Very few teachers have had classroom experience during the pandemic, and the conversations about what it is like have largely been theoretical, says veteran educator Jean Molot, who taught kids this summer and learned about the real-life challenges.
Molot is teaching at a summer program in New Haven, Conn., and this post is a report about her experiences and what she found works — and doesn’t — when it comes to expecting kids to wear masks all day and stay away from each other.
She has 22 years of experience teaching in public and private schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Connecticut, the past 15 years as a math specialist at Beecher Road School in Woodbridge, Conn.
By Jean Molot
I was thrilled after my first day teaching math to school-age children this summer. My school system closed abruptly in mid-March, and it felt wonderful to be back to teaching in person. But it’s also been unimaginably stressful.
The other day, a 5-year-old who had pulled his mask down sneezed in my direction. It wasn’t his fault, but it was scary for me.
Teaching in the age of covid-19 requires a constant juggling of competing thoughts: one about how to teach and the other about how to keep myself and my students safe. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that there is enough room in my soul to do both.
This is what awaits teachers in schools that fully reopen this fall. Very few teachers have had in-person teaching experience during a pandemic, so it is difficult if not impossible to realistically plan for the many challenges ahead.
I offer my experiences from teaching in person at a summer camp program. Each teaching session is about 45 minutes. Each group has between nine and 12 children, and all are between 5 and 10 years old. We are all masked and we work outdoors at tables under a tent with open sides.
Wearing masks for even 45 minutes at a time is difficult for some students. Since we are outside, I am not terribly concerned when a student briefly moves his mask below his chin. I would be much more worried if we were inside. In addition, masks muffle speech, and it’s often difficult to hear what a child, especially a younger child, is saying.
Teaching young children effectively while adhering to social distancing guidelines is nearly impossible. For example, I need to be inches away from a kindergartner to demonstrate how to write the number “5” — and then watch her try it. I can’t observe and guide students playing a math game from six feet away. Even three feet is too far. Again, because I am outside, I feel less concerned when I get closer to a student, but inside I would feel nervous.
Working outside under a tent does feel safer than being inside. However, being in an outdoor environment presents some challenges. For example, the slightest breeze creates chaos. The wind blows pencils off tables, topples over cups holding supplies, and sends small or light objects such as game pieces or numeral cards skittering across the table. The only way for my students to write on anything that can blow away is to tape it down … on all four sides.
Our curriculum depends on student interaction. Much of our math work, for example, includes games with a partner, which is not possible when students are six feet apart. Therefore, we will need to abandon all teaching that requires students to work collaboratively. This will require a near-total overhaul of our curriculum.
To be sure, this may be the best we can do in this situation. There may be workarounds, like hiring aides who keep an eye on masks and monitor proper social distancing and hand hygiene so the teacher can focus on teaching. Barriers between desks may help remind students to observe distancing protocols. But public school systems may not be able to come up with additional funding.
To explain to people the reality of being in a classroom all day, I ask them to imagine that they work in an office building with 900 other people, most of whom work in groups of about 20, in spaces the size of a very large conference room.
Most office workers remember to stay in their designated seats six feet apart, but sometimes they get up and move about the room, or move their chairs closer to each other so that they can hear better or share their work.
Most people remember that they must keep their masks on all day, but some forget. Some remove their masks to rub their noses or drink from their water bottle and then forget to put their mask back on. Some of the younger office workers refuse to wear one at all.
I ask these people, would you be comfortable working in that conference room with 20 other people for over six hours a day, five days a week?
If not, how can we expect teachers to do the same?