ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. — Editor's note: Michelle Pearson is a Colorado teacher and parent who will be blogging about the upcoming school year in Colorado. This is her first blog. Her full bio is at the bottom of the story.
Walking into my classroom a month ago was like, as one colleague said, “walking into a frozen moment in time.”
The date was still on the board from the day we so hastily left in March; the objectives from my last unit were still on the wall; the vocabulary words from my visual word wall hung there, eyes staring at me, standing in the middle of the room. We had one day to remove everything personal from our room, anything that was not school district property and anything that could not be cleaned and sanitized.
Although we understood the necessity, it was a stark piece of reality.
Honestly, for some this task was simple: for others it was not only physically, but emotionally, draining. It hurt to take home the things that made my room feel inviting to students, and the instructional materials that no one would be able to use for a long time, which I knew made a difference for my students. Thanks a lot COVID! Thanks am not sure teachers have forgiven you for not not letting us share. You are making us:
- Box all of the books which we have collected for a personal classroom library, to share with students who don’t have their own at home.
- Put away the shared markers, scissors and colored pencils, even though we know some students will come to school without them and we’ll worry about who won’t have a pencil because we can hand one out, but we can’t collect it to use another time.
- Leave our walls bare of pictures, non-laminated posters or anything that could be damaged by disinfectant sprays or fogging.
- Get rid of the flexible seating and rugs that help make reading and learning inviting.
- Say goodbye to the shared manipulatives and the hands-on resources that promote tactile learning, unless we can purchase enough resources for everyone to have his or her individual set.
- Say “see you later alligator” to hands-on labs because we can’t sanitize lab items between class periods, when we now have to escort kids from class to class.
- Lean on the use of digital devices for collaboration in the classroom, because paper is discouraged, and stop providing hand-written feedback on paper (instead of on a Chromebook) that personalizes comments for a student.
Those are just the tangible things--the items that we bring to learn with, share, collaborate with, and smile over in group work. But worse: let’s think about the non-tangible things that COVID has stolen from the classroom: those things that can’t be boxed up, taken out on a cart, or put away in a cupboard. We rely on those things as much as the others. I am so mad at you COVID!
You made me box up my hope of having a hands-on architecture modeling class this year with Lego pieces. Nope, we can’t share Legos. You’re gonna lose on that one COVID: we are moving virtual.
You take away the opportunity to let my students come in for lunch or stay after school for extra help or for a much needed chat.
You have squelched in-person clubs and activities that cannot be held in a socially-distanced way and field trips that provide meaningful learning opportunities.
You tie my hands, making me unable to soothe tears with a hug, or congratulate a student’s accomplishment with a fist bump. Yeah, yeah, I can “air-high-five,” but it doesn’t seem the same.
You keep my kiddos separate, facing front at all times instead of working together in groups.
You make my students feel alone at lunch because separated is the only way they can eat a meal at school right now.
But all of us know one thing. As our students return next week, nothing can steal the smiles of eyes even behind a mask; the laughter muffled by several layers of fabric; the lightbulb turning on when a student understands a new concept; the buzz of socially-distanced activities that fill the school that has been empty for so long; or the collegial collaborations that make us better teachers and learners.
COVID has dealt us a nasty hand of cards in this game of life. School districts across the country have required us to depersonalize who we are as teachers in our physical classrooms. However, nothing can take away who we are, individually or as a school family. Nothing.
So tonight, as I close my door to the classroom that doesn’t really feel like mine this year, I know I will quietly shed a few tears on the way to my car, like I have already several times this week.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Right now it feels like I am standing in the dark. I’m going to call a colleague back east who is dealing with the same issues, and laugh, commiserate and problem-solve, and decide we need to change more things in the world.
Once again we’ll convince each other that tomorrow will give us another day--one filled with the hope that someday our classroom will fully become ours again.
It’s the phone call that freaks out a parent any day, let alone on a weekend: “Mom, I don’t feel safe.” That was enough to make me ask my husband to pull our car over to the side of the road, so that I could get more details from our kid at CU Boulder.
“I’m scared I am being exposed. I think I want to come home,” he said.
Wow. This is from the child who has been working this semester, who has been trying to quarantine and who is on campus because he feels he needs to fulfill his obligations to work. When I asked him what was wrong he literally went into a panic attack.
Do you know what kind of fear this puts into a parent? How do I protect him? How do I allow him to be an adult, yet ensure he is safe? I can’t even bring him home yet because members of our family are highly at-risk and we have to prepare a quarantine space. Every little grumpy and swearing emoji should be placed right here because this mom is MAD!
CU Boulder announced Monday that all classes will be remote starting this week for two weeks to help slow down the infection rates. Yep, but this should have been done several weeks ago. My son called me to let me know of the decision and is worried. He said he is most concerned that now all of the students are in the dorms and in online classes, and there will be more craziness going on.
That said, he is appreciative of the way the housing staff are trying to help and be proactive in supporting safe spaces, and made mention of a video sent out by the chancellor outlining the importance of following community guidelines. He said he is concerned the students will continue to disregard the rules and even more people will get sick. He is crossing his fingers. But honestly this mom, and a whole lot of other parents, are not. We are worried and frankly a little angry more proactive measures have not been taken earlier.
So call the remote classes CU. That is the first step but not the only one. You need to support your staff in helping students stay safe inside the dorms as well and provide them ways to eat, study and be healthy. And this time I point right at you, CU. In this whole situation my son has supported you out of loyalty to the Buffs, to his program and to his friends who are working hard to make the campus safe.
That’s fine, but you know what, CU? Be careful how you continue to handle this. We understand you are in one of the most challenging situations you have ever been in, and the decisions are immense and hard. But please make sure you make decisions for the safety of all of your herd, not because you need the money. First and foremost OUR HERD comes together to protect itself and we will bring our students home. Hopefully not permanently, but at this point in time, that question remains to be answered.
Last night I spent over five hours listening to an online school district Board of Education meeting, mostly about the decision to return to school.
As I listened I also watched side-chatter about it on Facebook and Twitter. The chatter was about “return to school” decisions like this one being made across the country. Watching the social media discussion felt somewhat surreal and exceptionally scary.
Looking at the comments -- some positive and others filled with vitriol -- I stopped a moment to think about my school board members. What a spot they are in, and a difficult one at that.
The decisions being made are not just about curriculum, about budget, or about policy. As one community member said directly to the board of education, “If someone dies, their blood is on your hands. Remember that.”
Do you think those board members aren’t aware of the cost of their choice, in the chaos of hundreds of emails and a slew of public commentary? I beg to differ.
Lately, boards of education across the country are usually met with a teacher’s skeptical eye. We teachers are in touch with board members more than ever, asking the board members for accountability, for pro-public-school decision making and for wise choices with budgeting. How could we not be? In an era of ridiculously low school funding coupled with school choice, liberal and conservative ideologies, and board decision-making that has been less than helpful in supporting great public schools, we have to be in touch. If we don’t speak out we cannot ensure that public schools will even exist in the future.
But sometimes we forget the board members are putting in as many long hours as we are. They are putting those hours into a job that they were elected to do, and that in this year, in particular, they weren’t necessarily prepared for. Who expected that once again they would be looking at issues that have no quick or easy answers? The decisions are harder than ever.
Put yourself in their places for a minute, though. How would you answer the following questions?
Who gets laid off when we lose school funding because a parent decides to homeschool his or her child during COVID-19?
How do we feed students and support their mental health needs when schools weren’t originally designed to serve all of their students’ educational needs and serve their social needs as well?
How do we follow the ever-changing school health guidelines for COVID-19 when even our state and federal governments don’t know how to deal with it?
Where is all of the personal protective equipment (PPE) the governor promised?
How do we ask people to do more right now when we don’t have the money to pay them more?
How do we cut money in the budget when there is nothing else to cut?
What can I not say in a board meeting about the future when I know decisions will get harder and will impact more people down the road?
What school schedule serves the largest number of students while keeping all of them safe?
And the one mentioned by that community member and by a teacher last night" Will someone die if I send people back to school?
I bet you have some clear and distinct answers in your head and you know exactly what you would say. But now I ask you to stop again and reflect on your answers. Do your answers represent all viewpoints? Do they support everyone on the school district staff or do they support mostly yourself and your family?
Do they support the wealthy, the poor, those who are struggling, and those who are fine? Are you looking for the easy road or are you willing to take the hard road because it serves more people and supports the educational mission of the school district and public schools?
For good or bad, the Board of Education in my school district is held to this standard: the board members are asked to ensure they are thinking about all of these factors. All. The. Time. I don’t always fully agree with their decisions but I firmly believe they make a true effort to make the best ones, even in the face of public scorn.
They try hard to represent their constituents and consider the needs of their employees. But honestly I can’t--and I won’t--say that is necessarily true for some of the other Board of Education members in this state (And by the way, Board of Education members from other school districts, if you are reading this and wondering If I am talking about you, yes, I am. You might want to look at some other school districts as positive role models. BIG HINT!)
The decision made by my Board of Education last night is the best for some, the worst for others, and was enough to make my stomach turn. The thought of the amount of planning it will take to flip our learning model from remote to in-class in three weeks, gain parent input, shuffle students in classes and figure out these COVID-19 safety protocols will give me many sleepless nights.
I know it will give the board members the same. But that’s ok. It means they care. And in the end I thank them for that If your school district’s Board of Education members are ensuring your students are learning and your students and teachers are safe you can thank them too. The real question is: are they? That’s for you to decide.
The last seven days have been a blur: a blur of collaboration, planning, navigating new learning management systems, learning student names, welcoming students back to school remotely and constant tech issues.
I feel confident in saying every teacher, every student and every parent has experienced bumps in the proverbial road of remote teaching.
Half of those bumps seem to be Chromebook-related this week.
Let’s be honest: those compact little black and silver “mini-laptops,” as one of my students called them, are a blessing and a curse to all of us.
This week’s Chromebook issues started on Monday. I was dumb enough not to turn off my iPad Sunday night, and Monday at 4:48 a.m., I heard the ping of a message from my email. There’s nothing like looking at the clock before the alarm rings and realizing the week was starting. There was no going back to sleep at that point so I checked my email.
No joke: a student emailed me to tell me she may not make it to class if her Chromebook dies because “her new puppy chewed up just part of the charger Ms. P. The rest is ok and isn’t flaming my room.” Flaming her room? What? After reading it twice to make sure I saw the words correctly, I told her in email to unplug the charger and we would get her a new one. Then I added that item to the tech to-do list and groaned. Who knew that dogs could still affect homework in remote learning?
But it didn’t stop there. Updates were pushed out by the school district IT department and didn’t install correctly on the teachers’ Chromebook Plus machines, which made functions on the Schoology software application go nuts. Welcome to the Monday morning craziness!
“How do I make the print bigger? I cant see my kids on the screen,” asked one teacher. “I can’t connect to my home WiFi,” said another. “My doc camera doesn’t work with my Chrome anymore,” said the third teacher in four days. “I need to convert a Word doc and need a desktop because Google Drive messes up all of the formatting,” said yet another teacher.
By noon my teacher geek buddies and I were stunned. But we figured out how to solve most of the problems by the end of the day, squeezing solutions into the spare minutes between teaching our normal core classes. As a social studies teacher, this is feeling a bit like the Industrial Revolution on steroids.
Honestly, at this point a lot of us should be awarded a degree in “technology desperation fixes” simply because our Information Technology department has no capacity for fixing these Chromebook teaching emergencies when they pop up 25 seconds before a teacher has to teach his or her next class. “Text a tech buddy” is the motto around here--and in many school districts lately both here in Colorado and across the nation.
But wait: that didn’t even include the student challenges. Like the students who couldn’t connect to their home WiFi networks for an extended time period; or submit their assignments; or connect to email because they forgot their password and they couldn't reset it. Don’t even ask about connecting to Zoom, or getting accidentally booted out of Google Meet because the WiFi or computer device failed. Thank goodness for patient parents, cell phone coaching sessions and school staff who have rallied to support all of the students’ questions and challenges.
It has taken a team effort and a lesson in patience for parents and caregivers. But thinking about it, in the context of handing out literally thousands of devices in my district and others across the state, this may not be all that bad. Maybe. Just maybe. I am not holding my breath. I am waiting to see if the devices last.
Chromebooks were not designed for this type of use. Ask any IT geek and they will tell you that Chromebooks are the low-end computers on the bottom of the hardware list. More like a portal than a laptop, many view them as machines with stripped down hardware, an OK processor, no graphical desktop and a small screen. They are good for use in a normal year where access to Google Drive and the web are their primary functions. But hold that thought: the designers of the Chromebook had no idea COVID-19 and remote learning were going to hit.
They would have designed them completely differently if they ever had a clue. If they did, maybe we would not have a love-hate relationship with the devices right now. But let’s face it: Chromebooks are somewhat of a blessing and have helped resolve many remote learning inequities when we can get them into an area with a solid WiFi connection.
“Solid” is the key--and that is another whole blog post.
Many would say, and I agree, that without the ability to rapidly deploy probably millions of Chromebooks to students across the nation we would be in worse shape than we are now with remote and hybrid learning.
Out of curiosity I asked my students and my colleagues what they loved about Chromebooks and what they hated about them.
There are some similarities and differences in their likes and dislikes. Students and teachers both love the portability and the lightweight nature of them and agree Chromebooks are generally easy to use and to charge (even if your Beagle ate part of the charger).
My students love to use them on the couch, on the bed, and yes, I even heard in the backyard on the trampoline. But start down the list of dislikes and students and teachers agree on many points.
Small screen. Limited connectivity. Hard on the eyes. And hard to read multiple tabs. One student said the best thing she did this week was learn how to set up her Chromebook to display on her TV so she could make things on the screen larger. Conversely one teacher said, “have you ever tried taking class attendance off of a Zoom list and toggling three windows on a screen smaller than a piece of paper? Who in their right mind authorized a technology refresh for teachers by purchasing these things for teachers to use as a primary machine? They need a head refresh!” Well maybe.
But, to be fair, we didn’t know this was coming. And the IT professionals made that purchasing decision last year in my district, several years back in districts across the Front Range, and in the last few years in other states as well because of funding. Budget over functionality. Now a curse in daily instruction for many. In what other profession would you be handed a Chromebook to do your job on when so much of what you need is based in PDF and Word?
So now we deal with the problems. We figure them out. We collaborate to meet the challenges. We learn from this experience. And I’m betting that by the end of this year we are going to have some seriously tech-savvy kids and teachers.
Wait: did I say that? I think many of the kids are already there, and teachers and parents are trying to catch up. Blessing or curse, Chromebooks are what we have to work with right now: they are the best tool we have to make remote learning possible. Maybe someday in this nation people will decide that to prepare our students for the future, they need to use the tools of the future. That takes commitment, training and proper educational funding.
That last part? Well that’s another curse for another day. Right now, I’ll just count my blessings that I didn’t have another charger eaten by a puppy, or that I received an email that the Chromebook fell off the trampoline.
School the last three weeks has felt like a funeral and a rebirth. For many teachers, the time has felt more like the former than the latter ... day after day after day.
A time normally filled with happiness, anticipation, joy and determination was instead filled with stress, sleepless nights, frustration, and yes, a smattering of happiness in between for myself and for so many of my colleagues.
In my 29 years of teaching, this year is the first time that all at once I am watching my colleagues leave the profession through no choice of their own, to be forced to consider other careers because of the safety of their families, to suffer outright anger (both open and passive) from their communities, and to once again, through the denial of adequate funding for education, effectively be told that they and their students don’t matter in the world we live in. Oh, I have seen these issues before, but never together in the firestorm we are seeing right now as we begin the school year. Never before with the undercurrent of fear which exists right now; the fear of sickness, loss of job and home, poverty and yes, death.
As teachers we work to prevent these things from happening to our students, but today these things are happening more often than not to us. Yet regardless, we move forward into the unknown, into a future we should have had more of a voice in designing.
The teachers of Colorado asked for a voice in this current reality. They asked in online groups, in virtual meetings, through their networks, and in their districts. They asked for a seat at the table to plan for the future. That's a natural occurrence in our profession, actually. You see, teachers plan everything. We are trained to do just that!
We think on our feet daily. We look at data, we evaluate possible outcomes, and then we act in the best interests of our students. In the decision-making process this year, though, many teachers across the state were effectively shut out and shut down.
As we moved from spring to summer, and the possibility of a change in the way schools would operate was upon us, many district administrators, boards of education, and others were forced to wrangle with the difficulties of figuring out how to make the change work. Many of my colleagues argue that the majority of districts in the state employed a top-down approach to decision making. When asked why, administrators’ reasoning included: that decisions needed to be made fast; that data changed daily, and that budgetary decisions were at the forefront.
They had to follow guidelines and there wasn’t time. Hmm. Really? I don’t think that was the case exactly.
A letter from a group of Colorado Teachers of the Year which was sent to the Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) and Colorado Association of School Boards (CASB) in the spring asked that teachers be included in planning this change -- early on, not late in the game. Some districts were ready and willing to include teachers but others ignored the request entirely. Dare I say now that “hindsight is 20/20” as the school year begins?
A week before school starts it is clearly evident which districts gave teachers a role, alongside district and community leaders, in the design of the school year. Districts that embraced teachers as thought partners and brought them to the table now have solid systems in place that are supporting their students. Credit is deserved, and should be given, to the districts that empowered teacher-leaders to envision and design what this year would look like.
Yes it took our summer, but now the blood, sweat, and hours of our work show the end result was worth it. Options for learning are available; electronic devices are in the hands of students and access to WiFi and learning supports through hotspots and learning pods are now in place. Innovative meal plans, family support services and mental health programs are ready to go, and in many cases are already operating or have been all summer. Teachers have the equipment they need for effective instruction, have access to WiFi, have creativity and support in developing meaningful learning for their students based on the teachers’ expertise, have a choice in learning management systems and have schedules which can make a positive difference in instruction.
Is the stress still there? Does the frustration still exist? Sure, but everyone is collaborating for the best outcomes for the students.
In other districts it is clearly evident where teachers were, for the most part, left out of the conversation. The school year is starting and those districts have learning management systems that are not in place, or were recently released, with a huge number of technology challenges. There are struggles with registering students and with providing them with adequate devices. Teachers are desperately trying to learn a new curriculum which was selected and mandated for them to use instead of being allowed to craft the curriculum best suited for instructing their students.
Teachers were forgotten in the conversation about adequate devices and WiFi and many have less access than their students, and are working with devices with limited capabilities. Because of this, instruction is now exceptionally difficult.
With an overloaded system that cannot handle so many Zoom or Google Meet sessions, a Chromebook or antiquated laptop, or even regular access to devices and software tools that support good instruction, they are spending countless hours working to prepare for what they hope to be a good year for their students that they are looking forward to seeing this week. As you read this, you may think this is not in my community, but you are wrong. This is a reality: not just in rural areas but in urban and suburban ones as well.
For the majority of my career I have found that teachers are creative, have grit and determination, and just make things happen. They have hearts bigger than you could imagine. This year has changed that. The grit is disappearing. I am starting to see my colleagues leave. They are retiring early or quitting from frustration and exhaustion or leaving because their personal safety is at risk.
They are banding together to make things happen but are being threatened, in person and online, for speaking out to have remote teaching,or speaking out to be instructing in person in a hybrid model for safety. They have been bullied and accused of being greedy and self-serving when in reality they are trying to survive through education funding’s lowest levels in over 50 years.
If you need proof of these accusations just read online discussions or listen to one of many recent, taped school board meetings across the state and nation.
Do all of the challenges mentioned above stem from not having teacher voices at the table? No, but the majority of the challenges could have been reduced or eliminated if leaders really did ask, and truly did listen, to what teachers felt was needed to make this year the best possible for their students. Teachers have always been on the front lines they know what is needed and what works. Maybe trust in that is needed now.
Those who have trusted teachers see in rare form the determination of teachers preparing to greet their students and start the school year. Teachers are showing their creativity in the ways they are trying to work through these challenges. Just look at the basement classrooms, the online bitmoji classrooms, the welcome back to school kits being stuffed, the school library book remote checkout programs, the backyard and school distanced planning sessions and the many other ways they are getting ready to greet their students.
And understand that most of them are doing all of these things with their own money or for free because most of them barely earn enough to survive in a state where salaries rank at 49th in the nation, and where some teachers qualify for public assistance. Yep. It’s true. Calculate the hourly wage of a teacher in this state or across the nation any year and it would be less than minimum wage, in this year it is even lower.
But ask any teacher, pandemic or not, we knew this was coming. We have seen our schools woefully underfunded for years, and seen the challenges of doing less with more continue to surface. We have advocated for changes in our funding systems and continually asked for teachers to be involved in the center of the discussions to help craft the ideas that will sustain us in the future. But some things are like deja vu. Just like in preparing for this year, some people have listened and worked diligently to build collaborative conversations and networks to bring about positive change. Unfortunately, in the last four years, most have not.
In a school year where it is easy to throw up our hands and be frustrated, and start calling it a failure before the end of first semester, we must think about how we can use this to be stronger together. For good or bad, the pandemic has exposed the excessive cracks and potholes which exist in our systems of planning, innovative design, budgeting and creative funding. In many cases it has elevated these cracks to national awareness.
We have the ability to repair the damage by bringing all of us together at every level of decision making to help craft the solutions which will bring a rebirth to our school systems and create buy-in from all stakeholders to propel us forward.
Only then will this school year be a success not a failure.
It started with what, in any other year, could have been an innocuous text message from a colleague, then moved into a covert operation at lightning speed.
“Look what I found…” was the simple statement in green on my iPhone. Nothing else appeared. I was in the middle of an online project for school and set my phone back down, waiting for the rest of the comments or a picture to come through, although honestly I wondered what it could be at 10 a.m. on a July day when we were all quarantining for COVID-19.
Then the picture popped up: a large-sized container of Clorox lemon scented disinfecting wipes. I just about dropped my phone in shock. I frantically texted back, “Where are you? Get me two containers PLEASE!”
I waited impatiently for the response. It finally came: “Come quick. I’m hiding in the furniture section of the store because people keep trying to take them from me. There are only three left.”
No one has seen this mom move faster. I threw on my shoes, told my college kid to come with me and off we went. We arrived at the store and started our covert operation to find our friend, divide the bounty, and each move out to purchase one container (the limit).
I needed one container for my classroom, she needed one for her classroom, and we needed one for the college kid to take to school. GOING TO SCHOOL! That was one discussion we were not ready to have openly but were preparing for in the back of our minds.
This would be the start of preparation for the COVID-19 college year. And what preparation there has been: on many fronts.
As a teacher I have worked through the majority of my “summer vacation,” with my colleagues, preparing for the return of students in fall. But as a mother I have been dreading my son going back to college. The thought had been in the back of my brain since I received what I am sure was meant to be a reassuring email to parents from the college chancellor.
This email (eloquently, in great generality, and in no specificity) outlined the safety measures the university would be taking for the return of students; ensured classes would be online and in person; reassured parents that measures of safety were being taken to “cohort students, limit interaction, provide testing, ensure safe operations, and be data-driven.”
Based on my experience as a teacher, on my role in designing these types of operations via focus groups in collaboration with my school district and nationally with these issues, the language of that email was less than reassuring. It was actually unnerving. My husband and I discussed the issues and concluded we needed to talk to my son and allow him to weigh the choices.
He needed to consider the data not yet supplied by the university, consider the data supplied by Tri-County Health to my school district, and to decide if he would return to school in person.
It continued with a discussion with my son, one that considered not only his role as a junior at college but also as a resident assistant who would be interacting with dormitory residents just as he did in spring. This discussion was calm but direct and we were pleased he had been thinking through his choices.
I have to admit that his choice to return in person has scared both of his parents but his reasoning was solid, even if the way he delivered it made me cringe in frustration at the lack of options.
He needs his scholarship, he has to attend his studio classes in person, his prior professors were woefully underprepared to deliver online instruction in the spring, he wants better instruction now for his program, and he was already talking to his residence hall staff and he felt that appropriate safety precautions are in place.
Ok, I thought, he’s being thoughtful and has a plan for his own safety.
Then his dad and I moved in to support his plan and hopefully provide a little extra safety. How so? First we had to help him get a COVID-19 test, for which our doctor didn’t want to write orders but which was required for him to return to school.
Getting the test authorized required a lot of phone arguments with our health insurance provider since he had to complete it in advance of the free testing offered at school. Next we helped pack his pile of computer parts, clothes, sheets and blankets into storage totes; collected needed drafting and art supplies and books; threw in a stack of homemade masks, a box of nitrile gloves, extra (pre-wrapped) snacks, and the prized container of Clorox Wipes.
We decided to give him several parental warnings for good measure. What were they? Oh, some of the same ones we got when we went to college, and some warnings our parents would never have dreamed of needing to give us. Be safe. Maintain physical distance from other people. Make sure the bathroom is clean. Follow instructions. Don’t do anything careless that could endanger your life. Make sure you eat decent meals. Let us know if you need anything. And could you shave your wild beard so COVID-19 droplets won’t stick to it?
Unfortunately we are still arguing about the beard and I am getting ready to covertly call his girlfriend to ask her to add some pressure on this topic. But we helped him haul his totes to school and this week he moved in. Now we are back to our regularly scheduled school-year tradition of limited calls, infrequent text messages, and almost dead silence as he and the other Residence Life staff prepare for students to arrive on campus this week.
So far we’ve heard: the dorm room is great; the bathrooms are being cleaned regularly; the pathways are all marked to support physical distancing; the Residence Life staff is being vigilant about safety protocols; he’s happy to have his bike back on campus; his new cell phone isn’t activated completely; he scored some treasures in the lost-and-found from residents who moved out last year; and he has “no idea how anyone will be able to get lunch on time with those kind of physically distant lines--it will take hours! Half the people are going to starve!” Now we have more silence from him as he is in one of the most hectic times of the year: student arrivals.
As I sit in the silence at home I think and read. I scour the internet for data about other colleges, I dig through shared chat messages, and I call a few other moms with college kids who are returning to campus and starting school at the same time.
The same words surface: we are scared, nervous, worried, hopeful and vigilant, while being determined to stay in touch with our kids, to make sure they are safe and well. The worry is even more amplified for moms sending students away to college for the first time, for moms who don’t want their students to lose the chance to attend but who are scared stiff their children will get sick.
Then there are the parents of students who didn’t have a choice and were forced to start remotely, who are watching their students have a totally different college experience, in isolation, with online classes that may or may not meet their students’ needs. All of this is happening in a school year that is supposed to be filled with discovery, decisions, celebrations0 and learning. It’s happening in a year that will definitely be memorable but not necessarily in the way they wanted it to be. A year that will hopefully not be memorable for getting sick.
Now we wait. Waiting is one of the hardest things we have to do as parents. I don’t want to bug him when I know he is exhausted from moving students into the dorms but it’s pretty hard to not call and collect my own data. Who showed up? How many students are in the dorms? Are you wearing a mask? How’s the food? But I know I have to wait. Then I receive a text from a friend, in the form of an article link, and I read the headline. Six cases of COVID-19 as students move in. At his university. Gulp!
I think I’m going to pull the “mom card” and call him. Maybe just to collect a little data, mostly to say I love you. Saying I love you is always worth a phone call. Always.
In front of a grocery store on Monday I dug around in my work bag for a face mask and found not one, but -- holy cow -- three!
That’s a rare thing, but this time I lucked out. I paused and quickly thought about whether I should wear the floral mask, the one with books on it ... or the one with Captain America and Spiderman. Glancing at my blue shirt, and thinking about how I may run into a former student or neighbor, I picked the one with books. I tied it over my face, thinking about how, a year ago, wearing a mask for COVID-19 wasn’t even a thought. Who knew masks would now be a fashion statement?
With my mask on I put one foot ahead of another and walked into the store. Entering public buildings is still a real struggle for me as my paramedic brain says to stay out of crowds while my mom brain knew that if I didn’t come home with milk my sons may not let me into the house, and my teacher brain knew I needed to get supplies for a project to ensure every new sixth grade student would have a book in his or her hands as a welcome to our middle school.
Then it hit me: the school supply displays. You know, the ones with new boxes of crayons that smell just like the first day of school when you open the lid; the freshly-sharpened colored pencils to color maps; the $0.25 Pink Pearl erasers that in several weeks will be worn lopsided; the folders in every color, ready to hold primary source papers, reflection writings, and journal entries; and the lunch boxes. I turned and walked out to my car, rubbed sanitizer onto my hands, took off my mask, and cried.
I cried for the students I could not have in my room for “lunch bunch,” to share a laugh with and to learn from, because we would not be at school together.
I cried for the extra school supplies I would be buying but not handing out in person to the students who need them.
I cried for my students who are alone and need the one-on-one support that school can offer them, and who are being forced to grow up too fast.
I cried for my students who are not playing in-person with their friends, who are isolated, who are alone and need conversation that doesn’t come through an electronic device.
I cried for the hope that school gives to so many families in need, for the food and support it gives families on the edge of survival.
Then I just decided--enough! I pulled myself together, sanitized my hands again, tied on my mask, walked back in and bought what I needed. When I got home I went to work just like all my fellow teachers have over the last four months.
Because that’s what teachers do: we look for a solution and make it happen.
I bought those school supplies for my students who will need them in their learning pods in my school district so that they have reminders of their new year.
I ordered fresh vegetable crates with a friend. We will deliver them to those in need.
I am filling up book bags for students to hand out at our sixth graders’ socially-distanced Back to School Night next week.
I emailed my students and checked in with colleagues and shared a laugh and a listening ear.
And then I started to plan: plan for school, plan for my son going back to college, plan for teaching remotely plan for how we as families, as teachers and students, and as a community, will continue to document our story of this time.
After all: this story is not just about COVID-19 but about beginnings and endings, sorrow and joy, nervousness and discovery, resilience, and most importantly hope.
One of my former students reminded me this summer that in the hit musical (and dare I say COVID-19 summer sensation) "Hamilton:The Revolution."
Hamilton says, “History is entirely created by the person who tells the story.”
Well, my name is Michelle Pearson, and this time is not just my history, it is our history. I am committed to sharing the stories that reflect our challenges, our resilience and the hope we carry forward in these difficult times. I promise to bring my students, colleagues and community together in this blog, and together we will tell our story.
Michelle Pearson is a middle school educator in the Adams 12 School District, technology geek and historic preservationist. She helped establish the Preserve America Youth Summit Program connecting students to historic places and public lands, and collaborates with the Library of Congress Teaching With Primary Sources program, History Colorado, the National Park Service and several museums to support the use of primary sources, historic artifacts and historic places in the classroom. She's the author of several books, numerous curriculum and lesson plans, and is half the team of Two Geeky Teachers ( @2geekyteachers, @tchpreservation) online. She is the 2011 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Most importantly she is a mom to Connor, Alex, and Drew, and ball thrower to three border collies along with her husband Kirk who is a better writer than she is most of the time.
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