Going back to school can be stressful enough, even in normal circumstances; however, going back to school in the middle of a pandemic brings on a level of stress and anxiety that can probably only be described as…overwhelming. Is this working?
Here recently, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with some educators, parents, and students from Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. It was interesting to hear the similarities, not only in measures taken (or not taken) to prepare and protect students and teachers for returning to school (both in-person and on-line); but it was also surprising to learn just how much mental health is affecting the teachers expected to give the instruction.
So, who was a part of the conversation?
- Mrs. Barnett – an Assistant Principal serving in an Elementary School in Georgia.
- Clarke – a College Junior Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major from Texas, studying in Tennessee; who has a hybrid schedule of in-person and virtual.
- Anasia, a 5th Grade Elementary Learn-From-Home (LFH) Student in Georgia.
- Ms. Mitchell, an Instructional Coordinator at an Elementary School in Louisiana.
- Mrs. Basby, a High School Guidance Counselor in the State of Texas.
- Dr. Bush, currently a Reading Intervention Specialist at a Middle School in the State of Georgia.
- Ms. Morris-Jones, a High School Algebra II, Pre-Calculus & Calculus Teacher in the State of Texas
- Coach Spivey, a Middle School Science Teacher, and High School Football and Track Coach in Louisiana.
- Dr. DJ and Lindsey – married and reside in Georgia. DJ is a college professor of English and Humanities. Lindsey is a Social Work/Child Advocacy Director.
- Jamal – a first-year college student from South Carolina, attending college in Georgia.
- Allyah, a Senior attending school in-person on an A-B Schedule in Georgia.
- Ms. Manker, a second- year Second Grade Elementary School Teacher in the State of Georgia.
Back to School in a Pandemic
First, I wanted to learn Ms. Manker’s sentiments about only being a second-year teacher now, and experiencing a pandemic in her first year. Having a background in Education, I understand the anxiety and intimidation that comes with teaching that first year. Will the students sense when I’m unsure? Will the other teachers like me or assist me when I need help?
Fortunately, Ms. Manker had an awesome team of teachers who rallied together to first assist each other with trying to grasp teaching virtually. Then, they had to be aware of the learning curve for students and parents. Ms. Manker admitted it was stressful.
I directed my next question to Mrs. Barnett. As an Assistant Principal in a Elementary School with over 22 years of experience; how would she have assisted in insuring that a young teacher like Ms. Manker felt prepared and supported to complete what was being asked of her? Mrs. Barnett expressed that in March 2020 no one was prepared or knew what to expect. Everyone was learning. With regard to families, some were not equipped to handle LFH; because they didn’t have the proper technical capabilities, which caused difficulties.
Mrs. Barnett was familiar with Ms. Manker’s teaching team and applauded team-approaches like theirs. She shared, beginning this year, the district was better prepared to handle the demands of LFH and what instruction would look like. She further explained, teachers were more familiar and consistent with the platform being used. Therefore, the district was prepared to provide a more rigorous curriculum. Students in LFH are now in real-time with their teachers versus only providing work for the students and parents to complete, like the previous semester.
This approach in theory sounds better. However, as a parent, I sometimes find it difficult to have a degree of separation between home and school. Though my husband and I have provided my daughter with a designated workspace for her school time, I jokingly express that I have gone from being an uncertified 4th Grade teacher to being an unpaid paraprofessional.
Each day my daughter starts her on-line lesson at 10:30am. I try to complete everything I have upstairs, in order to not be a distraction to her. However, it always seems that I am running back and forth from my home office to her space to address wi-fi, webcam, printing, or scanning issues. Sometimes, I altogether have to share or give up my space, because we can’t figure out the tech part. That’s my husband’s area of expertise. When that happens, we have to either call him or wait until he gets home to address it. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten behind on my projected tasks for the day.
I try not to get frustrated. However, it’s hard at times because I feel like I’m completely forfeiting my needs during the day. This either forces me to stay up much later at night to get things done; or give them up altogether, which puts me further and further behind.
I preach mindfulness to others all the time; but here lately, I haven’t had much opportunity to be mindful of myself.
My daughter, on the other hand, loves LFH. She has proven to perform much better in an individual setting, as opposed to in-person school. My daughter has a diagnosis of ADHD and DMDD, which together cause her to become very distracted and quite irritable at times. Once we were able to identify her diagnosis and yield to the treatment, she began to progress tremendously. But, her greatest progress came when she was required to learn from home, due to the pandemic. So, I guess our family could look at this pandemic result as one that has been beneficial to a certain degree.
It was very insightful hearing from both Dr. Bush and Ms. Mitchell. Just as school was beginning, I read a Facebook post of Dr. Bush’s expressing her heightened anxiety about returning to school in a pandemic. She expressed feeling very vulnerable due to the fact that her district did not provide the teachers with person protective equipment (PPE) needed to keep the teachers and students safe who would be returning to school in-person; further expressing that they had only one mask available per child in the case that I child didn’t have a mask of their own. What would happen if the child lost the mask or became unusable for some reason?
Dr. Bush, because of her role as the only Reading Intervention Specialist in her school, shared she had no choice of whether or not to teach virtually or in-person. Also, because of her role as a Connections teacher, she would come into contact with every student in the school. This was a great concern for Dr. Bush; which heightened her anxiety. Dr. Bush, who transparently admitted to suffering from depression said that this thought was overwhelming her.
Dr. Bush’s sentiments resonated greatly with Ms. Mitchell in Louisiana. Ms. Mitchell openly shared that she too was a life-long sufferer of depression and had actually made the decision this year, after 22 years, not to return to her profession. Though she expressed her disappointment in not working with students and fellow-teachers this year, she stated she had to make the decision in the best interest of herself and her family. She still however, provides consulting and morale support to her former colleagues and other parents and students who need her assistance from time to time.
As surprising as Ms. Mitchell’s decision not return to the school system was, Coach Spivey’s input shocked everyone.
Coach Spivey stated the teachers in his district weren’t given much notice about not returning to school in March. He shared that it was right after a track meet that he learned they wouldn’t be returning to school until presumably April 14th. But when April 14th came, the district was not prepared to take on learning from home.
Coach Spivey stated that he as a science teacher was very lost and overwhelmed by what was being required of him. He expressed that it was difficult to engage and hold the students accountable for their work. Some students were failing to show up for virtual class. Other students were just rolling over in their beds to the computer, still with their covers over their heads. Because few students made significant progress, teachers were required to teach summer school to try to bridge the gap for students.
Coach Spivey further stated this still didn’t prove successful, because some students were attending sports practices during the time they should have been on-line. The shocking piece of Coach Spivey’s input was that this school year, though he is an in-person teacher, his principal has provided on-campus therapists for teachers to talk to if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. When asked if these were actual school guidance counselors taking on an additional role, Coach Spivey clarified these were indeed counselors identified strictly for the teachers and not students.
No other teachers or administrators who were a part of the conversation had experienced anything similar, and were very impressed by the effort put in place by Coach Spivey’s principal.
High School & College
In considering how at-home learning affects all students, none to be quite as taxing as high school where subjects are very specialized and usually out of the comfort zone of most parents’ scope of knowledge. Ms. Morris spoke specifically to specialized subjects and their difficulty to not only gage for the students, but teachers like herself as well.
Ms. Morris has the challenge of teaching Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus all on-line. She stated the disadvantage of teaching these subjects virtually is not being able to have the in-person engagement which would allow her to observe students’ body language. She shared she is usually able to ask students for their understanding, and even if they say they understand she is able to gauge the uncertainty in their eyes and slow down and further explain concepts. This need for instructors to sense uncertainty of their students was also expressed by Clarke, a college-level student studying in Tennessee.
Clarke (who was unable to virtually be a part of the conversation, due to her weekday class being changed to Saturday; in order for students to practice proper social distancing) provided a letter stating,
“While video camera is a great alternative, it isn’t the same as seeing a person’s every emotion. In the case of teaching, I feel as if the professor cannot see my confusion there the lecturer goes on while in-person the professor would’ve stopped to address the seen confusion.”Clarke B. – College Junior Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major
Ms. Morris shared that she does her best to be strict with her students on-line, since virtual instruction makes engagement difficult to balance; especially if some students are not verbal in asking questions.
“I need to see your tablet. I need to see your pencil. I need to know that you are taking notes. I’m not here to entertain you. I’m here to teach you and make sure you are participating.”Felicia Morris Jones – Virtual High School Math Teacher
Ms. Morris admitted that the engagement piece with students for her is the most challenging. She does her best to check for understanding, but knows that some students are extreme introverts and may not ask or answer questions regardless of her intentional prompting.
A Student’s Perspective
Allyah, a military brat, who has attended high school in Florida and Hawaii, is currently a high school Senior on a hybrid schedule in Georgia. Allyah articulately expressed that this approach is personally very hard for her, and she finds herself being discouraged. This was hurtful to hear; especially because I know that Allyah is an honor student who hasn’t struggle often with school. If she is having difficulty, how much more difficulty is a student having who may have a learning disability, or have some other deficit?
Allyah further expressed the hybrid schedule is overwhelming at times, because she was accustomed to being in school in-person; and then adjusted to being strictly on-line back in March. Trying to adapt to going back and forth from one day to the next and maintain the same level of motivation is hard.
The most difficult part of being in school in a pandemic as a senior, Allyah added, is the uncertainty of how to move forward. She says the focus from the school has been strictly COVID.
“As far as anything about graduation, Senior pictures, caps, gowns…I have no idea about any of that stuff. Everything has been about COVID.”Allyah – High School Senior
A Guidance Counselor’s Concerns
I directed attention to Mrs. Bagsby, the high school Guidance Counselor in Texas. She expressed that her experience and feelings were much the same as what had already been expressed, but the greatest challenge she and her colleagues faced was the return to more in-person students than had been prepared for originally. She expressed that they didn’t feel prepared initially just due to the nature of the pandemic, but were definitely not prepared to socially distance the number of students who were returned to the school in person.
”We’ve been in school for about three weeks now and already mental health concerns have come up concerning students being at home; and us not having the personal contact to be able to just call them in to provide services or have counseling sessions is a challenge.”Wilhelmina Purvis Bagsby – High School Guidance Counselor
Mrs. Bagsby expressed that overall communication is a grave challenge on all levels; whether that be from a district perspective, staff-to-staff or staff-to-student perspective. Not being able to properly communicate with those students and parents through at-home learning is very difficult. She added “Any time you are not communicating well you’re going to have additional challenges.”
From a personal perspective, Mrs. Bagsby added that she is concerned about her 10th grade daughter from a social aspect; sharing that she is a social butterfly and thrives on being active and interacting with her peers. With her learning virtually at this time, her daughter’s mental health is a concern. Academically, Mrs. Bagsby says she knows her daughter will be fine, but she is concerned about the lack of interaction with both friends and teachers. Her daughter’s school is using a platform which is strictly online and has no face-to-face. She encourages her daughter to go to office hours so she gets some of that. Mrs. Bagsby further added that they (she and her husband) are actually considering allowing their daughter to return to school strictly for her social-emotional health.
Colleges Face Harder Challenges
Now taking a look at the college perspective, it seems as though the concern is not so much the instruction preference as it is the over-exposed social aspects. From having a recent college graduate of my own, I have observed personally the lack of regard for social distancing. It’s as though most in this age-group are intentionally disregarding the pandemic and the guidance that has been continually provided on how to slow down the spread of the disease. Many of them are continuing to travel, gather in large crowds, and not wear their masks. This may be because this group is more likely to be a-systematic, because most are young and healthy and have no pre-existing conditions.
But what about their parents and grandparents?
I recently learned a group of students in Ohio were have a house party, even though the host knew that he and several others in attendance tested positive for coronavirus. In an interview the young man acknowledged he had tested positive and was quarantining, but apparently still didn’t have the wherewithal to keep others safe by still allowing them to visit the home. The gathering was disbursed and the students who were knowingly carrying the infection were cited and fined $500. This is completely outrageous to me.
College Students’ Perspective
Clarke, who is attending college in Tennessee expressed in her letter the level of anxiety she has experienced learning of students who have tested positive; though it seems like her institution is taking stringent precautions to keep students safe. This is not what I am hearing of on other larger campuses.
Jamal chimed in and added that he feels fairly safe at his university; explaining students are required to wear masks outside of their rooms. Because his institution is situated downtown in a major city, he explained that there is a large homeless population; but other than that, most restaurants and establishments close significantly early. None of the lecture halls are open and all of his classes are on-line.
Jamal further inserted that they university would be assessing whether or not on-campus living would remain available depending on the trends seen related to the virus. His only option at this time is to wait and see.
A Professor’s Voice
Dr. Dycus, a professor of English and Humanities added that this seems to be the attitude of college students; that they are invincible. Dr. Dycus, at the beginning of the semester was teaching both virtually and in-person. However, after he and his wife Lindsey and their two children found out they had been exposed to COVID, he has decided to completely go virtual; as one of his daughters has a rare lung condition that would not allow her to respond well to COVID treatment if she were to contract it.
Their entire family was on quarantine at the time of this conversation, but learned the following day that their tests were all negative.
Dr. Dycus and Lindsey made the decision to allow one of their daughters, who has special learning needs, to participate in in-person learning; as the social interaction and engagement are very vital to her normalcy. She attends a school that is smaller (even pre-pandemic), so they felt as a family with the precautions in place by her school that risks to exposure was minimal.
However, the Dycus’ chose to allow their younger daughter to receive LFH instruction. This seems to be working for them, other than the fact of the amount of typed work the younger child is required to do. Lindsey shared that though her daughter had a tablet previously, she wasn’t familiar with typing. Rather than being able to write and upload her work, she is being required to type lengthy assignments, and this is sometimes overwhelming for the young child.
At the conclusion of the conversation, I mentioned that of the three Dawn of a New Day 365 panel-driven conversations that have taken place this year (a discussion about the pandemic and racial injustice in 2020; men’s mental health and its effects on the family, and now the return to school); though these subjects appear to be so different, the common thread between them seems to be mental health. Why? Because of these factors, they are all happening during a pandemic; which exacerbates them all to another level.
This pandemic has affected our mental health. Each of us has a responsibility to make sure we’re helping each other through these processes. But if no one else does, we must make a commitment to ourselves and our children to make sure we’re personally okay.
Going back to school during a pandemic…is it working? It’s happening, but whether it’s working is probably a matter of opinion. If the mental health of our children, families, and most of all teachers is at risk, I think there are some decision makers who need to have more thorough and complete conversations with some other key players at the table.
Decisions were made about returning to school; because, yes, there was a concern for our children’s education. And yes, there was a concern for working parents. But did anyone consider the needs of the teacher? Was there consideration for the very ones who would have to work on the frontlines, risking their physical health and the health of their families, as well as their mental health? I don’t think we did.
However, we can’t fail to realize some of those making the decision are also facing unfamiliar demands and stressors, and may themselves not be okay. They may not have a safe place to have candid conversations like the one the panel members and I were able to have. So for them we must pray and offer a measure of grace. We’re all going through a pandemic for the first time…together.
Just at the end of our conversation, Ms. Maker brought up a very valid objective that helped change the perspective. She mentioned realizing her tendency to become irritable and frustrated towards her students, due to her own stress and anxiety. However, it was when she was doing an exercise with her students that received a lesson she wasn’t expecting to receive.
Ms. Manker asked her students to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grow up. Most said they want to be doctors, lawyer, policeman, teachers… but one child said, “Ms. Manker, I want to be a servant.”
This puzzled Ms. Manker. Most of the time, servants are considered less than others. So, not sure if that was truly what the child meant, she asked them to draw it. The student said, “See! That’s me serving food to someone in need.” In that moment, Ms. Manker said it was as if God was speaking to her saying even though she’s frustrated and stressed, she still has to serve the children. So now, each day she goes to school to serve her children like she serving God.
Ms. Manker said that in that instant she changed her mind-set and tries her to serve every day.
I think that’s a good piece of advice for all of us to take. Regardless of how dismal and uncertain everything may seem, if we would just take the time to forget about ourselves for a moment and serve others as if we were serving God, this might all seem less stressful more rewarding.
Let’s try it. 😊
Chew on this
Matthew 25:40 – The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
Luke 6:38, Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured into your hands—all that you can hold. The measure you use for others is the one that God will use for you.”
Call to Action
How do you feel about returning to school in a pandemic? Has there been a social and/or emotional effect on you and your family? Remember, our mental health is precious. Please, create meaningful dialogue with those you love, or those who can help; so that your thoughts don’t just become pinned up emotions. It’s okay to have…The Conversation.
If you’re interested in watching more of The Conversation, you can find the full-length video, as well as others, on the Dawn of a New Day 365 YouTube Channel.
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Thank you for taking the time to read and hear not only my thoughts, but also the hearts and thoughts of others. I’m blessed to know such amazing people; doing amazing things.
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See you on the horizon ~☀
2 thoughts on “BACK-TO-SCHOOL IN A PANDEMIC: IS THIS WORKING?”
Very informative discussion….parents have so many difficult decisions this year 🙁
Definitely! It’s hard to believe this is r we’d here we are.