2020-21: Uncertainty and Angst, but also Great Possibilities
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
By Courtney Cutright
As the sultry days of summer waned, most teachers were at least somewhat refreshed from the break and looking forward to welcoming new students. However, the precarious nature of a global pandemic replaced my usual eagerness with angst.
The uncertainty of adapting to a new mode of instruction – coupled with local union efforts advocating for the safest return to school – took over my summer.
My first day back with students coincides with the deadline for this column, and I am full of emotions from a summer of meetings, email exchanges and technology training. The first teacher workday in August was somewhat somber. While I was elated to behold coworkers I had not seen in months, I was also grounded by the reality of the health and safety precautions the pandemic has made the “new normal.”
The start of the first workday felt awkward. Two assistant principals donning masks, face shields, and blue disposable gloves waited outside the school’s entrance to check staff members’ temperatures. (I wonder how the students will feel when greeted this way as buses unload on the first day of school.)
My school’s staff of about 75 “filled” the bleachers on one side of the high school gym for the opening faculty meeting. We sat spaced apart, observing social distancing guidelines and wearing masks. I was excited to be reunited with my colleagues, but I felt simultaneously isolated in the space that previously showcased the 2019 state championship basketball team to its enthusiastic fans.
When the faculty meeting ended, a few teachers milled around while most headed to their classrooms. I stayed to catch up with a couple of English department friends. I’m a hugger, and I was gently reminded “no touching” by a one when I reached to put my arm around the other. I took a step back, scolding myself for forgetting.
Next, a co-worker updated me on the rough summer he had experienced. He moved his mother into a nursing home in the midst of the pandemic and has only been able to see her a handful of times since March due to visitation restrictions. He is learning new methods of virtual learning after decades of face-to-face instruction – while shouldering the challenges of making decisions for an aging parent.
I was happy to see my pal and testing coordinator, pregnant and glowing behind a mask. But my heart broke a little when she told me she cried that morning because she had to leave her toddler. I encountered other coworkers coming to school with heavy hearts. Like me, they were worried about their own health and safety, concerned about childcare, and pondering the impact returning to school may have on their families.
Over the summer, it was disheartening to hear teachers attacked on social media and accused of not wanting to return to work. Remember those fleeting weeks in spring when we were highly praised by parents of suddenly-shifted virtual learners?
The takeaway from my first days back were the pressing social emotional needs of my fellow teachers. I read this summer about the importance of gauging our students’ social emotional needs when they return for face-to-face instruction, but two weeks of teacher workdays to prepare for a hybrid opening showed me that many of my peers and I have struggled without the routines, normalcy, and regular interaction we had prior to last spring’s school closure. That gives me insight about what students may be facing.
My principal is promoting the phrase “Connections are greater than content,” meaning that it’s more important for teachers to build meaningful relationships with students than to push instructional content at the onset of this new school year. I am grateful to work in a division that understands and values the overall well-being of students.
With the cancellation of standardized testing last spring, and the subsequent hold on accreditation ratings, the reins are loosened, and we can aspire to do greater things. This school year may be the toughest we have ever faced, but it also has potential to be invigorating and revolutionary.
We have to stick together. My hope is that by the fall of 2021, some things have returned to the pre-COVID normal. I would like my first day back to work to begin with the usual hot breakfast in the cafeteria or library, sitting elbow to elbow with my family of coworkers as we compare suntans and vacation stories.
Cutright, a Roanoke County Education Association member, teaches English at Northside Middle School.