in my mind. The halls are empty, so empty that the motion-sensor lights have gone off. We have been instructed to keep everyone in our rooms, outside of specific scheduled bathroom breaks. Each classroom door casts a beam of light into the dark hall, and as I pass, I see a handful of kids in each, sitting 6 feet apart, peeking over their masks at a teacher who seems smaller and more alone than ever for the distance between them. And the teachers instruct them in silence, floating behind great desks in an ocean of sterile space.

As my own class shuffles in, they are quiet. I greet each student, ask their name, I then try to find the name on my roster that matches the muffled syllables I think I just heard. As a high-school teacher I have become adept at decoding teenagers’ mumbled responses to questions. Or, often, simply acting like I understand them and repeating their brilliant response to the class with a generous amount of embellishment which I frame as merely an extension of their own words. But with masks, their speech has become unintelligible and they have learned to say nothing, rather than have to repeat themselves half a dozen times. So, for the  nearly 30 minutes it takes for everyone to arrive, be scanned, and then placed, they sit in silence, in a sterile room, staring at their phones. I keep finding excuses to leave the room, and instead stand in the empty hall and think about my own girls. Is this what it is like? Are they sitting in a cold room, in silence, staring? Are they afraid? I’m afraid.

My planning period is the last period of the day. It has been two weeks since we started, and I still have three students on my roster who have not attended in person or online. “Do we know where they are?” I ask our guidance counselor. She tells me there are many kids we are still unsure of because our district’s virtual option is still behind in registering students, “So, they could be waiting to enroll in the virtual school, or they may be attending one of the charter or home school pods, and we just haven’t heard yet.” She says, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” We tried calling home, emailing, texting, and have received no response. Again, I think about my own girls. How many weeks can a child be gone before we should begin to worry? This makes me want to cry, so I start walking quickly down the longest halfway I can find. This happens to me often now. I get this feeling like I might cry. I find walking helps, so during my planning I will just follow the arrows we have stuck to the floor to indicate the approved direction of traffic and circle the school with my head down. I didn’t really need to come up here to the office to ask anyway. I just wanted to see another person. Most days now, I do not talk to another adult all day. We no longer stand in the halls during class change and talk. We have been asked not to congregate in the teacher’s lounge, so they took the chairs away. Because our students eat in our classrooms now, we have to stay with them, and so most days go by without any contact with an adult at all.

I feel so alone. So, I walk around the school, in the empty halls, and think.

One day, on one of my walks, I see a friend, the band director. We worked side-by-side for years when I was the assistant director, before I had kids and could afford the time. He was once my best friend, but we drifted apart in the way adults do for no particular reason other than that your lives are so different. He is just standing there, waiting. He sees me and he smiles, at least his eyes squint, that’s how we tell now. I stop and say, “How’s it going?” and he says, “You know what? This sucks. I hate this.” He explains that they are not allowed to play instruments, so he has been doing his best to find things to do with the band, but that it is draining him, and he is exhausted and doesn’t know how much longer he can do it. He tells me about his wife’s job as a nurse, and what she sees in the hospital. He tells me about his elderly parents and his fear for them. He tells me how sometimes he feels like really alone, and so he finds reasons to walk around the school and that this is what he was doing when I came along. Then he asks me how I am doing, and he looks like he means it. It’s funny how often we ask this of each other and don’t mean it, and this is when I start to cry. It just sucks so much. I’m not the teacher I want to be. I’m not the parent I want to be. I’m drowning, I’m failing, and I just feel sad. For a few minutes he listens, then the bell rings and we each head off to our separate ends of the school, but I think about that moment often now.

This sucks, and it is time we admit it to each other. It is not going well, I am not inspiring, I am failing, both at school and at home. I just hope that you find someone who you can be honest with, someone who will let you admit you are failing without judgement, someone who will meet you on that crossroads and share the darkness with you. If you have not, look for me. Missing me one place, search another; I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Bobbie Cavnar is the 2017 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year and 2018 NEA Foundation National Public Educator of the Year. He currently teaches Advanced Placement Literature and chairs the English Department at South Point High School in Gaston County, North Carolina.






Maureen Stover is the 2020 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year (NCTOY). Prior to her position as the NCTOY, she taught biology, earth and environmental science, and advancement via individual determination (AVID) at Cumberland International Early College High School in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, North Carolina.






Darcy Grimes is the 2013 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and 2018 NCTIES Outstanding Young Educator. She currently teaches English Language Arts and Social Studies at Enka Intermediate School in Buncombe County, North Carolina.



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