By Carly Mitchell, Teacher / New York City
(The author is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
Let me start by saying that I have never once heard a teacher (and I know many teachers) say the words “I prefer remote teaching to in-person teaching.” Never. In my experience, it is the general consensus among educators that remote learning is detrimental to student learning and a whole lot of work for us teachers.
We teach because we love interacting with our students. For many of us, teaching is more than a job–it is a calling. And when we are remote, we miss out on the best parts of the profession, like being able to see our students experience those “aha moments.”
As I’ve mentioned in my earlier columns, I teach seventh grade at a Title 1 public school in Brooklyn. The week before our holiday break, I received a number of emails from my administration informing staff members that they had been exposed to Covid. Unfortunately at the start of the week-long vacation, I contracted the damn virus. Fortunately, thanks to Moderna (I am triple vaxxed), I was not terribly ill.
Nevertheless, I was frustrated, as were my colleagues who also became sick. It felt like this could have been prevented had the schools shut down a few days prior to the start of the break. But a small group of politicians who do not seem to understand how schools run–including our new mayor, Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul, the new governor of New York–refused (and still do) to admit that schools are Covid hotspots.
During Mayor Bill de Blasio’s final days in office, he made it very clear that New York City schools would remain open. At a press conference in late December where de Blasio announced his “Stay Safe and Stay Open” plan, he dishonestly said, “We start with a reminder that our schools have been extraordinarily safe—bluntly, the safest places to be in New York City, very low levels of Covid.”
Mayor Adams, who took office January 1, echoed this sentiment on MSNBC on January 3, “I’ve been very clear on this: my children are going to be in school. I am keeping my schools open, and we want to make sure they are going to be in a safe place.” He doubled down, saying “We cannot feed into the hysteria.”
The data tell a different story. Pix 11 News reports that “about 14,000 students and teachers have tested positive for Covid since the start of winter break,” And according to the New York Daily News, this past week, January 3-7, “citywide attendance, which averaged close to 90% for much of the fall, dropped to 69%.”
I can personally vouch for this. In my school, attendance has been dismal. This past week, I have had roughly half of my students in each class come to school. A few parents reached out to me to let me know that their child was sick and would not be coming in. Other parents let me know that they felt uncomfortable sending their child to school and possibly risking an exposure.
Teachers were also absent. Because of the nationwide substitute shortage, those who were in the school building had to cover these teachers’ classes, too. This means you lose a precious “prep” period, which is time allotted to teachers to catch up on grading and to plan lessons. Covering classes for another teacher can be stressful, especially when you are already bombarded with your own deadlines and to-dos.
Before we came back to school after the holidays, Michael Mulgrew, our union President, assured school employees that he was fighting for us and would make sure that we had KN95 masks and home testing kits readily available. But on the first day back, teachers and school employees were told that we would be given one KN95 mask and one at-home test kit a week. In an email from the United Federation of Teachers sent out on Monday, January 3, we were informed that “Our union industrial hygienist has advised us that the same KN95 mask may be reused for up to five days.” If we wanted more KN95 masks, we would have to purchase them ourselves. I was flabbergasted at this response. I have paid for plenty of my own classroom materials, and now I would need to provide my own PPE?
Mulgrew, like Adams and De Blasio, is a controversial figure. On Wednesday, January 5, some 60 educators assembled outside of the Barclays Center in Manhattan and made it clear that they were not happy with the way things are being handled. Teachers came to the protest with a number of demands, such as weekly Covid testing for employees and students and an upgrade of school ventilation systems. They chanted “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Michael Mulgrew’s got to go.”
Put simply, this is a giant mess. As I write this article, I am sitting in my classroom during the first real snowfall of the year. Mayor Adams has declared that we must be here because “We don’t have any more days to waste and the long-term impact of leaving our children home is going to impact us for years to come. I’m not going to contribute to that.”
Out of the 55 students that I teach, about 25 came to school. There are 10 teachers out with Covid, and our administration was forced to combine classes so that no student was left unchaperoned. I cannot teach anything new because I will just have to reteach it on Monday, when hopefully, more students can make it to school.
There is nothing I can do but continue to show up for my students and work with what I’ve got. I find myself quoting Vonnegut’s famous saying more and more these days… “And so it goes.”