As the first day of school approaches for DeSoto County Schools, teachers are faced with teaching students face-to-face in the midst of an uncontrolled rise in COVID-19 cases.
Educators have a wide array of feelings about the reopening of classrooms for students, now just 18 days away. Some have welcomed the decision, saying it’s time to reopen and can be done safely, even if some risk is involved. Others say that they fear for their health and the lives of their loved ones, and some have considered retiring early or leaving the field for another career.
The reopening of the largest public school district in Mississippi has involved confusion for everyone, including teachers. With limited information — about the virus, how classrooms will operate and the way the virus interacts with different age groups — teachers are now trying to plan to teach children in a way unlike any in recent decades.
One teacher, who has already been teaching children in recent months through a YMCA essential workers camp, said she is encouraging parents to send their children to in-person classes in the fall.
“We’re going to give them what they need,” Tymara Dunlap, a teacher at Horn Lake Intermediate School and worker at the YMCA camps, said. “We’re being more proactive than we are reactive.”
Dunlap said that she has already seen in-person education work at the summer camps, where students sit inside of hula hoops during outdoor activities to remind them of social distancing guidelines.
During the day at the camps, being held across Memphis, students sit six feet apart indoors, often two children at opposite ends of one six-foot table. There are few supplies that are shared, and when they are, they are cleaned often. Students are getting used to wearing masks, cleaning things that fall on the floor and washing their hands frequently.
“I will be honest with you: It can be mentally challenging for me,” Dunlap said of trying to get the children to follow the new procedures. “As we all know, children are going to test [the new policies]... We, as the adults, have to be the adults and constantly remind them.”
She said a few children have already adjusted to this new kind of classroom while a few are constantly in need of reminders.
“Even as adults, we have to be reminded,” she added.
She said that she didn’t doubt the ability of teachers to adapt to the new environment of distance, hybrid and in-person learning that will arrive in the fall.
“As educators, we always have to be flexible and be prepared,” she said.
Other teachers, though, have serious concerns about the plan as it stands. One teacher, who is not named in this article so she could speak honestly about her employer, said she doesn’t think educators — as flexible as they are — will be able to navigate the plan to reopen successfully.
“How am I going to change to a touchless classroom? There is a lot of innovation that is being demanded of teachers at a very short notice,” she said.
More than the innovation she will need muster before Aug. 10, this teacher was concerned about the risks she could face in potentially exposing herself to a still-mysterious virus which has killed over 140,000 Americans.
“Honestly, I don't want to die on that hill,” she said. “Honestly, I believe in Jesus, and I’m not afraid to die, but I think this is unwise.”
She said that she knows teachers who are ready to get back to work, but none who are enthusiastic about returning under the current plan.
“I haven't talked to a single teacher — and I have friends across the county — who said, ‘oh yeah, let’s go,’” she said.
This teacher also noted that teaching this semester, even when students return to classrooms, will be very different from the teaching she has done over the years.
“I don't wanna go into my classroom and wall myself off from my students and teach from my desk — which I never have done in my life. I don't even know how to do that,” she said. “I want it to be interactive.”
Beyond the need to revolutionize the way education is done in a matter of months, this teacher — who has worked in the DeSoto County School System for over a decade — said she doubts the physical limitations of classrooms to allow for adequate social distancing.
She had over thirty students in class last year and said she did not see, given the low number of students who have opted for virtual learning, how classrooms would be able to accommodate social distancing guidelines in the coming weeks. Some schools have faced concerns of overcrowding in recent years.
“When you try to say, ‘we’re going to try to practice social distancing,’ there is no way to do that, logistically,” she said.
Teachers will not get their class rolls in some schools until Aug. 1, leaving a great deal of uncertainty about the logistics of classrooms until days before classes begin.
During some summer tutoring sessions in the school district, only around ten students could fit into a room while maintaining social distancing.
In a letter sent from one county school about reopening, the principal said that social distance would be maintained “to the greatest extent possible based on the feasibility within the building and classroom.” The letter also noted that masks would be “strongly encouraged,” though not required, even as the county is under a mandate from the governor to wear masks in public.
There are many measures being taken across DeSoto County schools to encourage social distancing, including marking spaces to stand in hallways and signs to remind people in the building to practice good hand hygiene. There will also be more time between class changes in some schools to allow for fewer students to be in the hallway and spreading students out during lunch.
Teachers will also be instructing students virtually using a new software, though some teachers have not yet been trained on the program. The school system did not respond to a request for comment at time of publication.
Teachers across the district share concerns about the impacts of children having to continue remote learning, and many parents have the same concerns.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement saying that there are also risks to continuing distance learning, but suggested that communities with high rates of transmission may have a difficult decision to make about the fall semester.
“We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom,” the statement said. “But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online. Schools also play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.”
Some early studies have suggested that younger children are not as likely to get very sick or transmit COVID-19 as much as adults. Still, the AAP did not say that reopening in-person classes was right for every school district.
“Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible,” the AAP’s statement said. “For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”
The social skills that children acquire — even when gatherings are distanced — were evident at the YMCA camps, Dunlap said, noting that some students are ready to get back to the classroom.
“Some of them are ready to go back to school, some of them want to stay home and play fortnight all night and all day,” she said.
Dunlap said she sees returning to teach classes in person as a part of the sacrifice that educators make as part of their job.
She also noted that it would be hard to understand her confidence for the fall’s in-person classes without experiencing it first, as she has done at the camps.
Other teachers, though, see the decisions to reopen as crossing the line of risking their health and the health of their families. Many Mississippi teachers have protested reopenings across the state, and a Florida teachers’ union sued the state over the reopening of schools, saying the order to reopen violates the constitutional requirement for safe schools.
The patchwork of decisions about reopening across the country will likely yield new information about how schools should operate in the coming months. Until then, educators face daunting challenges in working to safely serve the community.
It has proven to be enough to cause some teachers to consider leaving behind their careers, even as they just begin.
One teacher, just two years into his career, is considering walking away.
“He’s a great teacher,” one colleague said. “The kids love him. What a shame. What a shame.”