Teaching in a Pandemic

Note: I am a high school math teacher in north-central Mississippi. I have been teaching for 31 years, 21 of them in the school in which we rode out the pandemic.

Lots of people have asked me how it’s going and I have been keeping a private journal since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic in mid-March. I’ll save all of that for some future post or book or something. But in summary… Of course the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year we were closed down and little instruction took place except for dual credit courses through the community college and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. I was very busy with my AP calculus students and was also planning and recording live videos with a colleague for CollegeBoard. After the AP exam, about a thousand other calculus teachers and I graded said exam virtually. That was June. Then July hit and there were some home improvement projects and some camping. Then school started August 3rd.

One benefit to Pandemic teaching is that we can wear scrubs!

LATE AUGUST 2020

We have been on a hybrid model where we see students Monday and Tuesday (red group) and then we have Wednesdays to plan and then we see a different set of students (gold group) Thursday and Friday. About 20 to 30% of our students are virtual only and a lot of that instruction is taking place via the Edgenuity platform. I have no responsibility for those students. Three of them are AP Calculus students and were scheduled to test on “Unit 1” which is only precalculus topics on October 2nd. I finally figured out why and finagled their finish date to be April 9th so they have time to review for the AP exam. If those three students come back to school after the first quarter they’ll be at least 1.5 units behind. (Update: One of those students came back after the first quarter and we were starting chain rule and she hadn’t learned any derivative rules. Luckily, she is a superior student and worked over time to get herself caught up!)

We are supposed to be going back full-time face-to-face on September 8th after Labor Day but that will be really only about 70 to 80% of our actual student body in the building. The problem is of course our rooms and hallways will be dense. Everyone will be masked in the classrooms and the hallways. The rooms have different dismissal times about a minute apart to try and alleviate crowding in the hallway. Plus we are using outdoor hallways but I’m not sure that the kids are actually doing that — I never actually leave my door of my classroom. I guess administrators are watching that. Teachers have lunch in their rooms with their students every day fifth period. I eat during my smallest class, third period while they have their masks on and I have my mask off. We are all on duty every day starting at 7:15 taking temperatures etc. It is exhausting teaching in a mask all day long when you can’t put students together working on problems. That’s a lot of how I teach — teaching a short lesson but then having them work in pairs or groups of three but that can’t be done you have to teach and then just kind of watch them work. It’s exhausting. The buses leave in three different dismissal waves so we aren’t free of students until 3:30 and then we have to exit the building at four because of sanitation that needs to come through.

Once we go full-time face-to-face there’s not going be any time to plan or meet with our teaching teams or anything. We’ve had all day Wednesday to do this but it’s not going to exist after Labor Day. Plus many many kids and teachers are going to start becoming quarantined. Our county is on fire because Ole Miss is back in session. But the school board voted for us to go back face-to-face on the eighth. Political move— the superintendent’s and principals’ hands are tied. Last night I had a dream that we just got in our truck pulling our camper and left. I definitely would not be doing this except I have a seventh grader so he has to go to school anyway. I mean he could do homeschool or virtual school but the reality is is that the teachers are so much better when you have contact with them face-to-face. It’s just that a lot of teachers are going to start going down when we have more kids in the building and we don’t have that Wednesday time to plan.

MID-DECEMBER 2020

Throughout September and October, things were humming along. Luckily I had the same preps (AP Calculus and Algebra I) that I have had for several years so we were all staying about a week ahead of the students getting all materials digitized and uploaded. I was recording videos during every planning period, as were my colleagues. Well, the week before Thanksgiving Break we we finally crashed. We had been full face-to-face for about two months but then teachers and students starting testing positive in greater numbers which meant that a lot of students were getting quarantined due to close contact. The week before our Thanksgiving break we were completely virtual. The three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas we adhered to the hybrid red / gold days with Wednesday as a virtual day for all. It became clear during this time that many students were cheating on their quizzes when we administered them virtually so unfortunately the two days students were in school turned into one day of instruction / review and one day of assessment. [State tests were still going to happen in the spring and at this time we did not know if they would “count” or not so we definitely felt compelled to keep those expectations high.] The other three days students were virtual and they were supposed to be learning asynchronously with the videos and assignments we created and posted for them.

MARCH 2021

It’s hard to believe, but we made it all the way through the third quarter face-to-face. Several students came off the virtual only platform and into our classes, which was fun because they were excited to have “a real teacher”. Of course we had some students and teachers in quarantine, but not in the large numbers that we had in the fall. The CDC guidelines for quarantine changed and students could come back to school after close contact in class if they produced a negative COVID test within a certain number of days. In addition, teachers were deemed essential workers and did not have to quarantine due to close contact unless they were symptomatic and/or tested positive. It was so great to have most students (and teachers) present most days. In addition, the vaccine roll out began and many teachers in Mississippi were able to get their first dose in February and became fully vaccinated by the end of March.

Unfortunately, between the way the 2019-2020 school year finished and the way the 2020-2021 school year started, many teachers felt that the students have lost so much motivation to do their best. I really think we won’t see an increase in motivation until the 2022-2023 school year. I think the average and above average kids are continuing to do well, though their motivation levels might be a little lower, but the struggling students are suffering greatly. The chasm is widening and until we are all back all the time, I do not see how it can be narrowed. I don’t have any hard data to back up these claims, it’s just pure observation on my part.

Another thing that happened during the third quarter of school (January, February, 1/2 of March) was that Lafayette County (MS) experienced a snow storm followed by a week of freezing temperatures. We were completely iced in but managed to have power. Mother Nature imposed a district-wide quarantine on us! If this had happened prior to 2020, we would have to make up the days at the end of the school year. Due to COVID, however, everyone in our district had school-issued devices AND we had figured out how to teach and learn on them. So, we continued to learn and teach virtually for the entire week. Most of the learning was asynchronous, in other words, videos made or notes posted with an assignment or activity to do after the lesson. Though most of our students and teachers have internet access at home, many do not have the bandwidth to participate in a synchronous google meet or zoom call.

When we came back from Spring Break (a one-week hiatus without any school, virtual or otherwise), juniors took the ACT. What was neat about this was that 9th, 10th and 12th graders had virtual school that day. It allowed the test administrators to spread the juniors out in the building and enabled many more teachers to proctor. I teach 8th grade algebra 1 so I had face-to-face school and also asked my AP Calculus students to attend that day in person; most of them did. This new model for testing paved the way for the way we are administering state tests this year.

MAY 2021

And just like many school years, the days are long but the year goes by in a flash, This year the days have been exceptionally long and yet, we are almost to the end. When I think back to how anxious I was in July, how I wished I could have retired and just not gone back to school, I am proud that I had the courage to tackle the year. In August I was scared to touch student papers; we still believed this virus could be spread through surface contact. In August I was extremely worried that I would contract the virus and spread it to my aging parents. Now I know that wearing masks works. Students and teachers wore masks all year and though I was in contact with people who tested positive, I never got the virus. When I think back on how much I have learned about technology during this past year, it is overwhelming. Frankly, I would have never learned it all had if the Pandemic hadn’t forced my hand. There were many days when I didn’t feel I could learn one more new thing, no matter how small. And yet I did.

Will we still be wearing masks in August? Will vaccines be required for teachers and students? So many questions still, and I am glad that I am not the one responsible for answering them!

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