Return to Learn: Voices from the classroom

Bruce Lear talked with ten Iowa teachers and counselors about how schools should adapt to teach kids safely and effectively despite COVID-19. -promoted by Laura Belin

It’s hard to decide what song best captures the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Is it “Eve of Destruction,” or “Don’t worry be Happy,” or maybe the Fleetwood Mac classic “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow?” No matter the choice, the fall start to school is beginning to loom large in the minds of students, parents, and educators.

Pre COVID-19, those ads for back-to-school supplies in late June or early July would start a little tingle of anticipation in the hearts and minds of students and educators. Now, for many, that tingle is replaced with full-blown anxiety.

School districts across the country are making plans to reopen. By July 1, each Iowa school district must submit a “Return-to-Learn Plan” to the state Department of Education. I’m hopeful any plans are in conjunction with teachers, parents, assistants, secretaries, bus drivers, lunch people, custodians, principals, parents, and district administrators. 

It’s going to take an education village to ensure a safe and sane re-start.

Specifically, any plan cannot be drafted in a superintendent’s office in isolation without stakeholders’ help in writing and implementing.  

I am not talking about cosmetic input after it’s written. I am talking about having all groups at the table from the beginning through implementation.

Districts are basically on their own. There will be little or no guidance federally and only generalities from the state. Right now, both President Donald Trump and Governor Kim Reynolds are shutting their eyes and hoping the virus will go away by the time the school bell rings in the fall.

For that reason, I think it’s important to listen to a few voices from the classroom about what it will take for students and teachers to “Return to Learn.”

Michelle Pick, High School English

Until there’s a vaccine readily available, I will not feel 100 percent safe. So until then, I think if we focus on spacing kids out in the classroom, making sure we stress that it is completely okay to be absent if a student or teacher doesn’t feel well — even just a bit, and being diligent about frequent sanitizing and avoiding sharing materials, that will help a lot.

I think it is super important and entirely possible that if we are going to attempt distance-learning, even for part of the population or even for short term, that it is required. I think it’s imperative that we do not take a one size fits all approach.

Our district says that they are going to get a laptop into the hands of each elementary school kid. High school and middle school kids already have them. Next, it would be hotspots to get them internet access. I just know that when the kids knew it was voluntary, there were very few kids taking part. And likewise, very few of us parents felt the need to push our kids to do the voluntary stuff, especially as we were trying to manage teaching online at the same time.

Teachers are really scared right now, as I’m sure you know or can assume.  We don’t know anything for sure yet, but it sounds like our jobs are going to get tougher. I just think that we cannot afford to miss any more instruction time. I really feel for the parents whose kids are young and cannot stay at home alone if they do move toward some alternate type of schedule.

Middle School Teacher (asked for her name to be withheld)

All kids need to wear masks and have their own hand sanitizer or the district provides it, and it is at each desk.  I also feel as though lunch should be served in homerooms and students should not leave the pods.  This would mean they are not walking all over the building-which includes no access to lockers (just backpacks).

The district should buy textbooks for each student so they don’t have to share and should provide face shields to teachers since the hearing-impaired students need to lip read. There should also be a protective shield in the office, library, and gloves provided for staff.

LeighAnn Dunn, Elementary Special Education

I am not sure how special education will look. We will definitely need protective gear and sanitation supplies. I also heard we might have to use planning time and lunch to disinfect. We should have an assistant for all teachers who helps disinfect while we teach.

Bernie Scolaro, High School Counselor

As a high school counselor looking at returning to school in the fall, I am most concerned that we have physical and mental health safety measures in place.  There is plenty of conversation on preparing for online learning, technology and necessary internet services to carry on learning at home if and/or when needed, so as not to fall behind in gaining the knowledge needed not just to graduate but be successful in future years.

There will have to be a growth mindset by staff and students that the online learning may not only be a reality, but it has to be a viable.  Since this pandemic was thrust upon us and we opted for voluntary continuous learning this spring, some students failed to actively engage in the process even though they could.  Students lost valuable learning.

In school, we must be able to provide a learning environment that incorporates social distancing in the classroom and hallways, continuous ability to sanitize the areas, the wearing of masks if necessary, and ability to separate -and contact trace- those who become sick  until we can identify the illness.

We need some system of also knowing not only of a student illness, but of a family member or someone the student came in contact with outside the school day that might have the virus.  Furthermore, we have students that travel to different schools and central locations for classes which makes the potential of community spread even wider and more expansive.

We must be overly sensitive to those students and staff with higher risk factors and be able to provide a way for them to potentially teach or learn remotely.  We must be aware of the toll on the emotional health of students and staff as the virus attacks families and the school communities.   We must make counseling services available to address anxiety, fear, and grief.

Amy Fortner Konda, Elementary Teacher

I want to see my kids again. I think we should at the very least check temperatures of the students, as they enter the building. No one, parents included.  Only staff and students should be allowed in the building.  I also don’t understand how we’re going to social distance if more teachers aren’t hired. I don’t see how special education students (I’m talking resource) could be taught effectively on line.

This is such a multi-layered problem. Most of my current students don’t have access to internet or a device. I think having access to internet now is a basic right and needs to be addressed ASAP. Honestly, I understand the risk of going back to normal but so many of our students need the safety and structure of school.

Denise Oakley, Elementary Teacher

First of all, we need safety for all involved and consistency for following protocol by all staff. We also need support for teachers with all the changes. The protocol will be in the ‘Return to Learn plan’ that the board will approve soon.

John Young, counselor from a health care clinic

  • Masks, cleaning supplies, for staff and kids
  • Class size
  • Staggering days for kids
  • Bussing half the area at a time to save fuel and costs
  • Air and air filtration in the schools
  • Prep for distance learning
  • Hot spots set up in rural areas or towns
  • Reinforce with parents and children the need to do the work and being responsible
  • Hazard pay for the staff
  • I am a counselor from the local health clinic that sees kids in the Leon, Lamoni, and Mount Ayr Schools.  My wife teaches junior math and 9th grade algebra.

    Lesa Banks, High School Art

    What I am hearing is a lot of fear and questions about how a high school of 1,600 plus manages social distancing. Second, is who is going to supply PPE and cleaning products? We supply our own tissues, cleaning supplies and band aids for the students already.

    We supply pencils for the students and other supplies. Is it going to include masks now? A non-educator actually told me that if a student coughed, I should just give them a mask. How are we going to get close enough to a student to help the with a problem?

    How can we possibly collect hard copy assignments?  

    As an art teacher, I’m worried about losing the hands-on learning. Students already have too much screen time.  My class along with FACs and PE are some of the dinosaurs. Music has a lot of questions on choir and band. Those are classes meant for large sizes. Special Education is worried about IEP meetings. 

    Laura Mesz, High School Project Lead the Way/Art

    For teachers and students – Specific, easy to follow and refer back to, training/instruction on needed technology.

    PLCs need time to collaborate with other teachers, coaches, administrators, etc. about what’s working, what’s not, helping out each other, problem solving, etc.  Start moving our district from a we-versus-them environment to a “WE are all here to work together.  

    Finally, I worry that the square footage of classrooms might end up being the most important criteria for how many students can be in a classroom at one time.  For example, in my classroom, the desktop computers have to be tethered to network outlets on two adjacent walls (26 computers total, I think), but the students would only be three feet apart. 

    If only square footage is considered, my classroom would allow for more students.  I know middle and high school exploratory teachers are concerned that the square footage of equipment won’t be part of the plan to space students.  Please make us part of the process.

    Dawn Young, Middle School Art

    I know it would be cumbersome, but would feel safer if they had to get their temperature taken at the door.  I worked in a school with 47 percent free/reduced lunch, therefore childcare is a HUGE issue. I think my new district, Greene County Community School District the percentage is even higher. 

    Luckily in art we have sinks, so hand washing is possible. In March, students washed hands when they came in and used Clorox wipes on the tables during clean up. Most classrooms aren’t designed for that. Hand washing stations with tubs in middle school would be a discipline nightmare. 

    My concerns with going to online is many students don’t have internet, there is no accountability (lax Iowa homeschooling rules have shown us that), how do students get the necessary supplies, they truly need the tactile kinesthetic experience with real media?

    So, as we approach the fall, maybe the truly apropos song would be “Anticipation.” Without all of the stakeholders involved, the theme song could quickly change to “Crazy Train.” 

    Right now, there are more questions than answers.  Let’s answer those questions together.

    Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association the last 27 years until retiring. 

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    • Essay

      Thanks Bruce for providing a sampling of concerns about return. Over the last while, I read an article—explaining how little kids are learning during stay-at-home, as contrasted with face-to-face learning, that kids have fallen behind. Apparently kids learn from and reinforce each other. So returning is essential if it can be made safe. My daughter and son-in-law are veteran teachers in a county seat town. Apparently, the district is awaiting guidance from DOE. They are concerned about safety for themselves and children. They’re also concerned about the new demands on kids and teachers that returnOmg will place on all.

    • Substitute teachers?

      There are many things to worry about. One additional concern is how to be sure there will be enough qualified substitute teachers. There has already been a shortage in most areas of the state.