This is a simple story. It is an idea about what the new world in education might look like, when the world has opened up, somewhat, after the quarantine, and about how teachers might feel about it all.
Ms. Dahlia Eckelman adjusted the webcam so the students at home could be part of the conversation. She was just about to press the ‘record’ button when a hand shot up.
“Ms. Eckelman, Trevor keeps throwing things at me,” Xavier complained.
Dahlia sighed before she turned around to address the class, her shoulders heavier with the weight of yet another annoyance. Why couldn’t they just sit quietly while she got the lesson set up? Why did they always cause her this delay?
“Trevor, are you throwing things?” she asked, with a lack of commitment in her voice, as if it was too much trouble to dig any deeper into this matter. She knew, from experience, that Trevor was most likely throwing things, and that Trevor would not admit to it. And on and on it would go.
“No, Ms. E. I wasn’t throwing anything.”
Xavier countered with a whine in his voice. “Yes, you were, Trevor! You are always throwing things at me. And then you lie about it.”
Dahlia knew that there were students and parents waiting at home for the lesson to begin. She did her best to extinguish the behavior as quickly as possible. “Trevor, stop throwing things or I will move you to the Quarantine seat.”
Naturally, as always, Trevor attempted to argue with her.
Dahlia put an end to it as quickly as possible. “Trevor, this is not a discussion. Another violation and you lose a point for your team, you owe me class money, and you move to the Quarantine seat. This is nothing new and you have been warned.”
Trevor started to say something, but Dahlia turned her back on him and got the recorder going. She turned to face the webcam, in a laptop that was set up in the middle of the room on a stand, and the class in front of her. Since Trevor had no more audience, and did not want to lose any more privileges, or points, he acquiesced and stopped quarreling.
“Good morning, everyone. Please open your notebooks to a fresh, clean page. Remember to put the date on the top, right hand side of the page. Underneath that, today’s lesson title: Equiv Fractions. And on the first line, today’s objective: I can create Equivalent fractions Using LCM or LCD.”
After the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020, schools were never the same. Every school district in every state in America had a different way of returning to the classroom. In Dahlia’s district, the first thing they did was to determine which teachers would agree to return to the physical classroom without a mask. The teachers had signed their contracts shortly after the Quarantine was in place during the spring of that year, but in lieu of the virus, they did not have to agree to the terms when they returned for the following school year, in which case, they could be released from their contracts without penalty. However, if they chose to stay and honor their contract, but did not feel comfortable being in the school, they could sign up to teach from home. Thus, the district now offered parents and students multiple options.
Although Dahlia was reluctant to be in the school without a mask, she took her chances, having had enough of teaching from a computer at home during that spring. However, when students like Trevor gave her grief, as he did on the regular, she wondered why she hadn’t agreed to teach from the comfort of her home in her jammies. On the other hand, that had its own challenges. For one thing, there were the technical difficulties of the online meetings. Actually, she wasn’t so sure that the students didn’t purposely turn off their video cameras if they wanted to do something else. Then, there were the weak signals. The school districts now gave the teachers compensation for getting improved, faster internet lines if they taught from home, but some students still claimed that their signal was weak so they could goof off. Come to think of it, students always found ways to goof off, but it seemed to be more difficult to monitor them online than in person. Also, she missed the kids, plain and simple.
Then, there was the constant staring at the screen. That was okay for a while, but to do that all day – Dahlia would leave that to the younger teachers who grew up with computers and were accustomed to sitting in front of these things for hours on end. It had become clear, though, that if she wasn’t willing to adjust to the new way of things, she and the other senior educators would be put out to pasture sooner than later. She wasn’t in a state with a strong union presence, which meant that seniority had very little meaning, so it was wise not to make waves and just sail it out to the end.
One positive thing that came out of the Quarantine for Dahlia’s profession was the new-founded appreciation for teachers. Just a few years ago, during the nationwide strikes, many people were appalled that teachers were asking for more money, a smaller teacher-student ratio, and other demands, because after all, they supposedly worked only 9-10 months out of the year. Alas, attitudes had changed during the Quarantine. (Actually, when Dahlia did the math, based on the amount of time she spent after contract hours, and on weekends, and during summers, putting curriculum and her classroom together, grading, and doing all the other things required of a teacher, she really worked about 11 months out of the year; the time was merely apportioned differently than it was in most jobs.)
Suddenly, everyone had to be home with their own children. They had to help their kids occupy their own time, do their schoolwork, or not, and all of this without the luxury of running off steam at recess and in P.E. classes. The kids missed their friends. Also, parents had not realized what it was like to have children around ALL day. Also, some parents still had to go out to work, or worse yet, work at home with the kids around. It worked out for some parents and kids, but for most of the parents, they begged teachers to take the kids back. They were ready to give the teachers gold and silver to take the kids back. And on top of it all, parents had to figure out how to help kids with all that stuff the kids were learning, that the parents hadn’t thought of for years, if ever. It gave new meaning to the show, “Are You Smarter than a 5th grader?”
It wasn’t just that parents weren’t equipped to be with their own children all day, but there was no social outlet for these kids. The kids were bored, because often children can’t figure out how to spend their time doing anything other than play video games. Everyone was getting on each other’s nerves. In short, parents were extremely eager for their children to return to school, and they promised teachers anything to take them.
Dahlia had to make sure that she faced the webcam, yet walked around the room to manage the students in the physical classroom. She used to touch a student’s shoulder lightly if they were off-task, but now the new regulations suggested strongly that she touch no student. They also suggested that she wear a mask if she were to walk around the room, but if parents signed waivers when the students entered school for the year that she did not have to wear one, then she was copasetic.
Dahlia called on one of the students from home that was on the web viewer. “Darnell, what is the LCM?”
Darnell said nothing. She waited a reasonable amount of time, but not too long so the other students didn’t get bored waiting, or they would get squirrely.
“It’s okay, Darnell. Do you want to pass?”
“Yeah, I pass,” Darnell said.
Several hands shot up, both in the physical classroom and on the Screen.
“Wow,” Dahlia remarked. “Looks like I’m going to need my popsicle sticks.” She pulled one from the cup. “Let’s see. Whose name did I choose? Carlos. What’s the LCM?”
Carlos answered, “Least common multiple.”
“Very nice,” Dahlia praised. Then, to see if others were listening, she called on another student randomly. “Marcos, what answer did Carlos just give?”
Carlos immediately piped up. “Least common multiple.”
“Thank you, Carlos.” Dahlia always called on students who were not paying attention to make sure they started to listen. “Darlene, what did Carlos just say?” Dahlia didn’t ask what the LCM was because Darlene might actually know the answer, but if she wasn’t listening, then she would have no idea what Carlos said. Different teachers had different philosophies. Some didn’t want to embarrass students by calling on them randomly, but Dahlia had been teaching for a long time and the technique typically worked quite well for bringing the students’ attention back to the lesson, so she used it often; she was always gentle.
Darlene stared down at her desk. Clearly, she had no idea what Carlos said.
Dahlia nudged Darlene. “Darlene, if you don’t know, please let me know so we can move on.”
“I don’t know, Ms. Eckelman. I wasn’t listening.”
“Thank you for your honesty, Darlene. Please pay attention to the lesson and I’ll call on you again soon,” Dahlia gently chastised, then moved on.
Since they were now recording every whole class lesson, Dahlia knew that if Darlene or any other student was not listening, they could simply watch the lesson later. However, she also knew that most of these students would not even think of that as an option, so she capitalized on that fact. There was an advantage to the flipped classroom (recording the lesson and watching it later) – any student who was absent could get the lesson. The only detriment was that a student could not ask a question in the moment; there was no on-going discussion.
Times had certainly changed after the quarantine was lifted. The virus was still prevalent, but many people were no longer afraid of catching it. After the states opened the economy back up, all the rules that were put in place became mere suggestions, like wearing masks and social distancing 6 feet apart, and no more than gatherings of 10 people in a closed space. It was going to be impossible to keep students apart from each other. They played together – that’s what made them kids. So, Dahlia’s district came up with these guidelines:
> Make sure students wash their hands before going out to lunch and recess.
> Hand sanitizer was attached to the wall in each room.
> Teach the students to cough into their sleeves.
> Teachers should social distance as much as possible from each other and from the students. (Social distance standards in the schools are reduced to 3 feet for practical purposes.)
> It is suggested that teachers wear masks when meeting with colleagues, but it is not mandatory.
> Wipe down all common surfaces with Clorox wipes at least twice / day. These include drinking fountains, sink knobs, and computers and computer carts.
> At the end of the day, or class period in the older grades, wipe down all toys, math manipulatives that were used that day, desks and door knobs.
> Send a child to the nurse the minute they show any sign of illness of any kind, including coughing, sneezing, fever, tummy ache, or headache. Ultimately, schools hired more health care workers.
> Students’ desks had to be 2 feet apart (6 feet was impossible) in every direction. (This eliminated the beloved group seating arrangements. This made life very difficult, considering classroom sizes. However, with the number of students who opted to work from home on computers, this became easier to do since class sizes finally were smaller, at least in the school environment. In addition, in the larger schools, with lots more students, they staggered the schedules with alternating days and alternating hours. Some lucky high school and middle school students got to start late, which suited them since they loved to sleep in.)
>Students were permitted to wear masks.
> Each teacher was given a thermometer and was to take the temperature of each student as they walked in the door. To accommodate this endeavor, an extra 5 minutes was added to the start of each class.
> Every lesson was recorded and broadcast in real time for the students at home. Each teacher was responsible for collecting and grading all students’ work.
> Each school got some new online curriculum with site licenses for the school or district. The teachers were to work in conjunction with this curriculum, as well as provide their own supplemental curriculum.
> Schools got more computers for students to use, but they solicited parents to buy computers for their own children if possible.
> A portion of the day would be individual conferencing with the teacher and each student. This was especially important for the at-home student population.
After the math lesson, Dahlia assigned several problems for the students to work out. Since she could not be assured that students would not just look up the answer at home, or have a parent sneak in some help, she required everyone to hold up their white boards and markers, or their paper and pencils. Then, she reminded them, “Everyone, please let me remind you that if you cheat and don’t learn how to do this yourself, you will not pass the tests.”
“But Ms. Eckelman,” Jamal called out. “You always tell us that we can help each other learn by working together.”
“Yes, Jamal,” Dahlia responded. “But then, I always ask you to do some work on your own, to make sure that you have learned the skill. We call this…”
The class responded in unison, “Independent learning.”
Dahlia smiled, putting her hands up to her heart to show just how proud she was of her kiddos. “You do remember. I knew it. Have fun everyone. I’ll give you 5 minutes to do those 3 problems.” She turned on the timer. “No groaning. Most of you will only need 3 and ½ minutes, tops.”
Mandy’s hand shot up. “What do we do if we are done before everyone else?” Mandy was always done first.
Dahlia had a strong desire to say something sarcastic, because how many times did she have to say the same thing, but she didn’t want to promote that kind of behavior, so she simply replied, “please look at the ‘what-do-I-do-when-I’m-done?’ chart, Mandy, and see what you can do if you are done before the 5 minutes are up.” Then, she walked to her desk to get in 4 minutes of work while they worked.
After the math lesson, Dahlia let the kids have their snacks and 10 minutes of free time, which meant they could dance, go to the bathroom, or play with one of their toys at their desk. It was a shame that the kids at home couldn’t participate and play with the other kids, but c’est la vie. She left the webcam on and turned on a few dance routines for the kids who wanted to take a brain break. It was good for their minds and bodies to get moving, and it was good for her sanity.
“Okay, everyone, time for the next lesson. Get back to your desks and get ready for language arts.” That lesson was similar to the morning lesson. Some kids participated from home, but most of them were in the classroom with Dahlia. After language arts, she turned off the webcam. The kids at home would return after lunch when everyone would be working on the computers. The kids in her classroom were going to recess.
“Kids, line up for recess. Nathan, please squeeze some hand sanitizer on everyone’s hands. Thank you. Gladys, please Clorox wipe the computers and put them on everyone’s desk.
Trevor complained. “Ms. Eckelman, why do the other kids get to stay home? Why can’t we stay home? I bet you they just play video games while we have to be here all day. It’s not fair.”
Dahlia shrugged. “Trevor, they actually have more work to do than you do. And also, they don’t get to be here with their friends, like you do. You’re the lucky ones.”
Trevor wasn’t buying it. “You’re making that up. How do you know?”
Dahlia really had to go to the bathroom and was in no mood for more arguing. “Trevor, there’s no way to know. I do know one thing, though. It’s time for recess. Out you go.”
Some students who were not returning to the school, but for whom the school was still responsible, were given computers on loan. There were some students who did not return to school at all, siphoning off some of the money that the districts relied on to keep things going. Their parents signed them up for online programs that were popping up all over the world.
However, some students who were immunocompromised, but who could not stay home because their parents or guardians had to work, were put in a Quarantine room. They had their own desk space, a desktop computer to work at, and wore a mask oftentimes.
There were trained assistants, with masks, to help the students as they worked, and 2 teachers per Quarantine room, to assist students when they needed help. Teachers taught actual lessons twice / day. Also, they pulled a few students at a time to come to the small group table, keeping everyone 3 feet from each other. These teachers had to wear masks at all times when in contact with the students. The district provided them, but teachers were allowed to wear their own, if approved by the health professional in their building. Someone found masks that were transparent so you could see the teachers’ faces, so many of the teachers were purchasing them. Still, some teachers chose to wear silly masks with different storybook characters on them, which the kids loved the most.
Ms. Lara Johnson was the 5th grade teacher who chose to work in the Quarantine room. She was only a 3rd year teacher, but she was able to handle almost anything they threw at her. Sometimes, though, when her private life started to fall apart a little, before the Covid-19 quarantine, she questioned whether or not she would make it through the third year, the year that would determine if she would become a statistic or not. Attrition mostly happened in the first 3 years. After that, you would probably make it.
These students had their own recess so they could stay distanced from the other kids. It was a real trick keeping them apart. The teachers and aids took turns taking them outside to play. The students were instructed to keep their distance from each other. They had their own balls, which were sanitized after the recess.
Every week, Lara made them take different balls so they could have some variety in their play. Lara and her aid, Stacy, took the basketball today. There were only 14 kids, so they broke the kids into 2 teams. They couldn’t play any contact sports, due to their compromised immune systems, so they played h.o.r.s.e. Unlike the other kids in the school, all of their activities were supervised and organized; otherwise, they could never keep kids from having physical contact.
The students worked on an organized computer program. Luckily, one of the schools in the district had piloted the program the year before for the older grades, so it was already in place. Lara and a few other teachers had to take a week long training over the summer to learn how to implement it. Only 40 % of student time was supposed to be on the computers, but oftentimes it was more. The program was actually pretty nifty because all the content was supplied and students didn’t have to hunt around too much when they did research. Some of them loved it, and some of them hated it, but that’s usually how it went anyway.
Today, the aids were taking the kids to the far corner of the field to have lunch outside, which meant Lara could have lunch with her colleagues, finally. Actually, she had to meet with them once / week for a working lunch. She didn’t want to miss a minute of her ‘free’ time, so she grabbed her lunch bag and headed over to eat with the other 5th grade teachers. She didn’t wear a mask when she met with her colleagues, but she had to social distance since she taught the immune-compromised kids. They ate in one of the 5th grade classrooms.
When they saw Lara, they smothered her with hellos.
“Long time no see, Lara.”
“Glad you could join us.”
“Ditched those kids, eh?”
“Ladies, and Gent,” Lara commented while bowing, “I’m back! Let’s make every minute count. What are we meeting about today?”
Dahlia handed her an agenda. “This should take about 10 -15 minutes. We need to discuss field trips, how we are collecting money from parents for activities, and benchmark tests.”
“Is that all?” asked Fergy, hinting that they might want to acknowledge his grand accomplishment of the day.
“Oh yes,” Dahlia added, “and I don’t know if you heard, but Fergy saved a kid’s life today.”
“What?” Lara exclaimed. “What’s this?
“Oh, it was nothing,” Mr. Lloyd ‘Fergy’ Ferguson poo pooed. He glossed over the incident because they had to get down to business, and because the conversation usually went in Lara’s direction when she could join them for lunch. “You know, Ladies, all in a day’s work.”
Lara lamented, “Do you see what I miss because I’m out in the Quarantine room?”
“And why did you agree to that?” asked Chelsea, a young, yet seasoned teacher of 12 years. Chelsea was raised in a family of educators, so doing anything other than teaching was a foreign concept to her. Unlike most teachers, her first year of teaching was a breeze; she was a natural. She was also a no-nonsense gal. The kids simultaneously respected, revered, and feared her. Chelsea was having a hard time with all this distance stuff, because she was a hugger. She missed having the kids surround her and hang on her, but she did her best to keep her distance.
Lara sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe because I’m a sap for those kids. Maybe because I’m the best one with technology in this sorry bunch. Maybe because our illustrious principal asked me to and I’m too new to say no.”
Dahlia jumped in. “Yea, this technology stuff is killing me. I have to call our tech guy about twice a day. What I wouldn’t give to just go back to paper and pencils. Books. Real books. Visceral, tactile, smell the pages, stained with coffee books. I mean does anyone really learn any better with all this high tech stuff?”
Lloyd ‘Fergy’ piped up. “How would we be able to include the kids at home if we didn’t have those nifty video cams? I think it’s actually kinda neat.”
Chelsea offered, a bit trepidatiously, “Do you really think we need all this social distancing? I mean, come on, how are we going to develop immunity to this virus if we are all hiding from each other?”
Dahlia jumped in, knowing that if she didn’t squelch the side conversations, at least for a little while, they would never get to the agenda. “Chelsea, I hear you, and I hate to cut you off, but as you know, I am burdened with the responsibility for being the CEO of this grade level.”
Fergy, who had been with her since the beginning, knew when she was bloviating. “Yeah, yeah. Let’s bow to the CEO, everyone. Dahl, you wanted this. Remember, I was gonna step up this year, but you said no, you wanted to be the leader. You wanted to move up in the …”
Dahlia cut him off. “Stick it, Ferg.”
“Alright, you two. Let’s get on with this so we can get to the gossip,” Chelsea chimed in. She looked at her phone. “We’ve got exactly 34 minutes left until we pick up those little darlins.”
Lara always brought her lunch. She wouldn’t ever eat the cafeteria food because she only ate organic and super healthy. The others always gave her grief about it. Chelsea ate mostly leftovers from her dinner the night before. Fergy and Dahlia popped out for fast food at least once / week, mostly just to get out of the building. Everyone ate as they worked. Chelsea put a plate of brownies on the desk for everyone; she baked often and everyone on her team waited to see what she would bring next.
Dahlia conducted the meeting. This year, with all the social distancing, they decided it would be best to bring people into the school, instead of taking field trips off campus. Plus, it was cheaper since they didn’t have to pay for busses. They would wait and see how things went with the virus to make decisions about a field trip later in the year. The field trips had to connect to the curriculum, somehow, so they decided upon the Mad Science lady, and the Civil War reenactment people.
“Benchmark tests, next,” Dahlia continued. “This year, we will be doing only 3 of them. Beginning of year, middle, and end of year, instead of per quarter.”
“They would be great if they went along with our curriculum map. Half the time they are testing things that we haven’t taught yet. What is the point? And progress? How can you make progress when you are testing different skills each time?” Lara pointed out.
Fergy offered some logic. “Yeah, I used to think the same things, but they’re better than those high stake, expensive tests the state gives out. At least with these, every standard is looked at and we can get the data in time to remediate. The other tests tell us nothing because we don’t get them back in time to use them to drive instruction. The benchmarks are much more useful to us as teachers.”
Everyone agreed. They set the dates on their calendars and moved on to other subjects.
“Anyone else have questions?” Dahlia said as she eyed the brownies. Otherwise, I’ll consider this meeting adjourned and plug our answers into the computer. Then, we can gossip or talk about the students. Kidding, we must never do that.”
They all laughed and went for a brownie.
“So, is everyone social distancing?” Lara asked, picking up the conversation prior to the school business.
Fergy was the first to jump in. “It’s nearly impossible. I can’t teach with a mask on all day, and yea, I’m not touching anyone, which is good since as a guy, it’s always good to keep my hands to myself, but the kids swarm around me like flies. How am I supposed to social distance? It’s ridiculous.”
Chelsea added, “I haven’t been able to hug my kids at all this year. I mean, I would, but if anyone saw me do it, I’d probably get fired.”
Dahlia countered. “I doubt it. You might get a reprimand, but you wouldn’t get fired. But it’s best not to hug them at this point.”
“I know what you mean, Fergy,” Chelsea continued. The kids love me and congregate around me, and I just stand there with my hands crossed. It’s nuts.”
“Yeah,” Lara said, “but I mean, at least all your kids get to play with each other. My kids, the Quarantine kids, are so isolated. It’s so weird for them. They can’t have lunch with their peers, can’t play on the playground, have to wear those masks. It would almost be better if they stayed home.”
“But I thought they had to be here?” Dahlia asked. “Don’t their parents work?”
Lara explained, “it’s not just that. Some of their parents just can’t handle having the kids home all day. Or really, they are not equipped to teach their kids. Would you want your kids home all day, and be responsible for their lessons? It’s a lot harder to teach your own kid than someone else’s. I don’t blame the parents for wanting to send their kids to school. It’s just so…sad.”
“This whole thing is sad,” Chelsea jumped in. “This whole pandemic thing. As I was saying before, why are we even pretending that everyone isn’t going to get this? Or at least get antibodies? It’s gonna be one or the other.”
Dahlia decided it was time to move the conversation in another direction. The team was always close, and what they said in private stayed that way, but they all had different ideas about the virus and the quarantine, and it was beginning to wear on them. “Guys, we’ve had this conversation ad nauseum. We’re all here, we’ve all made the decision to come to work, so let’s just leave it at that and move on to other subjects.”
Although things were a bit tense, they realized that it was probably best to change the subject, so just like that, they eased into personal matters. Often, they did share stories about students, and brainstormed about strategies to deal with them, either their behavior or their academics, but they hadn’t met over the summer, as they usually did, and there was much to catch up on.
“What’s happening with your friend, the one who was sick?” Fergy asked.
Lara’s shoulders slumped, her face saddened. “He’s not doing well. Hard to believe. He’s so young.”
Everyone comforted Lara.
“And you, Chelsea? What about that new guy you mentioned? Anything sparking yet?”
Chelsea smiled teasingly. “May-be. We shall see. He’s kind of adorbs. But he doesn’t want to get too close until we are actually dating, and exclusive, due to this whole Covid thing, so it hasn’t moved to another level yet.”
“Do tell,” Fergy prodded.
“A lady doesn’t kiss and tell, Dude.”
Everyone giggled. They were happy to be together again. Nobody else really understood what they did. They could commiserate, laugh at things nobody else got, go through the trenches together. They loved the students, and sometimes were frustrated by them. They were each like the parents of 30 kids, but without the real power, because the parents had the final say, although the teachers had tremendous influence. One thing a teacher said could traumatize a student for life, or make their day forever. The team understood that. They were a tribe. They were family. And they would get through this new way, this pandemic, together.