Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit America in early 2020, teachers here have spent each academic term trying to catch up to an evolving disaster. That is, we have carefully planned every term based on what happened during the previous term, only to encounter new problems. Sometimes the new problems resulted from our (necessary) attempts to mitigate the old ones, which is especially annoying.
During these years, every topic that pundits and armchair pundits have treated as the issue confronting American education—remote learning! mask mandates! vaccine mandates! ableism! flexibility! testing! kindness! learning loss! self-censorship!—has turned out to be just one more dimension of a much larger problem, and that problem is that pandemics suck.
Peering into the future, I’m certain of only one thing: We’re going to be dealing with the pandemic’s fallout for years, and it’s a problem much bigger than any teacher’s or institution’s choices, however good or bad those choices may be.
Anyway, here’s my current attempt to fight last semester’s battles: I’m trying to help minimize student anxiety by simplifying my courses, especially at the outset.
For classes that meet in person this spring, I’m getting back to basics with the most predictable weekly schedule I can arrange. I’m drawing up each course calendar in the form of a checklist to maximize transparency and encourage students to track their progress. I’m assuming that class time will mostly be spent on really basic concepts. And I’m stripping down my syllabus, grounding every design choice in the need to make it less intimidating.
To some extent, this is taking me back to my earliest days as an instructor, when I was much more anxious in the classroom. But now simplicity is about helping students in crisis find their footing.
I can’t wait to find out how completely this, too, ends up missing the mark.
Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.
Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.
First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.
Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”
Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.
Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.
Classes start next week. I visited my new classroom today to check the equipment.
This semester, I’ll teach just two classes. Though that means I’m being paid less, it still comes as a relief after teaching five classes (in four preps) at three universities this autumn. It also probably means my students will have a better experience this time.
As for safety, we still have indoor mask mandates and vaccine mandates. One of my employers is requiring booster shots when eligible, too, and now is explicitly recommending—but is not, as far as I know, providing—high-filtration respirators (N95s, KN95s, KF94s, or FFP2s) rather than cloth masks. I plan to distribute several respirators to each of my students in the first week of class, partly through the generosity of my friend Dan Buller, a fellow educator.
In early December, when the feelings were still raw, I wrote privately about the experiences of Fall 2021. Here’s some what I wrote last month:
This semester has been about classroom survival, not excellence. Every teacher I’ve spoken with, at every kind of school, has said the same thing. Everyone is burnt out, and everyone is trying to figure out how to be back to “normal” in a semester when a global pandemic is still claiming people we knew. Most weeks this semester, I’ve been disappointed in every lesson I taught.
Much of the time, I have just felt … guilty. Truth be told, I don’t think I’m burnt out. But I am ashamed. I want to end this semester and never have to acknowledge it again. I want to bury it and pretend it never happened. The only thing it taught me about teaching in a pandemic is that teaching in a pandemic is bad.
But I did learn lessons from the fall semester that I’m going to try to apply this spring. I won’t expatiate upon most of those lessons here because they would be different at different institutions, in different courses, or for different instructors.
The most important lesson I learned is that the pandemic is getting harder for college students, not easier.
I can’t say this has been my least stressful semester of teaching.
On one campus, my very first class period was interrupted by a tornado warning. Later, I learned that an EF-3 tornado had been leveling a neighborhood five miles away from our classroom. On another campus, major flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida shut down freeways during my morning commute, turning an hourlong trip into a three-hour tour of various neighborhoods. (And then I had to figure out how to get back home that night.)
A few days later, a driver who couldn’t tell where the lanes were—because the state apparently hasn’t been maintaining roads at all during the past two years—hit the side of my car as we tried to exit one of those same freeways. Nobody was hurt, and we were both able to drive home, but I can’t say the accident reduced my anxiety about knowing that American roads, per mile traveled, are 24% deadlier than they were before the pandemic.
Indeed, homicidally reckless behavior is routine on the roads here. On Friday, for only one example, a driver followed me for two miles on the freeway with her headlights switched off, half an hour before dawn. Nighttime stealth driving actually isn’t unusual in this region; a typical week furnishes me with more than one example. Such motorists, as foolish as they are, scare me far less than all the drivers who seem determined to vent their social aggression at high speed in heavy traffic, day after day. There is not a doubt in my mind that their behavior is worse than it was before the pandemic.
So far, meanwhile, I have taught COVID-positive students in at least two classes without getting a symptomatic infection. The first time, this caused considerable anxiety because I developed what I now assume was an unusually bad case of nasal allergies around the same time. (I eventually tested negative for COVID. To get my test, I had to drive past road crews that were cutting down broken trees along the path of the tornado.) The second time I learned about a student’s positive test, I barely thought about it, given everything else going on.
Maintaining any topical continuity in my classes this fall, of course, has been nearly impossible due to high absenteeism, as students are forced to quarantine or deal with all the other things that seem to be breaking in American society right now. And in most weeks, I have had almost no prep time between classes, given my commute. That, too, dramatically degrades the quality of the instruction students are getting.
All in all, this semester feels apocalyptic in a way few ever have before.
My Labor Day began with the labor of rearranging a covid test for myself, plus the work of planning how I will teach most of my classes online this week.
That’s because last night, one of my employers announced that the whole campus is switching to remote instruction temporarily—until at least Friday. The reason for this change is a rapid increase in known COVID-19 cases among students, combined with the risks of Labor Day holiday travel.
In the same email, the university announced that about 90% of all the students and workers on campus are at least partially vaccinated. We have had five days of class so far this semester.
UPDATE: I’m pleased to say we’ve been told we will head back into the classroom on Monday.
The university has determined that only two (i.e., about four percent) of the known cases have been traced to possible classroom transmission. Most of the rest come from “large social gatherings in off-campus venues.” (I assume some cases were simply instances in which a student arrived on campus for the semester with an infection contracted elsewhere, but we haven’t been told that.) Symptoms, we’re told, have been generally mild; some of the infected students assumed they were suffering from seasonal allergies.
And on a personal note, I got a negative result on my PCR test this week.
I think it’s important to provide this update because as far as I can tell, this university’s key precautions—required COVID-19 vaccination, an indoor mask mandate, and a dedicated team working on testing and contact tracing—have been successful so far. That’s in spite of the fact that we have full classrooms and are working in the middle of a large city.
As we look ahead toward a near future in which covid is an endemic problem, we seem to be finding ways to make things work.
I went to campus yesterday to finalize the preparations for my first day of in-person teaching since March 2020. Among other things, this involved testing out the gear I’ll be wearing in the classroom, facing a total of about 90 mostly vaccinated students.
Pictured or implied:
A deceptively calm instructor in a self-administered haircut
A KN95 respirator on the FDA’s (now-defunct) emergency use authorization list
An “ear saver” that maintains a tight seal around the KN95 while relieving strain on the ears during extended use
A $30 rechargeable personal PA system worn on a strap, with a wired headset, to allow me to project my voice effectively through the mask (over the whir of the classroom’s air filtration unit) without shouting
I think it should work. It’s going to be weird as heck, but it should work.
One of my good friends is a schoolteacher in Texas, my home state. There, the governor, who is running for a third term in 2022, hasordered school districts and public colleges not to enforce basic pandemic precautions, even as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are returning to last winter’s levels.
My friend has written the following update, which I’m reposting here with their permission.
“A teacher in my district died of Covid yesterday. His last day at school was one week ago, the first day of classes. He welcomed groups of 12 year-olds back for a new year, and then today those kids learned that he is no longer alive. And they learned this news at school, because classes are still in session at every campus. I don’t know how many cases we’ve had at any of those campuses because the district isn’t required to report that information, so they aren’t.
“I didn’t know this teacher, and I also don’t know when or how he got Covid. I assume he was with me 11 days before he died, crammed into the high school entryway for breakfast and a vendor fair with all the rest of the district faculty and staff, and later crowding the hallways playing teambuilding games. I don’t know if he was one of the 15% or so of people wearing a mask as we all sat together in the gym and the superintendent told us that he and the school board weren’t willing to end up in a courtroom over trying to impose a mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.
“I have worn a mask in the building every day since I returned on August 4th, except when I am alone in my classroom. I am not enjoying it, and I’m not looking for any social bonus points for doing so . . . I just want to survive (and maybe even thrive). Actually, I feel a bit stupid wearing a mask in spaces where 95% of the people around me aren’t. Does it even matter? That ratio has improved over the past few weeks, but I don’t know whether it’s enough. I’d say roughly 1/4-1/3 of my students have masks covering some portion of their face at any given point during class.
“But of course, I’m not wearing a mask to protect myself from them. I’m wearing a mask to protect them from me (and hoping enough of them will do the same to move the needle). Because the other piece of this is that, although I don’t know how many people in this building have been vaccinated (the county is at less than 40%), I know they all at least could be if they chose to. Everyone else in my family is spending all day surrounded by people who definitely aren’t. All of my kids are under 12, and my spouse teaches pre-K. Their school has already had so many staff out sick that they’ve decided to impose a mask mandate effective today. I haven’t heard yet how that’s going. My 4th grader complains that I make her wear a mask even though only 3 other kids in her class do, and her teachers don’t, either. The 2nd grader is in pretty much the same boat. (Their campus has had 6 cases in the first 5 days of school, and 55 in the district as a whole.) And of course my toddler’s daycare is . . . a daycare; just a petri dish with 4 walls and a roof.
“I can’t stop thinking about 5 years ago when the Trump campaign put out an ad that said, ‘If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?’ in reference to desperate Syrian families seeking asylum. You’d be hard pressed to decide whether the analogy was more stupid, more racist, or more lacking in basic humanity (the Trump trifecta), but the basic analogy suddenly feels like it has merit in this whole new context that he and his party have landed us in. There are bowls of Skittles all over Texas with a few poison ones mixed in, and every teacher and student in the state is being told to reach into a bowl and eat a Skittle every single day. I’m being asked to gamble the lives and the health of my family every day, weighing the small but ever-present risk of disease and death against the certainty of losing my livelihood. Some choice.
“Conservatives like to say ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’ And it’s certainly a fact that they don’t care about my feelings . . . But they also don’t care about my health, my well-being, my life . . . or facts.”
My friend’s update is explicitly partisan in a way I normally avoid at this blog. But under the circumstances, I think it’s important for me not to censor their thoughts.
I’m hearing similar stories of frustration from a lot of other educators in states whose leaders have rejected their public responsibilities.
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in mid-February, adults in the United States have grown more concerned (since July 2020) about the effects of K-12 school closures on student academic progress. They have grown less concerned about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spreading among students or teachers.
The risk of losing academic ground is now the leading factor cited by American adults as a determinant of whether schools should return to in-person instruction—ahead of students’ emotional wellbeing as well as pandemic transmission risks.
However, almost three in five American adults still say that K-12 school buildings should not reopen for in-person instruction until teachers have the chance to get vaccinated.
That becomes an overwhelming consensus among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and lower-income adults, as well as among Democrats, all of whom say, at least two-to-one and as much as four-to-one, that teachers should be vaccinated before K-12 schools return to in-person instruction.
In other words, statistically, the most vulnerable Americans are also the ones who most want teachers vaccinated before K-12 school buildings reopen.
Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I wrote about my gratitude for the ways Donald Trump’s America had become a great place to teach history. I think what I wrote has held up well.
This year, after another general election—and during a mismanagedpandemic that has already killed some of my friends’ relatives, made the death of one of my friends (from other causes) lonelier and more surreal, forced some students to drop my courses because they couldn’t function for weeks after they were infected, and made effective teaching at any level all butimpossible—I’m taking stock again.
It takes more effort to write it this time. But here’s why I’m still thankful I get to teach history in the age of Donald Trump.