Teaching in a crisis: Life on the front lines and on video screens

Six educators share their thoughts on the fear of COVID-19, the connections with students and parents, and the staffing shortages in schools.
By: | November 25, 2020
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(This is the second in a three-part series on teachers and their roles during the coronavirus pandemic.)

Teachers sit in empty classrooms with laptops instructing their students. Children’s faces appear and then disappear from computer screens. Parents scramble behind their kids to try to help them figure out assignments. Young siblings cry out for attention.

These have been some of the indelible images of 2020 and the grand experiment of education in a remote/hybrid/in-person/COVID-19 world. For those on the front lines – teachers – it has been a complicated, nonstop, off the rails experience that has shown their resilience and strength.

It also has exposed deep anxiety and a feeling teachers rarely dare to admit – fear. And not just the virus, but also the potential loss in learning.

During a recent online panel discussion titled “Voices from the Classroom: Teachers on Teaching in a Pandemic” co-hosted by FutureEd, TeachPlus, and Educators for Excellence, six educators shared their thoughts on what the past nine months have been like in and out of the classroom.

Moderated by Thomas Toch, education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the founding director of FutureEd, the teachers from New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and the Boston area discussed both COVID-19 and the challenges of instruction.

This is what they say they are facing …

COVID AND FEAR

Educators might appear stoic or unfazed by the changes and potential dangers of teaching during the pandemic, but two of the panelists noted concern, especially for their colleagues.

Takeru “TK” Nagayoshi is an AP English teacher at the 2,000-student New Bedford High School in Massachusetts, which is in a hybrid model. He says though staff members continually receive communication when a school community member tests positive for coronavirus, they don’t receive many other details. He has had to cover for classes and can’t help but feel uneasy.

“What is the emotional state that we’re feeling? It’s this low-grade simmer or panic, where there isn’t enough of fear that it starts to weigh on your anxiety and your mental health,” he says. “I can’t help but think when I’m sitting in the classroom at their desk, covering for another teacher, are they out because they are taking a personal mental health day? I’m relatively young and healthy and I don’t live with anyone who is older or immuno-compromised, but it still weighs on me. I can’t imagine the mental toll it takes for teachers who aren’t as privileged as I am.”


Teaching in a crisis Part 1: Educators discuss morale amid COVID-19

Teaching in a crisis Part 3: Finding solutions in a pandemic


Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, contracted COVID-19 and tried to teach through it. Like many other educators wanting to soldier on – and perhaps fearing the repercussions of not doing so – she says it “took a village” of her colleagues to convince her to temporarily step away from the role.

“I keep asking, what is really our jobs in this moment? In my mind, I’m at home, I can put a smile on my face [and teach]. But my colleagues said, ‘you’re sick, you need to take a leave’. Even when you don’t feel well, when you are managing even your own children, it’s hard to focus on yourself. We keep saying, ‘teachers take care of yourself.’ When am I going to do that? So that anxiety … ‘Am I still doing my job when I don’t feel well or overwhelmed?”

SHORTHANDED SITUATIONS

Districts across the country have faced staffing issues and substitute shortages, and that was already a problem in both Chicago and New York before the pandemic hit. Shayna Boyd, an English/Language Arts teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, says she hasn’t seen staffing holes within her school but notes leaders are taking “an all-hands-on deck” approach to bridging any gaps.

Mike Loeb, a seventh-grade science teacher at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in New York City, paints a more dire picture. He says an already tight number of teachers combined with the need to space out classrooms for safety have forced unorthodox learning experiments.

“We just barely in a good year have the number of people we need to educate our kids now, pre-COVID,” he says. “Normally I teach 30 kids at a time in front of me. Now I’m teaching 10 at a time because of social distancing. That means those other 20 kids who I did not teach in a given period, we’ve got to find the personnel to teach them the seventh-grade science I normally would. That’s why you hear talk about a staffing shortage. I don’t think it’s just retirements or folks who are resigning. I think it’s the fact that to socially-distance teach, you need more people to do it.”

The end results, he says, aren’t the best solutions for educating children.

“We have a lot of people wearing a lot of hats” Loeb says. “It’s not very pretty. I think the best teaching happens when you have a teacher or a team of teachers who are really doing the same work every day. We have a lot of folks serving as jacks of all trades. They’re doing sixth-grade math today and then seventh-grade social studies tomorrow. Rinse, wash, repeat.”

THE TEACHER-STUDENT-PARENT CONNECTION

Though there have been many successful implementations of remote learning, there are noticeable challenges every day in Zoom or Google Meets environments, according to the majority of panelists.

“I expect 8-year-olds to log on at 8:15. They don’t … because they’re 8,” said Jamita Horton, a third-grade teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in Denver. “The biggest thing that’s happening for the first 20 minutes is just checking in with me, checking in with each other. I’m constantly texting parents: your kid’s not here, are you OK? Is your spouse OK? It’s not just whether the student is OK. It’s the entire family unit. I have third-graders that rely on their sister, their mom, their dad, their Grandma, to have them on the computer and to set them up.”

Horton noted that kids do miss their classmates, so much so that no matter how taxing remote learning can be on them, they want to remain logged on during lunch.

“My students insist on staying on Zoom the entire time, because I still want it to feel like the classroom and like we’re together,” Horton says. “So, I can hear them chatting with each other while they’re eating.”

She says there are times, however, when those relationships and bonds simply can’t be replicated online.

“We do get to see families and students in a more holistic way [online]. They’re not just that little body in a chair in our classroom. We see their room. We see what their life is like at home,” she says. “But I miss those small moments in the classroom, being able to walk around the room and see their work. Teaching an 8-year-old how to use Google Docs is a nightmare, so being able to give them active feedback in that moment is so much easier when you’re in person. I feel that they’re able to learn faster and better because we have those systems in place.”

Loeb says instruction isn’t much of a problem for his more independent learners, but he worries about students falling behind, especially ones who are fully remote.

“Maybe the wi-fi is not great or they’re taking care of younger siblings. Maybe they’re not being supervised by any adults at home,” Loeb said. “A number of them, they’ll come to class or they won’t. I call on them, I don’t hear a response. When the kids are home and they’re not responding to my emails and phone calls, and they’re not coming to class, it’s really hard to know what the teacher next step is. That lack of clarity makes it hard to pull up our kids who are really struggling.”

THE TECHNOLOGY DISCONNECT

Aside from the struggle to get students to log in and stay online, there are other barriers.

“A lot of the tools that we use in the classroom are now thrown out the window,” Horton said. “We have to grab another bag of tools and figure that out in order to engage students. … Zoom is so audio-centric, it’s hard for kids to engage and to remember the question that you were asking them. This has been a huge challenge.”

Daniel Helena, a sixth-grade teacher at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, said getting parents on board and getting the students to remain interested for long periods has been difficult.

“A lot of my communication with parents, sounds like, ‘I don’t know how to check off all my student’s grades; I’m not sure how to support at this stage of my student’s education,” he said. “The pandemic has revealed a lot of the gaps that we have, at the school level, or even at the district level. Our ability to communicate with parents and families … we rely so much on that in-person dynamic. It’s never been easier for a student to disengage. My 11-and 12-year old self would not be intrinsically motivated to log in every day at 8 o’clock.”

Loeb said students at his school, in one of the busiest, most technology-driven cities in the world have hit a wall with the digital divide.

“There’s been a huge push for getting devices in the hands of all of our students in New York City,” he says. “I think our cities passed out some 300,000 iPads, laptops, which is awesome. But now there’s a new problem, which is wi-fi is very, very poor. And so basically, we just handed out a bunch of printers to our students and no ink, and they can’t really use them effectively.”


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