A puzzle. Not just any puzzle, but one of those puzzles with 1,000 tiny pieces – maybe 5,000. To top it off, you’re blindfolded while putting it together. That’s what this new school year has been like so far.
Whether it was preparing to teach in a hybrid schedule designed to reduce my school’s daily student population by 50% or organizing my family’s daily life around my daughter’s own hybrid school schedule, the process was akin to piecing together a huge jigsaw puzzle with a gazillion pieces, many of which you can’t even see.
My family just completed its first week of school in the COVID age. My daughter was home on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week and was in an actual school classroom on Thursday and Friday. My wife (also a teacher) and I were in school every day. This is another four-day week, but next week will be our first five-day school week – one more puzzle piece with a full remote day sandwiched in on Wednesday.
Don’t even bother to ask what happens if we experience a spike in COVID rates in either of our schools; we choose not to think about that now.
The myriad pieces of teaching in the hybrid were first identified by our school’s administrators over the summer: What would a daily hybrid schedule look like? Which students will attend school on what days? How will students transition every day from buses to classrooms? How will hallway traffic patterns change? Where do we place hundreds of kids during lunch? What about bathroom breaks? Mask breaks? Mental-health breaks? And on and on.
Notice, we haven’t even mentioned teaching and learning. My first four days provide one teacher’s experience with that.
My classroom can safely accommodate a maximum of 19 masked students. The hybrid schedule ensures my largest in-person class comprises only 15 students. My own space – my “teaching command center,” as I like to call it – is located in a corner, about 10 feet from the closest student desk, and includes two computers: a desktop for interacting “synchronously” (that’s eduspeak for “simultaneously”) with my students at home on Google Meet and a laptop for providing electronic information for each lesson.
Surprisingly, the first day proceeded without a hitch. I moved seamlessly between my in-person and online students, shared informational notes and short videos electronically, and had positive interactions with “my kids.” I left school that day feeling like the King of Education in COVID Times.
It didn’t last.
On the second day, audio feedback and a frozen desktop caused me to dismiss one Google Meet prematurely, electronic documents made inaccessible by human error (mine) eliminated a portion of another lesson, and a light rain created outdoor mask breaks more uncomfortable than wearing masks. Days three and four saw additional glitches and challenges that turned the King of Education in COVID Times into the Chump of Educational Change.
I’m being melodramatic, but my primary takeaway from Week One is clear: Teaching in a COVID-influenced environment presents constant trials – puzzle pieces – that will be extremely difficult to fashion into one cohesive teaching puzzle. In short, switching back and forth between live and remote students while being chained to my “teaching command center” is not a sustainable situation. The saving grace through all of this has been two groups of people: our administrators with their foresight and meticulous planning and my students with their positive and helpful demeanor – typical of the kids in my school.
Teaching amidst a pandemic is not the only multi-piece puzzle out there now. Parenting is another. How in the world do parents – especially those who, you know, have jobs – organize the pieces that include transportation, daycare, monitoring remote learning, homework, etcetera, etcetera? The situation is particularly distressing and unfair for working moms who, let’s face it, have never had it easy.
“Being a working mother is so hard,” explains a family friend and neighbor. “On most days, one side of your life thrives at the expense of the other. You can’t show up for your kids and family in the way that you want to because of your job. Or you can’t show up for your job in the way that you need to because you have family and parenting obligations. This has always been true.”
And then the pandemic hit.
“The tension that has always existed between work life and home life has intensified to the point where you literally cannot do both well,” she adds. “I have a career that allows flexibility with scheduling and working from home, and I have still felt completely overwhelmed this week. I cannot imagine how someone could do this without that flexibility.”
Thankfully, this friend and her family have been exceedingly helpful to my own family as we try to solve the puzzle. We reciprocate, of course, with as much support as possible. Several local families, in fact, have organized a “pod” that attends to the needs of everyone involved, a circumstance that provides the biggest lesson of the back-to-school-during-COVID conundrum: With the social safety net in shreds, it is the resourcefulness and selflessness of friends and neighbors that have enabled many families to subsist – to put the puzzle pieces together.
But pieces remain unattended. The puzzle is simply too big, and the current situation – whether it involves schooling or parenting – is ultimately untenable. The kindness of students, colleagues, friends, and neighbors can go only so far. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that our social infrastructure was not adequately prepared to deal with a prolonged crisis. The question is, will we truly heed that lesson once the pandemic is gone?
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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