Voices from the classroom

Bruce Lear spoke to nine educators about the challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. -promoted by Laura Belin

Some have compared teaching in 2020 to flying a plane while it’s being built. But that’s only true if the plane lacks basic safety equipment like seat belts and parachutes, or basic amenities like beverages and working restrooms because the airplane construction budget is woefully inadequate.

Public schools are struggling, and it is time to listen to teachers.

Perhaps some will dismiss these comments as teachers whining. Before you do, think of the last time you were the home school teacher for your own child. Now, add another 30 students all with different educational levels and needs. That’s a little like a classroom.

Also, remember doctors, dentists, lawyers all have waiting rooms so they can deal with problems one at a time.

Teachers don’t.

One more note. The teachers chose to remain anonymous, I suspect because some school administrators crave positive PR above protection.

An Iowa middle school teacher 

From an academic standpoint, the biggest problem is keeping track of students online and for quarantine and then coming back to school and having to be caught up only to go into quarantine again.

There are also other issues of social distancing which is not happening in our schools. There is no possible way to do this unless we are hybrid. Kids are starting to not wear the mask properly and since there is no social distancing this is a problem. 

I have had parents reach out to me because their child is experiencing high anxiety due to the virus and its direct effects. Some have lost family members, have to have family hospitalized etc. This tends to make teaching academics that more difficult because we must attend to their social and emotional issues first.

An Iowa high school teacher 

The biggest challenge on a day to day basis is vast. One of the major challenges is not knowing when a student tests positive for COVID-19. We are working in a packed classroom with barely 2-foot social distancing due to large classes. Also, adding to the stress are students and staff who have with mask fatigue and administrators who won’t enforce rules.

Teachers are facing burnout because of the epic substitute shortage.  We should be in hybrid mode with the positivity rates. My week consists of 12 to 13-hour days to stay ahead of planning.

All of my COVID-19 stories revolve around so many times where I have been in close contact with students who know they are positive and are in school and then not knowing they were ill until they are absent because of the virus.  Contact tracing is not being done or done very minimally. No transparency at all. I feel like walking into a war zone every day and kids are so stressed out they are leaving for virtual learning because of that stress at school. 

An Iowa elementary special education teacher

My stress is a hundredfold from pre-pandemic. I am teaching both virtual and face to face. Special education materials are not available online, so I scan and upload every lesson to digital resources so I can teach.

We are being overwhelmed with students with intensive needs who previously would have been in a more specialized classroom. They require so much instructional time that my co-teacher has no room in her schedule to take pressure off of me. There is LITERALLY not enough hours in my day to serve all of the needs of all of my students.

Social distance is not possible. In my room I can do it a little easier than gen ed rooms, but it still is not compliant by CDC guidelines.

An Iowa high school counselor

As a school counselor, the biggest challenge that I face this year is trying to do all the normal during an abnormal time.  And to do it knowing I can’t do it as safely as possible.  I work with students and families who are stressed as they have to quarantine for days at home and miss school for an extended period of time while others have chosen full-time virtual. 

As families ping pong between what is the best scenario and alternate between virtual and in person, counselors like myself have to flip schedules like pancakes in order to help these students find their most comfortable setting. 

At the same time, I cannot lose focus that one of my major functions is to make sure that I am providing the “same as always” opportunities to assist students.

An Iowa middle school art teacher

My biggest challenge is still class size. I’m happy that students want to take my class, but 35 kids in a classroom is out of control. Funding to hire new teachers would be nice. After the attack on our union, we have no recourse. We have no contract.  We have trouble hiring teachers, substitutes and bus drivers.

As far as COVID-19, my students are very good about wearing the masks, using hand sanitizer and trying to be ‘safe’ in the situation we’re now in, but there is no possibility of any type of social distancing and I have students pulling in and out of my schedule constantly because of quarantining or being kicked off virtual learning (not doing the work).

A rural Iowa high school teacher

Exhaustion is biggest challenge. Mental and physical exhaustion. We’re working 8 hours a day with students in class. Sanitizing tables, hand washing and reminding students to keep their masks on. We’re spending our prep periods, lunches and after school, emailing and calling parents. Then taking home what we should have been able to work on during that prep time. 

Originally, our district did schedule 2, half days for us to contact students and parents and work as grade levels or departments on lessons. That time was reduced to an hour and a half a week.  I can’t contact 100 kids or their parents in that amount of time. We need adequate paid time.

An elementary Iowa teacher and president of a local association

Lack of funding for public education from the state of Iowa is a big challenge as a classroom teacher. Our teaching staff has been cut to the bare bones, due to budget cuts. At the elementary level there aren’t enough specials (art, music, PE) teachers to cover planning time. At all levels there aren’t enough teachers to teach and cover duties, so teachers lose planning time. 

Class sizes are large due to lack of funding for additional teachers. During the pandemic, virtual teachers have large class sizes. Classrooms in the brick and mortar building are large because numerous teachers that moved to virtual, weren’t replaced in the building.  Instead, their students were split up into remaining brick and mortar classrooms, and this increased class sizes. 

Most of the para-professional positions, other than special education positions have been cut. There is minimal help for classroom teachers and students needing assistance.  There are too few nurses to deal with students and staff who become infected.

An Iowa high school teacher

Because of COVID and the virtual option, my job changed tremendously this year. I am split between two buildings now so I travel every day to two different sites to teach two different classes. One of them is a new prep.

I arrive at 7:25 in the morning and my daily PLC meeting starts at 7:25 also. Then I teach my two classes at one building and I have one block to travel to the other building, have lunch, have plan, and now also I have been recently given to duty at the other building. After that duty, I teach fourth block.

It has made the days go really fast but I almost always feel unprepared and behind. Additionally, we are doing lots of extra cleaning of course. The kids are pretty good about wearing masks. There are the same four or five every day though that I have to remind to keep them up over their noses.

The funny thing is, everyone valued teachers so much back in March and April. Then when they talked about going back, they talked about the need to take some of the extra things off our plates and give more grace. None of that has happened. If anything, they have added to our plates.

Everyone’s workload is unmanageable. And the pandemic is not just impacting Iowa schools.

A Texas urban high school teacher

The biggest challenge that I face on a daily basis is student engagement for our asynchronous learners. About 20 percent of my students refuse to attend the Zoom classes, though the districts supplied both electronic devices and hotspots for each student. They think they can sign on and do the work at their leisure, but they don’t. Others are working to help support their families, and others are being charged with taking care of younger siblings while both parents work. 

It’s exhausting trying to keep four different preps going, along with finding, adapting or producing instructional materials for each one.

Calling parents for attendance and failures is also left to the teachers, who are also working 12-14 hours a day. Many parents don’t respond or block the school’s number. Students do not respond. My failure rate has gone from 0-3 percent to 20 percent for the first nine weeks.

What can be done? The pandemic has hit all parts of our society. But we can’t afford to lose our future by neglecting public schools, our national treasure.

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 for 27 years until retirement. 

Top image: Photo of Cedar Rapids classroom posted on the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Facebook page on October 1.

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  • You have no Idea...

    ….what the education community is really going through at this time. Thanks to Bruce for this review of what teachers are being subjected to. The link below leads to Nov. 8 DMPS school board meeting (youtube). I highly suggest all of you (especially non-educators) listen hard to the discussion. Take note of the details being hashed out, the loose ends that, because of KR, they have little power to control. That our state educators (and the rest of us) have been placed in this untenable situation by a governor bent on demonstrating obeisance to a fool, will make the time between now and Nov. ’22 go very, very fast. We won’t forget.
    Please, check out the meeting and imagine what you would do if it was your passion and profession?