COVID-19 has caused schools nationwide to shift their education models and restructure the academic year. Students from early in their career to college seniors are feeling the effects of social distancing and gathering mandates as learning has been remote or a hybrid. However, with the new push to get both teachers and students back to school for in-person learning by March 1, some are wondering if it is too soon to gather in person.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer made the push during a January COVID-19 press conference. Encouraging schools to open for some in-person instruction, the governor believes it is time for schools to reopen and get kids back at their desks.
“We know that in-person learning provides a key benefit for many parents who rely on their children to be at school so that they can do their work and participate fully in our economy,” Gov. Whitmer says. “Many students and families have struggled with remote learning and need opportunities for face-to-face interactions with educators. Even if it is a hybrid schedule to allow for smaller groups to get together.”
While schools have the authority to decide on the futures of teachers and students, officials are planning for a return after almost a full year of learning from home. This is leaving some teachers to feel uneasy for themselves and their pupils.
“I do not feel that it is safe for anyone to return to school. An ideal plan for the remainder of the year is to teach students virtually and to provide a brave space for students to share their thoughts and concerns during this time,” says Shannon Harper, 4th grade teacher. “We are in a pandemic. Something none of us have ever experienced before. We don’t know how to navigate. We should take it slow and day by day.”
With recent vaccine guidelines now including teachers in some counties, plans to move back to an in-person learning structure seem more of a reality. Concerns of safety, efficacy and availability of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still raging. As the Biden administration works to vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days in office, teachers are questioning if this push will be enough to safely open schools.
“When I am able to get the vaccine, I will still not be returning to the school to work in-person …. I am strongly against returning to in-person learning because I believe my 5th grade students are doing well with the structure I have put in place for virtual learning,” says Pamela Harris-Hawthorne, an English and Language Arts teacher in Detroit. “My students report to Zoom class bright and early, so that we can eat breakfast together and prepare our minds for learning. The parents and students have made all accommodations for this new way of learning, and why disrupt the flow now?”
With virtual learning, a portion of students have displayed difficulty grasping online concepts. Although students enter a classroom on different levels for learning, thanks to COVID and a new learning structure, teachers are left to build a curriculum designed to engage every student.
“Most students have already been on different learning paths whether it was in-person or virtual learning. The term is ‘differentiated,’ which means students come into school on different levels of knowledge,” Mrs. Harris-Hawthorne says. “As a teacher, we are expected to create different paths so that students can reach grade level and above. So, as some merge back into in-person instructions they will have an individualized path to follow to reach grade level.”
For teachers who are willing to return to in-person learning, thorough measures of safety around containing the virus and following CDC guidelines are a must for returning.
“My personal feeling regarding in-person learning is that students and teachers should continue the rest of the year virtually, unless schools have the necessary resources to ensure the safety of students as well as staff members,” says teacher Michele Wallace.
Despite school’s execution, teachers are also concerned about the overall welfare of students during the pandemic. The return to in-person instruction could potentially interrupt students’ learning.
“In addition to the vaccine, I am curious about what other programs will be put in place to support staff members and learners, all people, that have been impacted during this pandemic,” Wallace says. “Many districts have now gotten into a groove with virtual learning and to disrupt that groove and essentially start over could be far more detrimental to students than we may think.”
School often provides parents a safe place for children during working hours. As most parents work full-time, teachers are an integral part in ensuring stability for students. Students who require additional attention rely on the help of teachers to guide them, but soaring concerns of in-person learning are plaguing teaching professionals.
“I am wholly aware of our special learning populations and issues faced by working parents, like myself, but if the environment is not safe, we are possibly risking a more hazardous outcome by forcing staff and students to go back,” Wallace says.
To finish this COVID school year, teachers are hoping to continue on the path of virtual learning. Even with the vaccine, educators’ concerns for the safety of themselves, their family as well as the students and staff, remain a top issue in the return to in-person learning. Teachers who choose to return to in-person learning on or before the March 1 deadline, are strongly encouraged to follow all CDC guidelines.
“I will continue to teach them virtually based off their learning paths. I am hoping that if any of the 5th grade students decide to return to the building, they should follow the CDC guidelines for safety as well as the paraprofessional that will attend to these students,” Harris-Hawthorne says. “I feel that by me maintaining the rigorous effort to keep the students motivated and excited about learning virtually they are safe at home.”