We asked a group of teachers and students to write about their experience of school during the pandemic. We left it open-ended, but suggested they write about a particular experience that stood out, or if there were moments of solidarity they witnessed, or how they have seen students, parents, and other teachers being affected. We also asked what kinds of inequalities they’ve seen, and what their hopes and fears are for public education in a post-pandemic world. Here’s how they responded . . .
Replacing Individualism with Solidarity
By Sarah Giddings
One of my initial responses to the pandemic was to take my family to a safe place. This potential “safety zone” is a sacred place in southern Utah, one of the most isolated and least populated areas in the United States, called Navajo Mountain. My mother, who is Navajo, was raised there. There is no electricity, billboards, or stores — only vast stretches of land. The sense of community and mutual support is strong, reinforced by a clan system that emphasizes the interconnectedness between people, and between people and the land. Certain elders, for example, walk for miles each day to visit one another. I always feel safe at Navajo Mountain, and experience a kind of belonging, and a sense of place.
My family and I, however, never ventured up to Navajo Mountain. We learned that the virus crossed the reservation’s borders and impacted people on devastating levels. I was concerned for the elders. In Navajo culture, elders have a revered status as they embody knowledge, and ways of knowing the world through language. According to my mother, my great-grandfather, Rex, knew Navajo words that were lost when he passed on years ago. Ways of seeing the world are forever lost when we lose Navajo or Indigenous elders.
Right now, I hear debates centered on how many people must die in order save the economy, or how people’s individual “freedoms” supersede community well-being. It is a discourse symptomatic of a culture devoid of meaning, connectedness, and compassion.
For me, this pandemic reinforces the urgency of cultivating the conditions for students to see themselves as part of a complex web of relationships. Individualism and competition — traits woven into the fabric of public education — need to be replaced with cooperation, solidarity, and connection between each other and the land.
Sarah Giddings teaches 8th grade in Mesa, Arizona.
“I Cannot Read the Room in a Videoconference”
By Don Dumas
My students will tell you that my strength is in connecting. When I teach an in-person class, it’s about feel. I read my students. When I’m explaining something, I know when they need me to expand or give more; I read the room. I cannot read the room in a videoconference. I cannot give a student that nod of acknowledgement, that tap on the desk just to let them know that I see them. I can’t break the monotony with a well-timed joke. I can’t feed off the energy of the class, and they can’t feed off mine.
Most of the students have their faces blocked, which I understand. That makes it impossible, however, to read their faces. When students trust their teacher, they’ll give a look that says, “help me,” but they are hesitant to type out that request in a chat box or an email. It’s different and it’s hard.
I will continue trying to connect with my students, but I’m looking forward to getting back to normal. Truthfully, this is the first time that I’m not sure of my effectiveness as a teacher. Sure, after each videoconference, my students may be more prepared for their Advanced Placement exam, but I’ve never measured my effectiveness by that sort of thing.
In person, I know my students and I enjoy our time together, and that’s usually how I determine a good day in the classroom. It feels like much of what makes me a strong teacher has been stripped away. I hope my students know that I’m trying, and I know they are, too. I’m sorry this is happening. We don’t deserve it.
Don Dumas teaches AP U.S. history in Chula Vista, California, and is the San Diego County Teacher of the Year for 2020.
I Felt Like a First-Day, First-Year Teacher
By Arathi Jayaram
Preschoolers demonstrate their learning about recycling when they choose to create a machine out of blocks that takes trash in and comes out as something made from the trash, like a toy. I teach through play. I thought remote teaching would be a little different, but on the first day, I felt like a first-day, first-year teacher. It is profoundly different from our classrooms.
I called families to check on them and find out who needed a computer. I told them that I would continue to teach but that they needed to do what was best for their family first and that may not be school work every day.
We (the Chicago Teachers Union) went on strike this year. We had the community supporting us. Now I see educators fighting for the community by advocating for COVID-19 testing for all, fighting side by side with essential workers to get PPE and hazard pay, and pushing for rent leniency.
I am more skilled at remote teaching now. One day, my class sang together through finger play in unison, but my fear is that some may think this can replace the classroom. We will never be able to recreate children learning from each other. We will also never be able to recreate special education services.
I hope we have cleaner schools. I hope we encourage people to stay home when sick. I hope we remember how much inequity there is in remote learning. I hope we make it a priority to make education more equitable for all in remote learning and in the classroom.
Arathi Jayaram is a preschool teacher in Chicago Public Schools, a member of the CTU Executive Board, and is on the board of the Illinois chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
We Must Dream What’s Possible
By Holly Hardin
This pandemic is amplifying pre-existing problems in our schools. So, what can we offer for the future beyond this pandemic that refuses to recreate this system that racism, oppression, and dominance depend upon?
We must dream what’s possible and be open to responding differently. Though individuals have always filled gaps, districts have responded with astonishing speed to create care systems for students including expanded food programs, rent assistance, and internet. Our district teamed up with the Durham Public Schools Foundation, local restaurants, and farmers to create a delicious, localized, high-quality meal program that also supports community workers. Imagine if we continued these types of systems of care once schools resume.
There will be resistance. When the decision came canceling tests and that nothing assigned after March 13 could affect grades, many teachers were outraged: “How will I get them to do anything?” If dependence on grades or high-stakes tests is what’s holding something together, then the question we should ask is “What must we do differently?” Could a student-driven, project-based approach better prepare us for future disaster and create more inspiring, and authentic, learning opportunities?
Those most affected by this moment must be centered in this work: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, poor folks, ELL families, disabled students, and queer/trans folks. Right now our state Legislature’s response to these groups is supporting schools to reopen two weeks early for struggling students to “catch up.” What if we instead invested those resources and time to train staff in anti-racism, restorative justice, and trauma response? We are all experiencing trauma and loss; processing these emotions must be central to the curriculum when we return to school.
This is a moment to reimagine how we use resources. We must defund and remove cops from schools and instead invest in jobs for our families through school construction/repairs and the employment of more teachers, instructional assistants, ESL support, counselors, and nurses to ensure we have the schools we all deserve.
Holly Hardin is a middle grades public school educator, organizer, and abolitionist in Durham, North Carolina.
By Angelina Cruz
April 7, 2020, is a day that Wisconsinites will not forget. It is the day the U.S. Supreme Court, at the behest of Wisconsin Republican legislators, forced Wisconsin to conduct in-person voting amidst a deadly pandemic. All elections are important, but in Racine, during this election, the largest school referendum in state history was on the ballot.
March 16 was the first day of school closure for the Racine Unified School District. It was also the day six members of Racine Educators United (REU), our local teacher union, began an organizing program geared toward recruiting members. During their first remote meeting, these six educators committed to organizing for the “vote yes” campaign and passing the referendum.
There is no guidebook on how to organize during a pandemic, but Julie Harycki, Travis Eales, Dani Dickert, Emma Abler, Maggie Krochalk, and Kari Schaefer were an organizing powerhouse. At breakneck speed, they figured it out as they went. They made phone calls, sent text messages, delivered yard signs, and used social media to get out the vote, helping voters navigate safe options for voting during a pandemic. They recruited and trained other educators to help with the work.
Although our school buildings have closed, educators continue to go to extraordinary lengths to meet the needs of every student. And then there are those who go above and beyond even that, to organize and win the schools our students deserve. On April 7 the very survival of our school district was on the ballot. And despite the voter suppression efforts of the opposition, it was the hard work and solidarity of REU members that won the referendum that day.
By five votes.
Angelina Cruz is a 5th-grade teacher in Racine, Wisconsin, currently serving her colleagues as president of Racine Educators United.
Finding Hope in Collective Action
By Merrie Najimy
As the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association — leading virtually from home — I feel the weight of the gravity and the magnitude of the work ahead. But I find hope in collective action and the possibility that education unions can help build a more just society.
The pandemic lays bare our systemic racism and classism — unequal access to technology, phones, and material resources like food and housing. Income insecurity and a lack of access to good health care are also among the inequities contributing to the trauma of our students and families.
Understanding the MTA’s power after defeating the 2016 charter school expansion and winning $2 billion into law for public education in 2020, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education accepted our principles for the remote learning guidance. These principles included defining remote learning well beyond online and prioritizing the equity, health, and well-being of students, families, and educators. We also forced the state to cancel the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System high-stakes standardized test.
While the bureaucrats are failing us miserably, the MTA is taking the reins here to pause, reflect, and resist. Our statewide livestream dialogues and our rank-and-file established solidarity networks allow members to chart the way forward and decide on collective actions.
Educator unions must develop a social, racial, and economic analysis and agenda. In this moment of disaster capitalism, we must fight off the corporate ed reformers and their ed-tech vultures aiming to privatize public education. We must reject austerity, fight to reimagine and rebuild public education, win full funding for our schools and colleges, and strive for a racial and economically just society.
When we fight, we win!
Merrie Najimy is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Mothering matters. Parenting matters. Women matter.
By Tanya Reyes
“Hey Miss? There is prostitution in my building and the drunk men pull at my door.”
“Sorry to bother you, but my baby has been vomiting all night, and he feels so cold.”
Texts from my 16-year-old students.
They must raise children and test scores. Navigate parenthood and navigate online learning. Be good mothers and be good students.
The inequities harm women, specifically women of color, who in my 15 years of work with at-risk youth, are the most neglected.
The inequities begin in access and expectations. The pandemic emptied stores of goods. The pregnant and parenting teens, ages 14–21, live in communities dependent on local vendors. Diapers, wipes, infant milk disappeared from stores.
I believe, before anything, you meet needs. How can they change their lives if they can’t change their child’s diapers? I reached out for financial support. I dispersed diapers, formula, wipes, and groceries. I am indebted to Loom in Los Angeles, and local moms. I’m nearly 40 and home with my own two young children, and I struggle daily. Imagine schoolwork as a teen parent without resources and a house full of people, heavy trauma history, and a high chance of domestic violence. I worry about their safety, their babies, and their mental health.
They live inequalities every day. I want to meet them where they are. I base my lessons in parenting, I create art projects they can complete with their child. I focus on play. Share tools for mental health care. I want them to know they are seen, they are heard, they matter. We must value women. We must create equity for children. We must provide quality child care. We must value caring for children as work.
Mothering matters. Parenting matters. Women matter.
Tanya Reyes teaches pregnant and parenting teens at McAlister High School in Los Angeles. She is a mother, National Board Certified teacher, an advocate for infant breast/chest feeding, and is a chapter chair of United Teachers Los Angeles.
Lessons from a Nurse
By Dennis Kosuth
The pandemic has taught me three main things.
The first is that chronic health inequities have been exacerbated by this disease. African Americans are 30 percent of Chicago’s population, but 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Medical apartheid is a big contributor and deep changes must be made. We spend more per capita than any other country on health care and have terrible outcomes — especially for the poor and people of color. Health care should be a universal right, and the profit motive must be removed. A healthier population is better able to learn.
Second, workplace rules and culture must be reformed. If parents cannot stay home to care for themselves or sick children, infection will spread. Many students are sent to school ill because parents cannot afford to stay home from work. The lack of paid sick days was a problem before the pandemic. In addition, school staff often come to work sick, not wanting to inconvenience co-workers. This practice should end.
Finally, the general level of science-based health knowledge should be significantly raised. The more educated people are about health, the better off we will be. School nurses are perfect for this role. Unfortunately, Illinois is the fifth worse state in the nation in nurse-to-student ratio. The Chicago Teachers Union fought and won the demand for more nurses. Every district would benefit from having more nurses in their schools.
My biggest fear is that we come out of this crisis having learned nothing. Out of all this pain, suffering, and death, we must make fundamental changes. Our school communities are hurting physically, psychologically, and economically — urgent assistance is needed. Those in charge must be pushed to do the right thing; our future depends upon it.
Dennis Kosuth has been a nurse for 13 years and has worked in schools for the past four. He’s an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Sunrise in the Time of Isolation
By Heather Chen
I love talking to people. It doesn’t matter if they are my friends, conversation is always good. Yet, something I have discovered during this crisis is that it is exhausting to seek company, especially when there is a digital barrier in the way.
In the last weeks of March, I found myself becoming increasingly lonely and unmotivated. School felt distant, and as a result my schoolwork felt almost like a fever dream. My intense feelings of isolation are not unique — many students have begun to feel this way. Our schools are places of stress, but for some they are also where we can find comfort and acceptance. Without school, I felt myself spiraling. As a student activist in the climate movement, I wasn’t sure how I could continue my work.
So far, the only solution to my struggles has been Sunrise School. For the last six weeks, I have taught classes for Sunrise Movement’s online course on the Green New Deal. From Tuesday to Friday, I log on to Zoom and share the vision I want for our society with others. In a time of separation, Sunrise School has made me feel all the more united with the climate crisis movement. It is powerful to be in a space with so many people who care for each other and who know that COVID-19 and the climate crisis are deeply intertwined.
I am inspired by the other high schoolers I meet. For many of them, Sunrise School means the world. They come from cities that are deep blue to rural towns where they keep their beliefs silent. And always, they find a community of youth who understand the climate fight they feel so deeply. Sunrise School has shown me the solidarity we can create, even in moments of separation.
Heather Chen is a sophomore at Bloomfield Hills High School in Michigan and is a hub coordinator with Sunrise Movement, a youth organization working to fight the climate crisis.
Learn more about Sunrise Movement at sunrisemovement.org.
By Zanovia Clark
The anxiety of COVID-19 has swept across the country capturing everything in its path. Health. Social gatherings. Financial stability. Routines. Toilet paper. Many of us scrounge up what willpower we have left to sit through yet another virtual meeting where our colleague still hasn’t figured out how to use their microphone. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky souls attempting to dust off the algebra that lies in the dark depths of your brain in order to homeschool. But take comfort in knowing that among U.S. educators, there are some prepared to face this crisis head-on: community educators. This isn’t a new group inspired by a social justice wave of individuals occupying classrooms. Community educators have always occupied schools. Community educators thrive during a crisis like COVID-19 because they continuously connect and build relationships with students and families outside of school.
Community educators fill out financial scholarships, translate legal documents, and collect supplies and groceries so families can focus on staying healthy. When her school district closed, community educator Amelia Bowen completed 20 assistance forms on behalf of families in and out of her classroom. Amelia knew which local supports to contact to get what families needed most. Why? Because she had spent the school year building those connections. Amelia also collected $2,500 in cash donations to directly support families in the community. Community educator Emma Caro Bernal was delivering supplies to a family when she got into a minor car accident. When Emma’s mother found out she was delivering essential supplies, she volunteered to finish what her daughter started. Emma’s mother recognized and valued the importance of her daughter’s community relationships.
COVID-19 has forced educators to navigate new ways of teaching not just online, but within communities. For community educators like Amelia and Emma, connecting, supporting, and nurturing the community is and will always be teaching.
Zanovia Clark teaches at Mount View Elementary School in Seattle.
Home and Homeschooling in the Time of COVID-19
By Martha A. Escudero
In March, I reclaimed a two-bedroom home in El Sereno as part of Reclaiming Our Homes, a movement of unhoused and housing insecure families and individuals taking vacant, publicly owned housing back for our community. We the Reclaimers are calling on the city and state to immediately use all vacant properties to house people.
We need a massive investment in public and social housing so that everyone has a home during this housing and public health crisis. With the help of a coalition of six organizations working to secure affordable housing, members of Reclaiming Our Homes were able to move into 12 homes that are owned by the California Department of Transportation and had been sitting vacant. Having our own space for learning has really enhanced our ability to do so.
This pandemic is a problem that has been intensified because of capitalism. This has created a great opportunity for me to teach my children not only through books but also through action, how having housing as a human right keeps people safe especially during a pandemic. We are exploring sustainability and autonomy projects, and with the help of supporters we created a food and herb garden and a compost. We wish to document all food grown in the neighborhood so that we may not rely on big corporations for food.
I feel we are in a great time in history where we may be able to create significant change in our systems and be able to create a society that is sustainable for all living beings. In teaching my daughters sustainability I am able to teach them how to survive and thrive without being dependent on a destructive system. This will probably not be the last pandemic my daughters will face in their lifetime but I am sure they will be better prepared for the next one.
Martha A. Escudero is a member of Reclaiming Our Homes.
At 12 p.m. on April 23
By Julie Jee
I never tell my colleagues that my birthday is on April 23 because I don’t like fuss. I treat myself to small indulgences all month long — a cupcake, new sneakers, a run with friends. This year, it didn’t even register that it was April.
In mid-March, my husband was diagnosed with COVID-19 and within 10 days he lost 20 pounds and could barely walk across the room. I hid my fear from my kids and tried my best to keep everything as normal as possible, but it was emotionally and physically exhausting. Thankfully, my husband made a full recovery and went back to work less than three weeks later. That same day, I started emergency remote teaching.
From one maelstrom to the next, I threw myself into work. My district was supportive, but it was overwhelming, especially with three school-aged children at home. I was lucky to have a wonderful group of 400+ colleagues to lean on during this time through a Facebook group I created when I first heard that we would be teaching remotely. Little did I know that some of my co-workers found out that my birthday was coming up and were planning a surprise.
At 12 p.m. sharp on April 23, a parade of more than 20 cars honked joyfully as passengers held signs and drivers shouted birthday greetings as they drove past my house. It was a gift to see my colleagues that I had interacted with on social media, but hadn’t seen in person in more than five weeks.
I waved and waved as I held back tears. Ten minutes after it started, the car parade was over and I felt loved, supported, and grateful. This was the loudest, most boisterous celebration I’ve ever experienced, and it certainly was one of the best birthdays ever.
Julie Jee is a high school English teacher at Arlington High School in New York.