Narratives of New York City Teachers Going Back to School During COVID

This week, in-person instruction began in New York City for pre-kindergarteners and students with special needs. As with schools throughout the world, the return to school looks wildly different than it has in years past. Here in New York City, heading back to school has held a level of uncertainty beyond the ongoing uncertainty of life during COVID. Just last week, with in-person classes set to begin in a number of days, New York City announced for the second time that it would delay the start of in-person instruction. Struggle, uncertainty, and chaos have become constant themes in the push to re-open New York City schools. Teachers and other school employees have expressed deep concerns and frustration with the city’s reopening plans. Families have shared both a hesitation and need to physically return to schools. Now, New York City schools plan to reopen with a staggered schedule. Elementary school students plan to return next week and middle and high schools on October 4th. Once schools re-open, they plan to continue with a hybrid learning format.

In previous years, IEN has scanned the headlines to explore what the “traditional” return to school looks like around the world. This year we scanned the headlines last week, but this week we take a step back to hear directly from educators directly impacted by and still navigating issues of reopening in New York City. Below,  teachers from across the city reflect on teaching during COVID and the complex problems of returning to school in these challenging times.

-Jordan Corson & Lauren McCoy

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High school teacher, Manhattan

Let me tell you: I have missed being in the classroom terribly. I miss the daily interaction with my colleagues and students so much. I want and need some normalcy. This is why, even though I could have pushed for reasonable accommodations, I initially decided to opt for in person teaching. Did I make the right decision? If you asked me today, I would say no. Do I feel excited to be back? For the first time ever in my career, I would say no. Am I scared to step into the building? I am. Do I feel safe? I don’t. But this really isn’t about me. It’s about the students. 

I know that nothing can replace in person learning and I’m all for it. I also know that under the current conditions, my students will not be served and they will not receive the quality, equitable education each and every one deserves. We’ll be too busy preaching and worrying about coming too close or wearing our masks correctly. As an educator, this is what hurts the most. What also hurts is that I don’t feel in control. I won’t be able to reassure my kids that we are safe and that everything is going to be fine. Because I don’t know if it will be. I am not in control because I don’t know if I’m trained and equipped well enough to support my students and help them deal with their trauma when I’m still dealing with my own emotional and mental burden. I’m not ready to answer all their “what ifs” since I don’t have the answers. I feel disoriented and confused as I’m still trying to figure things out myself. I’m not in control.

Today, as I’m getting ready to go back to school, I’m thinking that in theory, I am ready to return to my classroom. I want to. But in reality, I don’t feel ready to cope with all the uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety this comes with. I’m not prepared to wear all these different hats I am asked to wear. In reality, we will be teaching remotely while in person. In reality, I’m scared.

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I KNOW THAT NOTHING CAN REPLACE IN PERSON LEARNING AND I’M ALL FOR IT. I ALSO KNOW THAT UNDER THE CURRENT CONDITIONS, MY STUDENTS WILL NOT BE SERVED AND THEY WILL NOT RECEIVE THE QUALITY, EQUITABLE EDUCATION EACH AND EVERY ONE DESERVES.

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Middle school teacher, Queens

In early March, as we began bracing for widespread infections throughout NYC I began to pay close attention to the safety protocols promised to stop the spread of COVID-19 at my school. I noticed that despite promises of safety as top priority, the soap dispensers in our windowless bathroom remained empty, the cold water from the sink remained frigid.  The promises of “Deep cleaning” sounded meaningless, particularly as the world learned the ways in which COVID actually spreads, but even these meaningless promises remained unfulfilled and my classroom only got cleaned because I cleaned it. Mid-March, I knew NYC was unprepared, unable, or uninterested in protecting its school communities, and this was confirmed last Tuesday.  My classroom remained mostly untouched, open windows remained open due to a broken latch, the closed ones remained stuck closed for the same reason, and mouse feces was scattered across my desk.  Extraordinary resources are necessary to properly educate children, but even more are needed to safely execute this academic year. NYC public schools always “do more with less” but this is completely untenable.  Our voices are scorned or ignored and our bodies are being used for political capital, I am terrified.  

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Grade 9 Teacher, Brooklyn 

Our building dates from 1920, of course, many improvements have occurred, but as of now, we have no AC in all classrooms, no HPVAC, and last I was there, on Wednesday, September 9, and there was not one single room in which ALL the windows could be opened. The windows that do open, can only be opened for 4 inches, how is that for ventilation? Besides that, our Special Education Department just learned on Friday, September 11, that the DOE, in an effort to provide an adequate form of services for our students with disabilities, had just released a new plan. This new plan requires my school to add ten additional teachers, on top of the other six the school had requested before. So far, we have not heard when or if the DOE will provide those teachers. I am a special education teacher who normally teaches ELA and Social Studies, and I might have to teach Algebra 2 in the fall. How am I to teach my students a subject I do not understand nor have any passion for? 

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ESL High school teacher, Washington Heights

I know this is obvious, but I want to start by saying how much I miss my students and how much I wish we could be going back to our classrooms and doing discussions and groupwork without the fear of spreading COVID. A lot of my students struggled to complete their assignments at home in the spring and I deeply understand how much they need in-person support. That’s especially true for my ELLs (as I’m sure you know!!!!) since they haven’t had the same opportunities to learn and practice English at home as they would have in school. I’m worried that my students lost a lot of their English abilities since March, in particular their speaking skills, and it’s a window of time they aren’t going to get back. 

That being said, I strongly believe the DOE’s plan to open all schools to students on September 21 is unsafe. I wish the DOE had been more creative about staggering students back to in-person learning, either by grade level or perhaps by identifying our most vulnerable student populations and giving them access to in-person resources first. There are creative ways to do this, like collaboration among schools to spread students out into the schools with the safest ventilation/building reports. Instead, the DOE has left it up to each school to figure out how to make this work on our own. At my school we’re preoccupied and overwhelmed about creating new safety policies such as: How many students can be in the bathroom at once? How are we controlling the flow of movement in the hallways? Who is monitoring bathrooms and hallways? Since our water fountains are turned off, how are we providing water for the students? What are our plans for breakfast and lunch in the classroom? How are temperatures going to be checked and who is going to be checking temperatures? Where is the isolation room and what do we do if students or staff demonstrate symptoms? etc etc etc.. Every safety question is a huge headache and we are not public health experts…we’re making these decisions based on our own gut feelings about what is safe and what best reflects CDC guidelines. Since we’re spending so much of our energy on these safety policies, we’ve barely touched instructional planning. Many teachers at my school still don’t know how to use Zoom or Google Meet, even though we’re required to use them for some form of synchronous instruction. We have not received any training on remote teaching all summer. If the DOE committed instead to a fully remote start, we could spend our time focusing on the best way to deliver remote instruction, instead of spending our limited time fine-tuning in-person safety protocols that are never going to be sufficient to stop this virus. 

Finally, I think the biggest problem is that students and staff are not required to get testing before they come to school. We have no idea who will be walking into our buildings with COVID next week and we are not at all prepared for that. I’m so worried that this is going to cause the positive cases to go up across New York City. If our numbers rise again, our most vulnerable populations will be the ones who suffer the most: such as students and families of color, immigrants, and families living in poverty. Even though remote learning is far from ideal, it is going to be much worse for these communities if COVID numbers increase, and traumatic for students in our schools. 

That turned out to be more than I expected to write….and I barely touched on my own anxiety about the idea of being in a room with my students next week…… ______________________________________________________________________________

I MISS BEING IN THE CLASSROOM, AND WOULD MUCH RATHER TEACH IN PERSON, BUT I THINK REMOTE LEARNING HAS A LOT OF POTENTIAL. I BELIEVE THAT WITH TIME, PRACTICE, AND THE RESOURCES THAT ARE BEING CREATED, IT COULD BE EFFECTIVE IN EDUCATION EVEN AFTER THE PANDEMIC.

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My school will do remote learning until the end of the month and then switch to hybrid. Like many teachers, I think that remote learning needs to be extended. Although it has been difficult, I have really enjoyed remote learning so far. I miss being in the classroom, and would much rather teach in person, but I think remote learning has a lot of potential. I believe that with time, practice, and the resources that are being created, it could be effective in education even after the pandemic. Continuing to teach remotely would give us opportunities to improve remote learning, and it is one of the only ways to guarantee our safety and health. Given how much New York has recovered I feel less afraid to be around people and go to work, but I’m not confident in the reopening plans. Several schools in NYC have already closed and students are not even attending yet. It’s not worth the additional risk to public health, and it’s not worth the emotional and financial stress from closing and reopening schools due to outbreaks. 

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