We Asked, They Answered: Teachers' Candid Thoughts On Returning To School

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Paper human likeness representing global pandemic concept
Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty

Teachers are superheroes. They bust their butts to prepare our kids for their futures, and being a teacher is a difficult job in the most ideal circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic required that schools shut down this past spring, and educators had to quickly adapt to remote-teaching their students. Now that back-to-school planning is in full-swing, with some districts already issuing their plans, our teachers are on the front lines of what feels like a losing battle.

Scary Mommy talked to several teachers about how they are feeling about returning to school in a few short weeks. What does teaching in the midst of a public health crisis mean? What impact will in-person and remote education have on physical and mental health? And how in the world will teachers be able to effectively do their jobs with all of the requirements, including masks, alternative schedules, and social distancing? Many teachers are parents themselves and like the rest of us are scrambling to decide what’s best for their own children. Teachers have always been overworked and underpaid, but now they’re being asked to put their own health and families on the line for the sake of educating their students.

Some parents have expressed that children need to go back to in-person learning. After all, socialization is important. Some have seen a decline in their children’s mental health since quarantining. Other parents are concerned that their kids with special needs aren’t receiving all of the educational opportunities they are entitled to, because these cannot be carried out in full via distance-learning. Other kids are preparing to graduate high school, and parents are worried that their children are missing out on the full experience of a typical senior year, including internships, scholarships, and honors classes. All of these are legitimate concerns, but what we found is that teachers primary care about the physical health and safety of themselves and the students they love. While some parents have the privilege of opting to keep their children home, either by distance-learning or homeschooling, this isn’t a realistic option for many working parents.

J, an elementary substitute teacher in Michigan, told Scary Mommy that teachers will have the anxiety of helping the kids stay healthy, including washing hands and social distancing. “I believe it will be extra challenging trying to teach kids who have the added distraction of wearing masks, especially kids in the lower elementary.” The day-to-day arduous task of reminding kids to wash their hands for twenty seconds, stop touching their masks, and staying six feet away from one another is going to be downright exhausting, and if we’re honest, impossible to perfectly execute. If younger students cannot follow the health requirements, aren’t they risking carrying the virus home to their families and to their educators?

J, a preschool classroom assistant in Minnesota, shared, that “kids need to be together physically to benefit the true dynamic of preschool.” However, as an employee, she worries if she has to be quarantined for fourteen days. How will she get paid? When she considers school from a parent’s perspective, she says she would want the socialization, schedule, and routine for kids, but at what cost? She shared, “Health and safety have to come first.” We couldn’t agree more.

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C is a high school Spanish teacher who describes herself as “very nervous” about returning to school. She added she understands why parents want their children to be in-class learning, as online learning was a strain on many families. However, “our lives are suddenly being put at risk by going into the classroom and interacting with two-thousand-plus students and indirectly, their families. The costs don’t outweigh the benefits in my mind.” She also shared, “I’m surprised and upset that schools are willing to risk the deaths of students, staff, and their families for the sake of in-person instruction.” There’s so much we still don’t know about the virus, so her sentiments regarding the risk is valid.

D teaches high school special education in Illinois and shared that she’s beginning to understand how healthcare workers must feel. She said, “They wake up to leave their families to work in an unsafe environment.” She feels anxious and scared, but also excited to do the job she loves. She’s missed her students. However, she shared, “I kind of feel like we are test dummies (for Trump).” She acknowledges that school is the safe place for many students, an important point. Schools can be shelters for children who come from households that cannot fully meet their needs for food, supervision, and support.

L teaches at-risk high school students and feels “torn” on returning to the classroom. He shared that “my heart wants to go back but my brain says otherwise.” He added, “I feel for parents and students who are struggling with e-learning and those with disabilities whose services are not being fully met. I hope we can work together to find a solution that works best for all.” His district has yet to release their plans for fall, which is similar to many districts across the country who are trying to keep up with the constant changes in guidelines, while also keeping an eye on the number of local COVID cases.

S, an intermediate elementary teacher who has an at-risk health condition, told Scary Mommy that teachers “love our students and will continue to do what’s best for them. However, we shouldn’t have to choose between our health and safety or educating.” She also said that she believes there are currently not “enough resources or research at this time to ensure that in-person instruction would be safe for all people involved.”

We also asked a public school nurse what her thoughts were about going back to school. Her response, “If we start school in person, we are putting our kids and staff at risk. If we do remote learning, the At-Risk kids become even more at risk. There just isn’t an easy answer.”

We reached out to many educators, some of whom replied that they weren’t able to give a response, even with our promise of anonymity. Their superintendents and other “higher ups” made it clear that they didn’t want their teachers sharing their feelings and experiences online. How sad is it that teachers, the people who do the essential work of educating children, are being shushed? Does their health, their experience, and their own family situations not matter?

The more teachers we talked to, the clearer it became that there are no easy answers. We’re in a collective damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t situation. Teachers want their students (and themselves) to be safe. What does that mean, exactly? No one seems to know. What I am certain of is that teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world, and right now, they could really use our support, not our criticism.

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