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The Forgotten Veterans of the COVID Teaching Trenches
Vera Brittain’s excellent memoir Testament of Youth described her experiences as a nurse during the First World War. That conflict took her brother, fiance, and one of her best friends. After it was over, she went back to university to complete the studies she had forsaken to serve her country. Back at school, she found that the younger students who had not participated in the war as soldiers or nurses did not want to hear about it anymore. They were done with the war and found the older students who had been shaped by it to be bores and a reminder of a past they would rather forget. Brittain discussed how much this hurt, but acknowledged that she simply had to accept it and bury her feelings.
As a veteran of the COVID teaching trenches, I have experienced a similar progression. When the pandemic hit I immediately and completely reconfigured my teaching practice. During those remote learning months I regularly worked twelve hour days while monitoring my daughter’s elementary schooling and preparing meals. When the three month March to June stretch ended, I felt like I had somehow managed to defy the odds. Despite the challenges and fear and the fact that I had never taught online before, I had been able to give my students an education.
That summer my school asked us to do the groundwork to prepare for an uncertain future, and I gladly did. I studied and tested to by Google certified. I sat through Zoom meetings during my break time so that we could plan for all the contingencies. I accepted that we were going to have extra days of preparation before the school year. A COVID outbreak in my home state kept us from traveling, so I spent most of my efforts that summer getting ready for the next round.
My school started the 2020-21 school year remote. We transitioned to a “hybrid” model where teachers and students spent half the week in the building starting in October. This meant completely overhauling my teaching practice AGAIN less than a year before I had already done that. But I did it. My spouse had to work outside of the home and my kids’ school stayed remote until May, but we persevered through insane amounts of stress and uncertainty to make it happen. In those initial pre-vaccine months I rode the train and subways, sometimes to find that only one or two students trekked to school that day, the rest opting to stay remote due to the winter COVID spike. While in school I would have to simultaneously teach students in person and online. It was hard and draining, but I did it.
In April of 2021 I was back in the school full time but my kids’ school was still fully remote. That thankfully only lasted a week, but it was the ultimate “how the hell am I going to do this?” moments, maybe the hardest of my life. When I first learned that I was going to have to thread this needle I broke down and cried tears of rage. It did not seem like anyone was trying to do anything to make my life easier. If my trustworthy principL hadn’t stepped in to assure me that I could find some compromise solution it might have broken me.
The 2021-2022 school year did not have any Zoom teaching, except for one week in January at the height of the worst outbreak. We were still masked most of the year, and students and teachers were still feeling their way around. Things were not “normal” by any stretch.
This year, on the other hand, has felt as close to normal as anything since mid-March of 2020. The flow of the classroom has returned, which has lifted me. At the same time, the sacrifices have been forgotten. Students understandably have bad memories of remote and hybrid learning. They aren’t able to see that their education in that time, as suboptimal as it was, was about the best that could be done under impossible circumstances by educators stretched to their limit. The work we did seems to have added up to nothing, and may as well never have been done.
It feels a lot like coming home from a war that everyone else pretends never happened. I truly believe my finest moments as an educator came in how I rose to the occasion and held everything together in the (virtual) classroom while the entire world fell apart. Less than three years on, it may as well have never happened.
Making things worse, educators are being targeted by reactionaries. Laws in several states threaten us with firing or even prosecution for teaching the plain facts of American history. It’s bad enough that teachers made such massive sacrifices without improvements in their pay or power at schools. It’s supremely demoralizing for them to be turned into the devil by half the country. No wonder so many are quitting.
America doesn’t run on Dunkin’, it runs on unrequited toil. So many other white collar professionals I know gained more work-life flexibility from the pandemic. Teachers did not, nor did other “essential” workers who faced death and kept society functioning so those other people could stay at home. That’s maybe why the people who fought in the COVID trenches are not having their sacrifices honored. Doing that would require better compensation and more of a say in our schools, and the powers that be prefer to avoid both. They won’t be loosening their grip anytime soon.