Dispatches from education’s front lines

Teachers share their experiences as school returns during the pandemic
Clockwise from top left: Laura Estes-Swilley, Terence Freeman, Myron Curtis, Khalil Abouhamad, Amanda Lhéritier, Justin Lopez-Cardoze, Jessyca Mathews, Ben White and Andrea Ainsworth. All images are as seen through Zoom on a laptop in Washington, D.C. (Photos by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Even before the school year began, Jessyca Mathews felt drained. She has taught high school English for 20 years, but this year so much seemed unknown and unknowable. Because of the pandemic, her Michigan school district has chosen remote learning for students for the foreseeable future. But teachers are still required to teach from school, and when she returned to begin the year, Mathews, 43, was struck by the loneliness of this new reality and a sense of how much could be lost.

Jessyca Mathews, an English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint Township, Mich., in the classroom where she is teaching students remotely.

She wrote in her journal that day:

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach …"

As the opening of the 2020-2021 school year approached in cities and towns across America, it was met with a swirl of often conflicting emotions: anger and apprehension, resignation and resolve. The push to reopen K-12 schools divided communities and sparked furious arguments that remain largely unsettled.

At the center of the debate over how learning should look virtual, in-person or hybrid are America’s 3.2 million public school teachers and 500,000 private school teachers, who are tasked with making it all work. For many of them, including Mathews, who teaches at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint Township, Mich., preparing for this school year has been emotionally and physically exhausting. Plans were scrapped, remade and then scrapped again. Teachers felt caught in the middle, wanting to return to their profession but worried that their safety was not a top priority. Some chose to leave their jobs rather than risk their health or that of their families.

In August, The Washington Post asked nine teachers to keep notes for the first few weeks of school. What were they experiencing? What needed to be done differently? Was any of this working? How did they feel? The teachers emailed regular dispatches and each wrote an essay about their experience. This article presents excerpts from their first-person accounts of what it’s like to be a teacher at the beginning of a school year unlike any other. Their full essays are here.

‘It won’t be the same. But I had a choice.’

Justin Lopez-Cardoze, a middle school science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., at his home in the D.C. area.

In the fall of 2019, Justin Lopez-Cardoze was feeling buoyant about his calling as a teacher. The seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., had just been named D.C. Teacher of the Year. For Lopez-Cardoze, 31, the award was an affirmation of his career choice and a boost to his confidence. But as the new school year began in August, he was filled with doubt about having to teach online only and sought out his principal for guidance. Her reassurance, he said, has him back on track.

Did we teach our students how to read a procedure with scientific tools and chemicals this year? No. But we did a demo on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while students learned how to co-write detailed procedures in groups to control every move I made to create one.

Did students use compound microscopes to view outdated slides in person? No. But they have learned how to use a virtual platform provided by a local university to investigate cellular structures using a 100X objective lens — a level of magnification that most compound microscopes in K-12 schools don’t have.

For the longest time, I viewed distance learning as limiting my quality of instruction. I thought, “Well, I won’t be able to do this because it just won’t be the same through Google Hangouts or Zoom.” It turns out I was right. It won’t be the same. But I had a choice. Should I accept those limits or should I embrace the potential and leverage my creativity to create promising outcomes? I have chosen the latter.

Read Justin Lopez-Cardoze’s full dispatch here.

Ben White, a middle school English teacher at the private Webb School of Knoxville, in his classroom in Knoxville, Tenn.

‘Instead, I palmed a squirt of Purell’

For Ben White, a middle school English teacher at the private Webb School of Knoxville in Knoxville, Tenn., the new school year meant an end to distance learning and a return to in-person classes. And that came with all of the attendant safety protocols and a hefty dose of fear. White, 46, has become accustomed to the masks and distancing, but a sneeze (or three) by a student is still unnerving.

The ubiquity of hand sanitizer is beginning to creep me out. In my classroom alone, I have a gallon. Hand sanitizer should not come by the gallon — gallon jugs are for milk, and craft beer.

I also have a silo of sanitizing wipes, a package of alcohol pads, two bottles of sanitizing spray and one random, perfumed bottle of antibacterial mist.

Because my school requires masks to be on inside the building — and on correctly; no overhanging beaks, thank you very much — some students have taken to stuffing their water bottle tips into their masks and drinking through the fabric. So now I see kids with big wet bulls’ eyes on their masks, which makes me even more terrified when someone sneezes.

And kids sneeze all the time. Recently, I endured a three-alarm sneeze from a student who’d approached with a question.

“Mr. White? I — uh — achoo, achoo, achoo!”

He was inches above my shoulder. My instinct was to drop, roll and run like hell for the exit. Instead, I palmed a squirt of Purell.

The student was masked, at least, and so was I . . . but the haunting droplets, like viral ghosts hanging in the air for hours . . .

It. Was. All. I. Could. Do. To. Continue.

Read Ben White’s full dispatch here.

Terence Freeman, an English teacher at Lawton High School, in his classroom in Lawton, Okla.

Baggies for book reading

At 73 years old, Terence Freeman knows well that he is in a high-risk group for contracting the coronavirus. “Any teacher who says they’re not worried about it hasn’t really thought it through,” said Freeman in August as he began his 27th year as an English teacher at Lawton High School. A U.S. Military Academy graduate who also taught for 14 years at West Point before moving to Oklahoma, Freeman wore a mask and took precautions as his school reopened for in-person classes. Having students read from the same books required extra planning.

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

Read Terence Freeman’s full dispatch here.

Freeman learned on Oct. 1 that one of his students had tested positive for the coronavirus. He is now in quarantine and will teach his classes from home.

Myron Curtis, a history teacher and football coach at Broad Run High School, at home in Loudoun County, Va.

‘Exhausted but also kind of excited’

For Myron Curtis, a history teacher and football coach at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Va., the pandemic has forced recalibration on multiple fronts. Teaching required innovations from Curtis, 35, including taking students on virtual road trips for history lessons. And coaching has meant managing the frustration and emotions of students who want to play football, including seniors for whom this year may be their last time on a team.

Exhausted. That’s the best way to describe how I’ve felt these last four weeks. Exhausted but also kind of excited. This unfortunate circumstance has in a weird way allowed me to really try some new things

Since we were not able to teach from our classrooms, I decided to take my virtual classroom to historic sites around the country and teach my lessons from there.

This week I went to Salem, Mass. I wanted to help students get an idea of what early Puritan culture looked like and also how that society’s patterns of social and gender roles were affected by religious ideals. It was an asynchronous day, so attendance was voluntary. Imagine my surprise when not only did my students attend, but others who aren’t in my class tuned in as well.

One of the ways I try to keep them engaged is through social media. I make TikToks about my trips and also post about them on Instagram and Twitter. I have a weekly contest where I post a video about an upcoming trip with clues. The first person to correctly guess where my next destination will be gets a prize I pick up from the gift shop and ship to them.

In addition to teaching, I have been coaching football for the past nine years. Getting to see the players grow, mature, take chances and learn is an amazing privilege. Broad Run is consistently one of the top-ranked teams in the state. But this year I haven’t been thinking about how good we can be. I’ve just been really missing practice. Just practice. Not to sound like Allen Iverson, but something as simple as being able to have a normal practice with our players, be around the players, build relationships, that’s what I’ve missed the most.

Read Myron Curtis’s full dispatch here.

Laura Estes-Swilley, an English teacher at Durant High School, in her classroom in Plant City, Fla.

‘I hardly knew him, but I wanted better for him’

Laura Estes-Swilley returned to in-person teaching this school year at Durant High School in Plant City, Fla. The region was hit hard by the coronavirus this summer and Estes-Swilley, 50, says she has had to brace herself each day to teach her students.

I find the most painful thing is the one for which I haven’t prepared. It hit when I checked my messages and read, “re: COVID sucks.” It was only the second week of school and already one of my seniors was letting me know he would have to quarantine. I realized this was going to happen again, again and probably again, until it began to feel normal. I’m so tired of the phrase “the new normal.”

My heart dropped into my stomach reading the message from that student, who is in one of my AP literature classes. I soon began my own version of synchronous teaching as he Zoomed into class daily to join our discussions. I am lucky to have such dedicated students, but when I read that message, I wasn’t thinking about curricular concerns. I was worried and I was sad; I hardly knew him, but I wanted better for him. I want better for all of them.

Read Laura Estes-Swilley’s full dispatch here.

Khalil Abouhamad, a special-education teacher at East Union High School in Manteca, Calif.; his wife, Andrea Ainsworth, a second-grade teacher at Waverly Elementary in the Linden Unified School District in California; and their children, Hugo Abouhamad, 3, and Leela Abouhamad, 15 months.

Navigating an imposed struggle

Khalil Abouhamad and Andrea Ainsworth of Escalon, Calif., are a married couple who teach in neighboring school districts in California’s Central Valley and have 22 years of teaching experience between them. As the parents of young children, they have had to juggle parenting and teaching during the pandemic since school began in early August. For Abouhamad, 35, a special-education teacher at East Union High School in Manteca, the prospect of returning to in-school instruction was heightened by a preexisting condition and family history.

When I was a toddler and my sister a baby, my father passed away from a completely curable condition because he did not speak up. Here I was, my son a toddler, daughter a baby, about to return to work and being told by my family doctor that my 2010 splenectomy rendered me irreversibly immunocompromised while a deadly pandemic is surging in my county.

Khalil Abouhamad in his garage in Escalon, Calif., where he holds his virtual classes.

While our largest neighboring district had already permitted teachers to follow statewide guidance and work from home until students returned, I was rushed for a doctor’s note and application and still made to advocate for myself as though my doctor shouldn’t be trusted and I would suddenly grow a spleen. And caring, hard-working administrators like my own were unfairly made to discuss such medical conditions with their teachers districtwide before granting the waiver. Both teachers and principals involved would have much preferred spending their taxpayer-funded time in the service of students and families in need rather than navigate this imposed struggle.

Read Khalil Abouhamad’s full dispatch here.

Andrea Ainsworth at home in Escalon, Calif., where she is teaching remotely.

‘The plan … does not seem to be equitable for all of our families …’

Ainsworth, who is also 35 and teaches second grade at Waverly Elementary School in Linden, found herself worrying about her young students who were often struggling with Internet access or less-than-ideal home learning environments.

My biggest fear these first weeks of school is not being able to meet the needs of my students. The plan the board members have laid out for our district does not seem to be equitable for all of our families at this time. I work for a district in a rural community with many low-income families, and high-speed Internet is either too expensive or simply unavailable for their households. Throughout the day students will come in and out of our meeting time because their Internet fails. It has been especially hard for some families this year because we have had rolling blackouts due to fire danger.

Grading is also challenging because many missed assignments aren’t the students’ fault. Students who miss assignments generally have a hard time finding their materials, struggle with inadequate Internet service and must deal with plenty of noise and distractions around them. We are expecting these second-graders to be prepared and ready to learn while in environments that are not conducive to learning. Distance learning has shone a bright light on how we, as a society, have ignored education for too long.

Read Andrea Ainsworth’s full dispatch here.

Amanda Lhéritier, an early-education teacher at Tuckahoe Montessori School in Richmond, in the classroom where she teaches.

‘One Day More’

Amanda Lhéritier teaches preschool and kindergarten students at the private Tuckahoe Montessori School in Richmond. She was eager to return to classroom instruction. In a Facebook post the week before school reopened, she wrote, “I think we all have an important role to play in each other’s lives and we depend upon each other in ways that we might not have noticed pre-Covid. So many people have been safely working with the public for months, and it’s my responsibility and privilege to do my part. I’ve stocked up on masks, soap, sanitizer, and aprons and can’t wait!” Now a full month into school, Lhéritier, 43, says her enthusiasm for in-person instruction hasn’t diminished.

The first day of school was the first time I felt any anxiety about the school year. I tried to pump myself up listening to music in the shower but chose “One Day More” from “Les Misérables” and ended up crying a little

Montessori teachers do much of their work quietly, unobtrusively and behind the scenes, but there are times now when I feel like an auctioneer. I’m directing children, giving lessons, listening, taking notes and observing, all at the same time, all day long.

What I didn’t expect was to feel such a close bond with my colleagues and to be completely enchanted by the little children we teach. My 4- and 5-year-old students experienced an abrupt end to their normal lives, endured six months of isolation and yet on the very first day of school, children were composing music and painting maps of Asia. My students are a constant source of delight. Take, for example the 4-year-old girl who this afternoon examined some muddy water and told me, “I’m a scientist. We discovered that it could be goo … black venom … or animal throw-up.” So many choices!

My early thought process was about making this experience safe and wonderful for my students. Now that we’re settling into this new way of life, I want to do everything I can not to lose this opportunity — not just for them but for myself. Keeping us all safe and healthy AND learning is hard, hard work, but I’m focused and determined to give it my all. My efforts are guided by Maria Montessori’s statement that “The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.”

Read Amanda Lhéritier’s full dispatch here.

Photos by Carolyn Van Houten.

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