Whiplash

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the day I went home from school and never came back. Late in the day on March 12, 2020 our governor announced that schools would be closing on March 13. Most schools in my district had no students on the 13th (staff development/grading), so our students’ desks and lockers were filled with books and papers and soon-to-be rotting lunches.

I began the morning of the 13th with a staff meeting that I later described as “horrific.” I remember shock, tears, and anger as teachers worked to process what was happening. I served our alternative school last year (in one of my half-time positions), and ours was the only building that had students that day. I watched the adults around me pull themselves together to create calm for our students. Those in alternative programs have generally been failed by a variety of systems, and our staff was dedicated to preventing further school-based trauma for them.

The initial outpouring of love and appreciation for teachers at the beginning of the pandemic was both gratifying and disconcerting. It’s always nice to feel seen, but seriously: Have none of y’all been paying any attention over the past few decades?

Our “spring break” ended with a state-level directive to switch our schools to an entirely on-line experience. (Except for lunches. We still needed to feed the kids.) We had two weeks to put that in place. We limp-sprinted to the end of the school year, throwing together packets and scrambling to learn new tech tools and worrying about our students and their families while grappling with our own shock, disbelief, fear, and grief about what the pandemic–and what it was revealing–was doing to all of us.

By the summer, as arguments about what school would be in the fall started, we were no longer heroes. (Not really any surprise there.) We tried to make plans for a constantly-shifting landscape. Some teachers worked the whole summer (unpaid) to ready themselves. Others did not (to ready themselves in a different way). My administrators spent most of the summer planning for hybrid instruction, only to learn in August that we would be fully in distance-learning mode.

Two weeks before school was to begin, our alternative high school staff was informed via group email that our school was being closed, disbanding our small, close community. Our students were sent back to the large high school that hadn’t worked for them or to a new online school that was being put together as the email was being written. A few staff were assigned to the new virtual school. Most were scattered around the district. One was first assigned to a 5th grade class, then, a week into the school year, moved to the online school to teach high school.

Our “not-open” schools were closed the second week of school because so many were displaced by raging wildfires and our air quality was so toxic our homes were unhealthy to breathe in.

I was still an instructional coach, but I didn’t get a new school assignment until mid-October. I didn’t want for work; I supported teachers I’d worked with before, and there were days of training for a whole, new, comprehensive coaching program being launched, pandemic or no. In some ways the lack of assignment was a bit of a blessing, as my other half-time job (being the librarian for all of our schools, K-12) could have kept several full-time people busy. Prior to the pandemic, we had no ebooks in our collections and our teachers had made little use of the digital resources we had. There was a heavy lift to get things up and running in a system that was reeling. Our library staff had their hours cut, and one position that went vacant wasn’t filled, causing us to reconfigure how we provide services.

By the holidays, as some schools in the country remained closed while others opened, we teachers who resisted re-opening were turning into villains. The others (especially the ones who got sick or died) were turning into martyrs. The teachers I know were exhausted. I was exhausted.

Things sort of settled down–in terms of actual teaching and working–after break. Folks got a chance to catch their breath over the winter break, the first real time off many had taken since the previous one. Teachers were cresting the summit of the steep learning curve they’d climbed. They were figuring out how to do things well. We were calm enough to begin noticing benefits from distance learning and thinking about how they might be kept when we return to in-person instruction. My district publicly stated their commitment to providing quality instruction through distance learning, taking into account the needs of our disproportionately-impacted-by-Covid community, and I felt myself exhale just a bit. It was a relief to know what I could expect, and it allowed me to focus my work in a way I hadn’t been able to do since the previous March. I felt a commitment to distance learning that I hadn’t previously, as it’s hard to pour yourself into something new that could go away with little warning.

Then some districts in our state began pushing for in-person teaching, even though our Covid numbers were the worst they’d ever been and nothing had been done to mitigate problems with poor ventilation and air circulation in our aging and long-neglected buildings. Our governor changed metric requirements, prioritized educators over seniors for receiving the vaccine, and set Feb. 15 as the date she wanted schools to return to in-person instruction (but still left decisions about changing instructional models to districts).

If we were villains before winter break, I don’t know what we were by mid-February, when schools weren’t immediately resuming in-person instruction. According to some on many a school district Facebook page, we were lazy, selfish, uncaring, and getting paid to do nothing.

In the midst of the vaccine rollout, an ice storm took out power for hundreds of thousands, and our schools closed again. Some were outraged. “How hard is it for teachers to roll out of bed and stroll over to their computer?” I saw one person ask in response to a district announcement about closure. I worked for 4 of the 8 days I was displaced from my home, but I couldn’t fully work because my school-issued computer has a broken microphone that prevents me from using Zoom on it. (I’ve been using my personal desktop computer since we stopped working in our buildings last spring.)

I sat in a meeting last week where plans for LIPI (limited in-person instruction) were being talked about. We have been working to start LIPI, which would provide in-person instruction for our most vulnerable students, by the end of March. As I listened to the various components that had to be sorted–bus schedules, cohort and other mitigation requirements, teaching team configurations, union negotiations, staffing decisions, food services, communication with families–I understood in a new way the Rubik’s cube nature of solving the complicated problem of returning students to buildings. “I wish the public could know and understand how many moving parts there are to running a school in a pandemic,” I said to a colleague. “I wish people could understand that changing course is like turning a very large ship.”

Last Friday, I worked in our high school’s library. The library manager (the only person who works in the library, and who also manages all textbooks, and whose hours were cut this year) and I were sorting through all the books from the closed alternative school’s library and determining what to do with each of them. (Incorporate into the high school collection, send to the middle school, offer to teachers for classroom collections, discard.) Every single table in the library was covered with either stacks of books to process or packets of instructional materials for students to use in distance learning.

As we were ending our work for the day, the principal came in. In the course of our conversation she shared that the governor had just issued a new order requiring schools to open to in-person instruction by March 29 for K-5 and April 19 for 6-12. That’s two working weeks for our elementary schools to figure out how to pivot to something we’ve never done before while continuing the work we’re already doing, which is still very much in-progress.

In pre-pandemic times, we often shook our heads over being expected to fly the plane while we were building it. What’s going to happen now is more like flying the plane while we’re building it and simultaneously building a whole other plane that we will be transferring passengers to in mid-air, using punch-drunk pilots who’ve exceeded regulations on how many back-to-back shifts in a row they can work.

The point of this post is not to make or engage in arguments about distance learning vs. hybrid learning. The point is also not to defend educators or engender sympathy for us; sympathy does not help and so often is used to turn those we are sacrificing (health care workers, our military, low-paid essential workers, etc.) into heroes or saints or martyrs so that we can justify the things we do to them and ask them to do. I am not writing to invite debate or discussion about the relative merits of different options. There are no good ones, given the things we are unwilling and/or unable to do, and I cannot stomach any more discourse that repeats the talking points of disingenuous and self-serving leaders, or that assumes that how we are living is “just how it is,” or that contains “what about” arguments. I’m just done with all of that. I’m too tired and I have too much to do to spend any energy on debates that will change nothing and do nothing but make everyone involved in them angry.

A year ago, I wrote these words:

As I’m watching the world around me shift to accommodate the shape of something we’ve never experienced here, there is something that feels almost holy in this moment. I have been thinking for a long time that it would probably take some kind of disaster to turn us around on the path we’ve been hurtling down. That is the opportunity inherent in this unfolding disaster that will touch all of us in some way, if it hasn’t already.

My deep, fervent hope today is that this will propel us to remember how inter-connected we all are, to reach out to each other rather than erect walls between us, to uphold ideas and ideals that have always been the best part of us, and to act more from love than from fear.

I want to reach back in time and pat myself on the head and murmur, “Bless your heart.”

While a pandemic will, of course, always create hardship and change and pain, ours hasn’t had to play out the way that it has–and I just want us to, for once, be honest about that and about why that is. I want us to be honest about all the ways in which our schools were broken and not serving kids before the pandemic. I want us to be honest about what we are going to get–and not–from the choices we are making.

If this post has any real point, it is only this: To shine a light. To share experience. To mark a significant anniversary. To tell a truth. To be seen.

PS: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/health/virus-oregon-variant.html

10 thoughts on “Whiplash

  1. Bethany says:

    Rita, thank you for shining that light. I read every word of this post. It’s seared into me. It floods me with despair, and even so, knowing that an educator has the courage to ask these questions, challenges me to feel some hope. Keep doing your work. There are people who appreciate you.
    Bethany recently posted…Writing the Political PoemMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Bethany. There are many educators asking these–and harder–questions. There’s always reason for hope, and there are lots of people doing good work. Just kills me to think of how much more we (meaning all of us, together) could be doing for our children.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Kari. I’ll take it. 🙂 I’ve thought a lot about your daughter through all of this. As hard as distance learning has been for some, others have thrived. I know there’s got to be better ways.

    • Rita says:

      We call the combo of distance and in-person hybrid. I’m generally not a fan of things that are part one thing and part another. Culottes, tofurky, sedan trucks. I do live in a ranchalow that I’ve come to love, so I’m not completely averse to things that are part one thing, part another, but hybrid education seems like the worst of both worlds to me. We’ll see how it plays out. I don’t really care about all the chatter about teachers; there’s a weird love/hate thing about teachers/schools that’s been there my whole career, and I long ago became mostly deaf to it. What I hate are decisions that feel driven by politics, rather than by what’s best for our students.

  2. Kate says:

    I’ve been trying to find the right thing to say since I read this on Sunday. I can’t find the words to express what I am thinking but what I can say is that I see you bearing witness and I am grateful for your light.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Kate. I’ve got a lot of thoughts I didn’t include, largely because I didn’t have the right words for them. Mostly what I think is that there have been no good options, given what seem to be the givens.

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