‘are-you-still-here?’-first-year-teachers-face-overwhelming-challenges-in-pandemic

Late fall: ‘Am I equipped to handle this?’

In 2020, Louisville witnessed its highest homicide count on record, with 173 deaths. One morning in October, a few minutes before class began, Amia asked students about their weekend. One shared that a family member had been killed by gun violence.

“Am I equipped to handle this?” Amia said. “It was hard to hear. In my head, ‘I don’t know how you’re here after going through that experience.’ It was really hard not to be able to see her.”

Her best option was to email a counselor and ask her to follow up.

At least every other week, Amia sends a survey to her students asking how they’re holding up. She was flagging responses she wanted to address in early November when she read the following: “I’m terrified if I have to fight for my rights at 12-years-old.” Another wrote: “Im great, but at the same time im scared that trump might win.”

Asked if there was anything Amia needed to know, a student replied: “not really the majority of the time but sometimes I might not be able to be in your class cause my mom needs some help with stuff and work.” 

As the semester wound down, Amia felt resigned that there were some students she would never reach. She worried that the time she spent trying to find missing students meant losing further ground with the ones struggling in plain sight. 

She had repeatedly called the parents of kids who rarely turned in work, or showed up for class. Sometimes their attendance would bump up for a week or so, only for them to disappear again. Amia offered to work with students in the evenings, but few signed on. Short of physically joining them in their living rooms, she didn’t know what more she could do.  

“I feel like I have students — I can’t log in for them, or be there for them,” she said. 

Despite her exhaustion, there were bright spots. She joined a program called “Justice Now” dedicated to empowering students to organize projects around social justice issues important to them. Some of her seventh graders kept their cameras off during class, but called out goodbye when the hour ended. Others joined her once a week for a virtual lunch to play online games.

“I know most of their personalities now, even though I don’t know what half of my kids look like,” Amia said. 

She had a chance to see a few of her students when she dropped off goodie bags filled with candy at some of their homes, before the start of winter break. The treats were rewards she had promised for the winners of one of those lunchtime games.

January: ‘We’re over it’

Returning from winter break, Amia sensed her students had finally hit a wall. She shared a question about the Medieval period on her screen and asked her classes to respond in the chat. But there was little participation.

“Are you still here?” she asked.

“Are you still listening?”

Growing desperate, Amia pleaded that she needed “some semblance of you being alive in the chat.”

The monotonous nature of online learning had taken its toll.

“We’re in the dead of winter,” she said. “It’s gray and gross outside. There’s nothing to look forward to. There’s no change. Students are just stuck at home all day long. And it just sucks. We’re over it. We want human interaction and not to be glued to our computers all the time.”

As Amia struggled to keep her class engaged, Louis’ Christmas trip home to Rialto, California, where Covid-19 infections were surging, had deteriorated into a family crisis. 

He had self-isolated before leaving in late December and took precautions while he was with his family. He planned to fly back to Louisville on the first Saturday of the New Year. 

But when the date arrived, his mother felt sick. Before the end of the day, she was in the hospital. She had contracted the coronavirus. Louis’ grandmother had it too — she died on Jan. 8, the day after Louis’ mother came home. Louis’ grandmother had worked as an educator in West Virginia and the U.S. Virgin Islands alongside her husband, laying the groundwork for Louis’ own career. She was 86.

Louis tested positive for the coronavirus as well, but he was determined to teach during his quarantine, as his mother and grandmother battled the virus in the hospital. He initially requested only two days off.

On Jan. 6, a Wednesday, he barely muscled up enough strength to teach for an hour. His voice went in and out. At times, he shivered. Winded, he decided to take the Covid-19 sick leave offered by the district. He resumed teaching from California on Jan. 15 and finally flew back to Louisville in mid-February.

Amia had a scare of her own after a potential exposure to the virus in late January forced her to quarantine for two weeks. In February, she received her first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

Late winter: ‘I want to continue’

Amid the vaccine rollout, a local teachers union began gauging members’ comfort with reopening school buildings. In late February, the district’s school board approved a plan for middle school students to have the option of returning to classrooms part-time starting April 5.  

Amia felt excited and nervous about the possibility. On occasion, her students pepper her with questions about when they’re coming back. With so much uncertainty, she had tried not to get their hopes up.

Louis has mixed feelings, too. 

“It would be nice to put actual faces to names, or should I say dots,” he said. And he knew that for some teenagers, school was one of the few places they felt safe.

But he worried about what an in-person return would mean for students like the one caring for his grandfather. A potential exposure in class could put that student’s family at risk. Black and Hispanic Americans have been hit hard by the pandemic, eroding confidence in the ability of schools to keep their children, and by extension their families, safe. 

There’s another question of “what comes next” that both teachers have to consider — whether they’ll stay in the classroom after this difficult year. 

Louis is unsure whether he’ll keep teaching middle school, but he wants to stay in the profession.

“Teaching has always been around me,” he said, reflecting on his grandparents’ careers as educators. He’s long wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who look like him.

“Teaching and education is the real way I can do that,” he said.

In a normal year, there are moments that can make even the most confident rookies question whether they’ve made the right choice. Amia has cried. She strained her voice hoping to hold the attention of middle schoolers she may never meet in person. 

But she wants to keep teaching at Western Middle. She’s already started thinking of new material she can incorporate into the classroom next year.

“I want to continue doing it,” she said. “I haven’t taught in person yet. I have no clue what that looks or feels like.”

Bracey Harris

Bracey Harris is a national reporter for NBC News, based in Jackson, Mississippi. 

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