I’m a Teacher Who’s Back at School—Here’s What What’s Worrying Me the Most

Between worrying about her students' mental health, her own physical health, and lack of community support, there's a lot keeping this midwestern teacher up at night.

I’m a high school teacher in the Midwest and we’ve been back in school in person for almost three weeks. It is going exactly as I had expected—and that doesn’t mean that it’s going well. It’s not a people problem. The students are adapting remarkably well and the administrators, office staff, and teachers are also doing their absolute best to roll with the changes. It’s a virus problem—because we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and it turns out that COVID-19 doesn’t care about the district calendar.

At first, it seemed to be going OK. Like many teachers, I had a lot of concerns about returning to the classroom but when the decision was made to go back in-person, I realized that this was happening no matter what so I needed to accept that and get prepared. It helped that I feel that the school district did everything that it could possibly have done to make a safe environment for both students and faculty. I forced my concerns to the back of my mind and showed up for the first day with a smile, ready to greet my new students. (Not all teachers share this point of view—here’s one teacher’s argument for resuming all in-person learning regardless of the virus.)

By lunchtime that first day I had my first student test positive for coronavirus. Her parents already knew she was positive but because she wasn’t showing obvious symptoms they sent her anyhow. (Add this to the list of 20 rude habits your child’s teacher wishes you’d stop.) The poor kid tried to plead her case as they took her out, saying, “But I’m not even sick! Please let me stay! I love your class! I can’t miss the first day!” That broke me. She was in a different class at that time and I knew I wouldn’t see her in my class later that day and possibly for a very long time.

And that was just the beginning of our problems. Because of that one case, her entire class, including the teacher, got sent home to quarantine. By the end of the second day, two more classes were sent home. I spent the entire first week rushing from classroom to classroom trying to cover classes that suddenly had no teachers, nevermind the fact that I didn’t teach those subjects and had no lesson plans. (Teachers are constantly called on to do things that are not in their job description, that’s just one of the 18 things homeschooling made us appreciate about teachers.) The upside is that the school staff and faculty have pulled together in a way I’ve never seen before. The way we have each other’s backs is the best thing about this situation; I would absolutely go to war with any of these people now! I’ve also been so impressed with how much the teachers are going above and beyond to help the students adjust and how hard the students are trying to follow all the new rules.

Unfortunately, it is also exhausting, upsetting, and absolutely infuriating. Why? Because the writing was on the wall from the get-go. Everyone who knew anything could see that this was going to happen. Our area never really had the virus under control and cases went up dramatically over the summer. Health officials warned everyone that in-person school was a bad idea but the community wanted students back in school—parents demanded it—science be damned.

We’re now three weeks in and my state has seen our COVID-19 cases more than double since school started. Our positivity rate (the percentage of total tests that come back positive and one measure of how fast the disease is spreading) is hovering around 14 percent right now, far higher than the 5 percent or lower that the Centers for Disease Control recommends. These aren’t just numbers. The increasing cases are having a real impact on my students’ lives and my life. I’m teaching one of my classes virtually and I feel like my remaining in-person classes are a ticking time bomb. All of those concerns I’d tried so hard to tamp down at the beginning are back, and they brought friends.

Here’s what’s worrying me the most right now

The mental toll on my students

Watching my students deal with the uncertainty of this back-and-forth between online and in-person, I can see how scared and confused they are. They are doing their best to follow the new rules but the whole situation is unnerving. Kids who never previously had problems are now falling apart in class and kids who had mental health concerns before are now a wreck. Every teacher knows that one of the things kids need most in the classroom is stability and consistency—and we can’t give them that right now. (Here’s one teacher’s strategy for dealing with students’ mental health issues.)

My health, mental and physical

I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping. I feel anxious and stressed all the time. None of which is good for my general health or my immune system. How long before I get the virus myself? I’m not in a high-risk category for complications from COVID but that doesn’t mean I want to get it! I have a family at home, I don’t want them to get it either! (This is a major reason why some teachers are refusing to go back to the classroom until there is a vaccine.)

Calling the virus “a hoax”

There are a significant number of people in my conservative community who truly believe that “the China virus” is “all a hoax.” It’s frustrating because when I hear a child tell me it’s “fake news” I know that they’re just parroting what their parents have told them and they are going to listen to their parents because they love them. Why would mom or dad lie to them? And yet, they are being fed terrible information, and we have to do that delicate dance of making sure we keep the students safe, making sure we respect the relationship between parent and child, and not falling into the sad political narrative that has overtaken this crisis. Here’s how to talk accurately and age-appropriately with kids about the pandemic.

Corona parties

I recently saw an Instagram post of one of my students attending a “corona party.” I’m not sure if the point was to get the virus or just make fun of it but either way, they were not wearing a mask and were in the middle of a large crowd of other unmasked kids. And if I saw one post on Instagram you can bet it’s happening a lot more. As teachers, we have no control over what they do outside of school but their non-school behavior has a huge impact on us at school. I feel like I’m watching a train wreck happen in real-time and I can’t stop it.

Technology failures

The first day I taught a remote class it was hacked and an incredibly graphic pornographic video was played on all the kids’ screens. It was upsetting to me and to them. Because of that, the district changed how we set up and log in to virtual classrooms and the system is so complex that I spend half the time trying to get all my students logged on. I also have to worry about my students who are too poor to afford the necessary Chromebook or to pay for the high-speed Internet to run them.

Writing my own will

Our district strongly suggested we make sure all of our affairs are in order before returning. You know, in case I die. They also asked us to come up with a script to use to talk to our kids after the first student or teacher dies.

Masks are a joke

The age of kids I teach is notorious for poor judgment and I really see that come through with their mask behavior. All the kids show up with masks but they’re always taking them off, playing with them, sucking on them, dropping them, or only partially wearing them. I had one class where all the boys insisted on wearing them over their eyes, like blindfolds, instead of their noses and mouths. These are the most common mistakes people make with their masks.

Parents sending sick kids

That girl the first day of school is not the only child that’s been sent to school while actively ill. One student told me his mother gave him a bottle of chewable ibuprofen and told him to eat one whenever he felt the symptoms coming back. She also is refusing to test him because if he is positive (which is almost certain) then she risks losing her job because she doesn’t have childcare. But, hey, you can’t quarantine him if you don’t test him!

The backsliding in learning

There’s not a ton of real education happening, at least not in my school. Teachers are so busy dealing with virus-related issues that nearly all the kids are regressing in their knowledge. I’m terrified of what is going to happen to these kids next year. All of them are falling behind. (Do you know these 14 times you should definitely call the principal?)

Lack of community support

Honestly, the biggest worry I have is our community itself because all of these concerns ultimately trace back to this one huge issue. Nothing that is happening should be a surprise! The school has done what it can do. It’s the community that needs to commit to masks, socially distancing, and making wise decisions during the pandemic. Once the students leave the classroom, it’s no longer up to us to keep the students safe. We, as a community, need to be all in on this issue. Nobody is enjoying any aspect of this pandemic, but pretending that it doesn’t exist after the last school bell rings does nothing but prolong this crisis.

Next, read on for 20 ways things could change forever after the coronavirus.

For more ways to stay safe and sane, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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