With school starting this week or next week for many school districts, I asked a few teachers for their thoughts on this most unusual beginning of school. Thanks for your help, Danielle, Maija, and Njeri!

OK, what are you doing to prepare yourself for the start of school, whether in person or virtual?

Danielle Lei, a third grade teacher at Oakland Unified (CA) School District: I am trying to plan ahead as much as possible and get organized differently than I do for in person learning. I think there’s a real opportunity to give kids lots of individual attention and learning, but it is going to take more time!

I also am trying to build that relationship with them as much as possible, such as visiting homes for sidewalk chats if possible, etc. I want them to see that I’m a real person, and I want to keep the same thing in mind. I have gotten to know students much deeper this way.

Maija Scarpaci, a high school Spanish teacher at Hamilton-Wenham (MA) Regional School District, northeast of Boston: My school is going back hybrid, while my children’s schools are going remote. Right now I am exploring a 12 week leave for myself or tutors/remote education facilitators who can come to my house while my husband and I are teaching in our school buildings. Additionally, I’m attending union meetings twice a week, as we wait for developments that may impact where or how we teach. Everything is still up in the air. 

Njeri Semaj, also a Spanish teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in New York City: My school is remote for grades 7-12 until early October. My curriculum planning is the same as always because I use backward design which allows for my plans to be flexible and adaptable. There is a schedule in place, and I plan to use the first cycle or two to only work with my students to create our community norms and discuss their and the course expectations. Additionally, I will continue to challenge my school to demonstrate their stated values around anti-racist work. We are in NYC, and many of us commute by public transportation. Some of us are significantly impacted negatively by the pandemic because of our race combined with our geographical location in the city. If we are an inclusive school community that aims to keep everyone safe, then these factors must always be at the center, as the school makes plans that will require high risk community members to put ourselves at even more risk by leaving our homes.  

What are you doing to prepare your students?

Danielle: For my third graders, I have been trying to get them to be as independent as possible, optimizing use of platforms such as Clever and Seesaw. The more they can do on their own, the better. Families are too busy and overwhelmed to have to help with this. I also want them to get into the routine of getting up and ready for the day, have work to do, etc. They have a chance to learn some amazing technology skills too!

Maija: Right now, I am not doing anything. I have taken several webinars over the summer, but my department is pretty tech savvy and tech dependent, and we all found the transition to remote easy this spring. The fact that we still don’t know what school will look like when we start (how many days, minutes will we meet our classes?) makes planning pretty impossible. Every district in Massachusetts has been given 10 days at the start to work out the details, and so once our department can collaborate, we will be able to put it together very quickly. 

What is your greatest worry about the start of school and the upcoming school year? And since I’m an always glass-half-full guy, what do you think will be your greatest joy?

Danielle: My biggest worry is the kids who will give up because an activity is too hard or who won’t attempt to do the work. I also worry about the stress level of parents and how it will affect their kids. I can tell some parents are really at their wits’ end with trying to help multiple kids. I also worry about my ELL kids who don’t have a lot of opportunity to practice English.

I actually think interacting with parents will be one of my greatest joys. Having the chance to hear what they are going through and how they help their kids is definitely cool. I also hope my introverted kids come out of their shells a bit, at least virtually.

Maija: My greatest worry will be sacrificing my own children’s education as I educate others. This will weigh heavily on me every day. Another worry is simply the health of my students and colleagues.

Njeri: I’m only worried about health and well-being. My experience as a student, a teacher, and a person in general is so varied that I am confident that in the grand scheme of how and where learning happens, my students will be all right if their health and well-being is centered. One can learn anything anywhere if they are not anxious, threatened, scared or tired. If we plan to support meeting the health and well-being needs of everyone involved, set some goals together, and think outside the box, everyone will have learned something. Any time I hear an idea or suggestion that is based on making sure that the most vulnerable community member is OK at this time, I will be happy. My worry is that the deeply rooted culture of this country is a significant obstacle for the kind of collective empathetic care that is required for this to happen.

What do you think schools and districts have learned from the last several months? How will that translate into post-Covid teaching and learning?

Danielle: I think we have learned how important it is getting kids set up with the right technology. Having a set schedule is also really great for kids and having the whole school on the same platform has been helpful. Some of my students have been able to help their siblings. Also, we are better able to leverage support staff for our special populations.   

Maija: I think we have learned that we must hold our students accountable. I was surprised how many of my top students were allowed to slack off at home in the spring. Schools had their hands tied, due to state regulations, and it was very frustrating to watch our classes dwindle in size each week. This fall, all students need to be ready to work and we need to make sure they do. 

Njeri: I think most American school districts/schools have learned nothing. I have watched the majority push forward as if there’s no pandemic happening or as if it doesn’t matter that it is happening to some and not to others. Every plan to reopen as case numbers rose higher and higher this summer was an indication of this inability to consider the present and future while demonstrating a dangerous fixation on the past. There may be new schedules and a range of reopen plans for this 2020-2021 school year, but there are zero plans about systemic changes that need to happen for a world that now includes Covid. For example, to my knowledge, at no point have schools addressed student assessment or teacher evaluations in remote/hybrid scenarios in a meaningful and implementable way, and so I’m interested to see how accountability will be addressed in a formal or equitable way, in a system that was already rife with inequity.

Another indication that nothing’s been learned is the complete lack of funding in order to meet the needs of school community members in this pandemic. Whether the funding is for teacher PPE, student device access, community internet access, transportation that adheres to social distance guidelines, upgraded ventilation systems in historically underfunded rural/urban schools, or hazard pay for maintenance crews, additional funding has been absent.

On a bright note, I hope that people have learned that children are developmentally built for resilience and taking on the information that is modeled by the adults around them. That said, I know some people have learned that learning happens everywhere and at all times, which is a big realization for folks because it allows for a feeling of control that the pandemic has either erased or minimized. I hope that the new understanding that learning happens everywhere can impact our system of education – a way of thinking that has the system adapt to learners rather than learners having to adapt to the system.   

Think of a student that makes you smile. How come? How will that student make you smile when school starts?

Danielle: We have already started, and they make me smile every day already. They gave each other sweet shout outs last Friday and thanked each other for being good friends. Seeing their drawing skills and creativity has been so fun. When I helped one of my newcomer students with his computer, I left with pork buns and a pocketful of lychee fruit. That made me smile and full. 

Maija: So many kids make me smile for different reasons. Teaching and seeing their faces was what got me through the darkest days of quarantine. I can’t wait to see them again, whether it’s on Zoom or in a classroom! 

Njeri: Any time a student asks a question or makes a comment that connects whatever we’re talking about to something beyond our topic. Whenever that happens, I know that curiosity, critical thinking skills and imagination are alive and well.

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