A Semester of In-person Class Behind Them, Uncertainty Lingers for Some Teachers
By Yesenia Montenegro
When Karen Rinehart returned to the classroom fully in person for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she noticed that her pre-K students’ hands seemed weaker, they struggled with cutting and coloring, and didn’t seem comfortable talking and playing with other kids.
Rinehart, a pre-K teacher at a public school in Maryland, has taught in both online and hybrid formats during the pandemic. This semester was the first one conducted completely in person again. One of the biggest things she noticed was that the kids had fewer fine motor skills than those she had taught in previous years. Some also lacked communication skills.
“Some of the kids had trouble asking for things and sharing with other students,” Rinehart said.
For Rinehart, working with pre-K students online last year was challenging. In some cases, parents were helping students too much with classwork, while other parents weren’t doing enough. It was hard to tell if the kids were actually ready to move on to kindergarten because she couldn’t observe how they worked in person and among other kids.
After teaching a mix of online and in-person formats over the course of the Covid pandemic, Sue Waldecker, a middle school teacher in the Detroit Public School District, was relieved to be teaching a full class in person this semester and restore the relationship she had with her students before classes moved online in March of 2020.
Waldecker teaches sixth and seventh grade language arts. During the 2020–2021 school year, her district offered two options for students. They could either be in school full time or learn only virtually. She was only able to teach a class of about 16 in person, as the rest of her students opted to continue with virtual learning. Waldecker’s classes usually consist of around 30 students.
This year, students also had the option of learning from home, but most decided to attend in person, according to Waldecker. The virtual schooling didn’t run through the district; it was a different online system, she said. Students practice social distancing at school, are required to wear masks, and teachers have to take a COVID test once a week.
As the first semester fully back in person comes to an end, Waldecker reflected on her time teaching online and what it means to be back in the classroom.
“My greatest strength is developing a bond and a relationship with the kids and it was nearly impossible to do that online. Even if students did have their cameras on, there just wasn’t that intimacy that you have when you’re face to face,” she said.
One of the biggest struggles for Waldecker during virtual school was the lack of student engagement. Her district used Microsoft Teams to conduct video calls for students, but it was hard to know who was paying attention because students didn’t turn their cameras on. Many kids were not doing any work, Waldecker said.
“Our district decided that because of the circumstances they wouldn’t fail anyone while we were learning virtually. Middle school kids are smart and a lot of them knew about the policy. Many took advantage of it and just didn’t come to class,” she said.
Waldecker’s district is in a low socioeconomic area, where some kids have a challenging home life, she said. Most students were home alone during the day while their parents were at work, so they had no one to remind them to pay attention or finish their schoolwork. Unlike younger students, whose parents were more involved, middle school students worked on their own.
However, not everything about the process was bad. According to Waldecker, the district got grants that enabled every student in the county to have their own tablet. Students also got one year of free Wi-Fi at home if they needed it. Waldecker said that the pivot to online was very quick when the pandemic first started, and she was proud of what the county was doing and proud to be a part of it.
Since being back at school, Waldecker’s school and her district have been experiencing significant staff shortages. According to Waldecker there are an unusual number of vacancies. A lot of teachers retired early and some left the profession because they were afraid of going back in person, she said. There is not only a shortage of teachers, but also support staff, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers for example.
According to a nationwide poll conducted in August 2020 by the National Education Association, a teachers union focused on advocating for education professionals, 28 percent of educators who participated said the Covid pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave teaching. Across the whole country, teachers have been opting out of teaching in person again, according to the NEA.
The NEA is the country’s largest union and represents almost 3 million members. They conducted another poll in August 2021. This poll found that 80 percent of NEA members said the pandemic led to more educators leaving the profession. In this survey, 37 percent of NEA members said they were more likely to leave teaching or retire early.
Rinehart has also been dealing with the difficulties that come with understaffing. Her school and district are short on teachers, including substitutes, and bus drivers, she said.
She would love to get back to full capacity staff because of how much extra stress and work the situation is causing. Rinehart and her colleagues have agreed that they will work together to cover classes if someone is sick or needs help. However, this is one more stress factor added to the year.
Rinehart has noticed that the lack of teachers is a significant issue across the whole country this year. She suspects that it’s happening because of COVID and because people don’t feel comfortable coming back to school yet.
With the first semester ending, Rinehart hopes that eventually things will get back to a sort of normalcy. Students at her school are still required to wear masks, which can be difficult because of how young they are. She also makes sure to keep everything sanitized and as safe as possible.
“I hope this isn’t the new normal because it’s not as comfortable and doesn’t feel as natural,” she said. “It also comes with a lot more fear and responsibility.”
Yesenia Montenegro is a student at the University of Maryland, studying journalism and Germanic studies. Her interest in journalism began when she started writing for her high school newspaper during her freshman year. Along with writing for the COVID-19 Observer, she is also a reporter for Her Campus Maryland. Montenegro likes traveling, listening to music, and spending time with friends in her free time.