As Classrooms Refill, Teachers Relive A Year Of Anticipation — And Anger

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Thousands of Massachusetts classrooms will begin to refill with students starting next week.

And while many teachers are excited to return to something like normal, they also harbor anger and frustration about the politics of the past year.

Adam Stahl teaches eighth grade science at Lynnfield Middle School, and he speaks for many educators when he says that he won't miss the many frustrations of remote learning.

His school has been following a hybrid and concurrent model since October, meaning Stahl would teach half of his students in a socially distanced classroom and half over teleconferencing software. It wasn't a picnic.

"If I've got 12, 13, 14 Zoomers — my digital students — I might have one with their camera on," Stahl said. "Maybe you get their eyes — and the top of their head?"

Science teacher Adam Stahl in his classroom at Lynnfield Middle School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Science teacher Adam Stahl in his classroom at Lynnfield Middle School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Twelve years ago, Stahl came to teaching from the theater. He loves the work — especially the personal, improvisational part of it. "And if I'm seeing 15 black squares," he says, "it really decreases my ability to do anything spontaneous!”

But Stahl also has asthma. His wife teaches, too, at the college level. And the couple have two young children. So Stahl put real effort into the search for a vaccine appointment, only to be thwarted for the first week or so after teachers were made eligible. (He finally got his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine at a CVS location on March 21.)

His second shot won’t be until mid-April. But already, his mind is turning to more mundane problems. Like, how’s a full, socially distanced classroom going to work? Because of the cohorting system, the two groups of students have never really been in the same classroom together.

Stahl says he's wondering how they'll cope with a "wacky" floor plan made to maintain three feet of distance between students, and whether he should act as if it's the beginning of the school year and lead with team-building and icebreakers.

Nearly all of the state’s public elementary schools will need to reopen fully by April 5, according to state regulation. But Lynnfield will go one step further: reopening all of its schools, from kindergarten to high school, by that date.

Like many school districts, Lynnfield has seen a worrying new uptrend in new case counts. In a Mar. 25 letter to staff and students, district superintendent Kristen Vogel wrote that she has observed "a significant increase in COVID cases within our school buildings," due, she suggested, to families failing to keep symptomatic children home. Vogel says there are no plans to move back the reopening date past April 5.

Stahl has been dismayed by the way officials from the local to state level have managed the crisis and the campaign of vaccination. He even takes issue with the phrase "reopening schools": "School’s been open since September," he says. "Teachers have been doing their jobs. It’s the buildings that haven’t necessarily been open.”

He says he’s tried to make the most of the past year’s transitions, and to keep an optimistic attitude. But like many other teachers, he’s built up a well of bitterness.

Last spring, he says, teachers were applauded for pivoting to online learning with COVID-19 at its most frightening. Within a few months, he went on, they were scapegoats again: accused of laziness, selfishness, of putting vulnerable people at risk.

In Stahl's view, Gov. Charlie Baker's administration made teachers eligible for vaccination belatedly and only when pushed by President Biden, then seemed to pair that decision with the forced reopening of schools, in a way that struck him and several colleagues as "punitive."

He bristled especially when, earlier this month,  Baker suggested that teachers’ unions were trying to ‘cut the line’ in the quest for vaccines — even as case numbers were climbing again and the reopening dates loomed.

On a recent school day, all of Stahl’s remote students were working offline. It was a revelation: “For the first time since the start of the pandemic, I only taught the students in front of me. It was fantastic.”

So he is happy and hopeful about a return to rewarding work. But he's unhappy about what it took to get there. It’s a common kind of ambivalence in the teaching ranks, befitting a very strange year.

This segment aired on March 29, 2021.


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Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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