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'Twice the work and half the fun:' teaching during COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge

Barry Kaye
Teachers work with students at Mount Shasta Elementary students from behind plexiglass. Everyone is wearing a mask. It's the new reality since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Teachers are going back to school.

With multiple platforms to manage during the current COVID-19 crisis, from hybrid classes to distance learning, an entirely new dynamic is emerging and resources are being stretched as never before.

Creativity is the key, many educators say. White boards double as smart boards. Collaboration is critical. And some teachers could probably run their own IT business one day with new job skills being learned on the fly.

Sometimes just getting through the day is a major achievement.

“Today went better than yesterday,” explained one local elementary school teacher. “I wasn’t crying.” 

To be sure, the burden caused by the virus is being shared equally with parents trying to manage work schedules while supervising their children learning from home. Or at the job site. 

The deck got reshuffled again last week when an employee at the local Boys & Girls Club of Greater Shasta tested positive and two schools switched back to distance learning because some students were potentially exposed. Teachers had an afternoon to prepare new schedules and contact parents via email.

Mount Shasta Union School District Superintendent Barry Barnhart laughed when asked about the last time he got a good night’s sleep. He described the current year as “twice the work and half the fun,” a quote he attributed to an ESPN announcer.

Balancing safety and education

Barnhart has the unenviable task of trying to balance the needs of students with the health and safety of all district employees, including cafeteria workers, maintenance personnel and bus drivers. He credits the district’s governance board and the teacher’s union among other groups with coming together to find solutions.

“We have really worked well together. The communication has been good between us,” he said. “There are larger districts that do not have kids back in person because the unions and district (administrators) have not been able to agree.”

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So far, MSUSD has lost about 50 students – about 10% of its population – with kindergarten taking the biggest hit. That decline is critical as funding from the state is based on enrollment. Fortunately, the current budget is allocated using last year’s totals. Emergency stimulus funds from the federal government have helped.

Barnhart said replacing those funds in the future will be difficult though. It is not just funding from the state that matters but also the timing of the disbursement of those monies. School budgets are not exactly slush funds to begin with.

“As far as cash flow and cash that we have received we are taking a huge hit beginning in February,” he said. “Schools all across the state are having to watch their cash flow very carefully.”

Memories that never happen

But what cannot be managed are the memories that never happen. 

Gaspar Rodriguez is a senior who plays football for Mount Shasta High School. Last year at this time, as the leaves were turning and the nights were getting cold, he scored the winning touchdown with one minute to play against rival Colusa in the California Division 4 state playoffs.

The score came on an audible when he grabbed his face mask to let the quarterback know he was changing his route to a post. It was one of the signature wins in the school’s recent history. “I still have the newspapers in my room on the wall,” he said. 

Rodriguez said he misses his teammates, some of whom he has known since the fourth grade. “At the start of the year you all have a common goal,” he said. “To win games and have fun with each other.”

Rodriguez’s coach, Mitch Crossley, said there are lessons learned on the gridiron such as commitment and hard work that extend beyond sports to include other extracurricular activities such as drama and choir.

“You have to perform at a high level,” he said. “It is hard to emulate that in the classroom.”

Teachers do double duty

None of this is lost on educators. Some teachers are already stressed performing double duty managing students in the classroom and online at the same time. Another 15% are fully distance learning only. Lesson plans still need to be prepared for those students.

It requires trying to maintain attention spans from multiple mediums while simultaneously utilizing a plethora of devices, from laptops to cameras to smart phones. All in an effort to connect with students and create a seamless experience. Glitches happen. During one recent Google classroom meeting, a student was unable to mute his microphone so the entire lesson was serenaded by the sound of power tools. 

“I would have kids that would turn on their computer and I would be looking at a wall in their bedroom,” said Cheryl Keiner, president of the local chapter of the California Teachers Association.

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Keiner, a former sixth grade teacher who now runs the Bridges program at Sisson School, said teaching during the pandemic has been a “massively huge struggle.” 

“I have colleagues who have been teaching for 30 years and they feel like this is their first year of teaching,” she said. “I have never seen them this exhausted. Ever.” 

Many spent the summer trying to prepare, including scanning slides and re-creating entire curriculums. Preparing for distance learning in particular presents its own set of problems. It is a model primarily designed for college students who have the ability and motivation to manage themselves.

The end result is predictable. 

In a nationwide poll of educators completed by the National Education Association, 28% of those questioned said the pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession altogether. There are an estimated 4 million instructors who teach kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States, so an estimated one million teachers are considering leaving the industry. 

Even formerly mundane tasks such as taking attendance or saying the Pledge of Allegiance are suddenly more complicated when done online via Chromebooks. Many veteran teachers sometimes have students in their class who are the children of former students. That sense of family is on pause during the pandemic.

“They (teachers) don’t even know what the kids look like. All they see is their face in the middle of a tiny one-inch square on their screen,” Keiner said. “They don’t know their gestures. They don’t know their body language.”

A Dunsmuir Elementary School student works on class assignments from home in April when the COVID-19 pandemic closed California schools. South Siskiyou County school districts are now hashing out plans to open for the 2020/21 school year in August, balancing safety with the need to get children back in classrooms.

A big toll on parents, too

For many parents just trying to get by has become the new norm, according to Nick Riddle, a structural engineer who has two sons in school. They react differently to parents asking questions about homework than when teachers make the same inquiry, he said.

“It’s challenging with the kids at home. They often end up at the office,” Riddle said. “It’s a huge impact to our normal way of life.”

He also worries about a “distinct and acute” education loss taking place, saying “a lot of kids are going to have trouble.”

In addition, not all families function the same. Some are simply more chaotic than others. Reliable internet is often a problem. Hot spots fail. None of this is conducive to creating a good work ethic. The burden is especially difficult for students who are more challenged than others, including high need individuals such as English learners.

Tony Garcia, a resource specialist at Mount Shasta Elementary School, said peer interaction helps EL students overcome language obstacles. “That is how these little guys learn,” he said.

Garcia is also a parent. He does his best to stay on top of things, including checking homework every night when he gets home. But despite the immense challenges, Garcia remains hopeful about the future. 

“Last year we kind of lost the end of the year. This year we are just trying to keep our heads afloat,” he said. “But I feel like we are going to get through this.”