With schools across the country back in session, some have been forced to temporarily shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
At Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, 9th grade English teacher Sydney Jensen says she’s facing “the hardest year of teaching” she’s experienced in her eight years on the job. In previous years she loved going to work every morning, she says, but now she’s feeling burned out.
“I ask myself a lot of days how much longer I can do this,” says Jensen, a 2019 Teacher of the Year in Nebraska. “And that is not something that I'm used to.”
As part of the school’s hybrid learning model, Jensen teaches in person every day but students are divided into multiple groups — which triples her workload.
Plus, Jensen says being 27 weeks pregnant adds to her worries about getting the virus. The stress and anxiety of how getting sick could impact her pregnancy is exhausting, she says.
During the pandemic, many teachers have retired or quit their jobs because they didn't want to go back into the classroom. But Jensen says she loves her job and considers it a privilege to teach “the best kids in the world.” However, she fears whether the school district is making the right decisions.
Spacing desks six feet apart isn’t feasible in small classrooms, she says, so even with the classes at half capacity, kids are about four feet apart. On top of everyone wearing masks, teachers bleach the desks between periods and give out hand sanitizer when class starts.
Even with these precautions, the district’s most recent numbers show more than 200 positive student cases and almost 150 staff cases, she says. And now the district has confirmed its first case of school spread, she says.
Jensen doesn’t feel safe in the classroom, but she says she keeps going to work and accepts the risk because she loves the kids she teaches.
“I care about their learning and their ability to grow into these awesome citizens. I can't see myself doing anything else,” she says. “And I'm also just hopeful that this will end, that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Teachers and parents both need “grace” right now as they try to adjust to an unusual school year, she says. Parents are stressed out by remote learning and trying to protect their children — and students are feeling the pressure as well, Jensen says.
Not being able to smile at their classmates is taking an emotional toll on students, she says.
“One thing I've noticed is in years past, teachers are sort of always fighting the cross talk, kids giggling with the student next to them. And now I crave it,” she says. “I wish that kids were cross-talking and having those funny moments together that interrupt my teaching.”
At the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in the city of Wilson, special education teacher Dan Cranford says he’s seeing anxiety and depression in his students.
“[Students are] trying to learn at the same time as dealing with emotional issues and it's making for a difficult learning experience for them,” he says, “and a difficult teaching experience.”
Cranford works at a residential school, so students leave on Friday afternoon and return on Sunday evenings to stay through the week. Students are tested before they leave, when reentering the building, in the mornings and the evenings, he says.
Staff, who commute back and forth to the school, are tested in the mornings. In the classrooms, desks are six feet apart and everyone wears a mask, he says.
The protocols are working well, but Cranford says he’s feeling the weight of the extra workload. Half of his students are doing remote learning, so he’s navigating how to juggle teaching students calling in from home and kids in the classroom simultaneously.
With remote learning, Cranford says he’s noticed students regressing from not attending in-person school.
“Students learn best when they're physically in the school, especially younger students,” he says. “We went out in March and we didn't come back until August. And I'm worried about a lost year for a lot of our kids.”
For Cranford, optimism is key to getting through the pandemic. Teachers can reassure students that they will persevere through this challenging time together, he says.
“We've got to show a positive and optimistic face every day to these kids to let them know this is a problem,” he says, “but we're going to get over it.”
This segment aired on October 30, 2020.