The beginning of the 2020-2021 school year is just weeks away for millions of students — and some districts have yet to provide clarity on what is going to happen then.

With covid-19 cases rising — sometimes exponentially — in numerous states, a growing number of districts have announced that they will start the year with remote learning but shift to in-person instruction when (if?) the pandemic eases.

Teachers, school staff, students and parents all have strong concerns about how the year will unfold, and here are eight that are robbing a California teacher of sleep. He is Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.

Ferlazzo has written or edited 12 books on education and is about to publish his 13th, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has a popular resource-sharing blog. He has also written pieces for this blog over the years, including one on how teachers can help students motivate themselves and this one, a favorite of mine, titled: “NEWS BREAK (not breaking news): Teacher asks students to grade him. One wrote: ‘I give Mr. Ferlazzo an A at being annoying.’ ”

By Larry Ferlazzo

With the decision to have most California schools going to full-time distancing learning in the fall, we have received the gift of clarity.

At the same time, I have begun working up very early in the morning with thoughts running through my mind about how all this is going to work, and what I have to figure out over the next few weeks.

I had a pretty positive experience with emergency long-distance learning in the spring, with high class participation, and, Katie Hull and I recently completed a chapter on distance learning in our upcoming book — “The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide” — that will be released for free soon.

I know a lot of teachers did not have a positive experience in the spring, and haven’t necessarily been able to take the time I have to process the experience through writing.

So, if I’m losing sleep and am anxious about the fall, I suspect that I am not alone!

Here are my top eight worries (not in order of importance):

  • I worry about how quickly and effectively I’m going to be able to build relationships with students. As we all know, if anything made the spring work, it was the fact that we teachers already had relationships built with all our students. This year, we will be starting from scratch. As education researcher Robert Marzano says, “Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction.”
  • I worry about figuring out what I’m not going to be able to teach this year. I’m going to have less class time with students and they are going to have less time to do work at home — many will be caring for younger siblings and/or working somewhere on or off the books to help support their families. Plus, in all my teaching, I will have to prioritize student engagement over some things that I think might be very important but might be difficult to teach in an engaging way — not everything is fun. After all, having a fully “rigorous” curriculum is not very important if students don’t come to class or don’t do it. As there was in the spring, in addition to sibling care and jobs, the lure of sleeping late, playing video games, scrolling social media, and watching movies is our competition.
  • I worry about the mental and physical health of my students. Five to 10 percent of my students in the spring had serious mental health issues, and others were physically distressed because of being stretched in so many ways. What’s going to happen when the California moratorium on evictions ends in September and we get a huge increase in the number of homeless students?
  • I worry about district central offices around the country, including ours, not having a realistic view of what remote teaching is actually like, and developing plans that are not helpful to our students, their families or us teachers — and that they won’t negotiate in good faith about them with local unions. Teachers who have actually done remote teaching must be equal partners. An analysis of the international PISA tests last month reflected what former California Gov. Jerry Brown often said about the principle of “subsidiarity” in the context of education. Subsidiarity means that the people closest to the issues are best able to make decisions affecting those issues.
  • I worry about getting a handle on key technology tools to promote engagement. I worry about setting up — and screwing up — Zoom breakout rooms. I worry about not knowing which online tool the district is going to pay for (and when I’ll know about them) and how much money I am going to have to pay out of my own pocket for ones that I think are critical to my teaching.
  • I worry about my mental and physical health and the mental and physical health of my colleagues. I worked far more hours during emergency distance learning in the spring than I do during “normal” school operations and spent far too many hours hunched over a computer screen. And when I was teaching online, I was on! My wife would regularly comment on how much energy she could hear me put into it. Let’s face it, it’s not as easy to see enthusiasm online as it is in person, so it just takes more work. And I was exhausted after each class. Texts and calls to and from students were never-ending throughout the day and evening, and I know I was not the only teacher in that position. Our children are grown, but so many of my colleagues are having to home-school their own children at the same time they are teaching everybody else’s. I don’t know how they do it! I still remember having a videoconference call with a colleague who is an extraordinary teacher and, in the middle of it, one of her young children brought the turned-on hose into the house. All she could do was put her head into her hands (luckily, her husband had just come home and was able to stop the flooding!).
  • I worry about if, when and how a transition to hybrid teaching might occur if coronavirus infection rates begin to decrease in our state. I would only have minor concerns if, in those circumstances, I could teach outside, with mask and social distancing requirements for teachers and students. But there’s only so much usable outdoor space, so if that time comes, many of us will be inside. And, especially for those of us working with older students, studies finding that they spread the virus as much as adults are another source of worry.
  • I worry that schools everywhere will, as they did in the spring, mistake “equality” for “equity.” When we focus on equity, we recognize that vulnerable student populations, like English Language Learners, students with special needs and those facing an “opportunity gap,” need to receive extra support during this crisis. This is not the time to treat all students the same.