Here’s What America’s Covid-Era Classrooms Look Like

This will be a school year unlike any other, that much is clear. Educators, parents and students across the country are returning to in-person and virtual classrooms shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for educators in 2020. Decisions on reopening are largely being made at the local level, leaving administrators to rely on conflicting guidelines from federal and state agencies or from public health experts. In some cases, the details about how to reopen are being ironed out days before students are scheduled to arrive.

Amid this confusion, teachers are doing their best to prepare in-person and virtual classrooms to keep students safe and engaged. We asked educators across the U.S. to tell us how the coronavirus is changing their classrooms.

We heard from preschool and kindergarten teachers, a middle-school principal, a choir teacher and more. Those who have started classes are excited to be back with students, but worry for their safety and their school communities.

What follows is a picture of what it is like to be an American teacher in the Covid era. The responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Ashley Allen, Sixth grade language arts teacher, Palm Coast, Fla.

I bought plastic clear shower curtains from Dollar Tree and used shower hooks to hang them from the ceiling to separate students at a table. I will be requiring masks all day for my students. I’m in a portable classroom with a back door, so I can send students out one at a time for a “mask break” if they need one.

Our school administration has been very supportive of various teachers setting up their classrooms in whatever way they feel safest. But even in teacher preplanning, it has been clear that our school is not safely prepared to reopen. Teachers and administrators are doing everything we can, but our hallways, cafeteria and classrooms are not big enough for true social distancing.

Jennifer Graves, Preschool special education teacher, North Haven, Conn.

My students are 3 to 5 years old with autism, and one of my biggest worries has been, “Will they be afraid of the P.P.E. that my district is recommending me to wear?” I hadn’t heard much discussion within our district about how our youngest learners would process seeing their teachers like this. I felt a need to show my students the smiling face behind the face mask and shield.

After I shared the video with my students’ families, one family said I looked like a doctor with the P.P.E. and their child is afraid of the doctor. Will their child be afraid of me in the classroom? It would break my heart if one of my students was afraid of me because of the P.P.E., but I know that it is the best way for me to stay safe in my classroom.

David G. Stone, Middle school choir and handbell teacher, New Albany, Ind.

I’ve made several changes to my choir and handbell classes for social distancing. Since we cannot have shared materials, I’ve added 10 extra tables with foam for the bells and each student will have their own materials.

In choir, students are singing with masks on. We are following a protocol for singing during Covid: We can sing as long as we have masks on, are spaced six feet from front to back and side to side, only sing for 30 minutes, and have the HVAC unit circulate the indoor and outdoor air at least once before the next class sings.

I have spent over $2,000 of my own money to get things for my classroom to make it safe for me and my students. I had been saving money for my choirs for uniforms, but instead had to use it for Covid changes.

Molly Mullen, eighth Grade language arts teacher, Littleton, Colo.

This is an attempt at a socially distanced setup in my classroom, but I’ve already realized I will have to change it to try and accommodate more students. Our district is following a hybrid model of part in-person, part remote instruction, and the cohorts in my classroom are different sizes depending on the day. Ideally, I’d be able to have one student at each paired desk location.

We’ll just have to see how it goes. I’m really conflicted about the whole hybrid situation. I really want it to work. I want to be in school with the kids, all of them. You feed off their energy, you get to be goofy with them and get excited. But I’m also a little terrified, for myself and my co-workers. I’m also overwhelmed.

Vanessa Humphreys, High school science teacher, mililani, Hawaii

Our school is requiring six feet of social distancing and providing hand sanitizer. Face shields are required for teachers, but a mask requirement in the classroom is up to the teacher’s discretion. We also open our windows and use a disinfecting spray.

To protect my students, I’ve added fans to increase ventilation, HEPA air purifiers in my classroom and plastic dividers. I’m providing as much E.P.A.-approved sanitizer and disinfectant as I can get my hands on, and I have a disinfecting mister for desks. It all feels like guesswork, but whatever has seemed to work for others, I try to get for my classroom.

Julianne Bird, High school anatomy and physiology teacher, Chandler, Ariz.

The school has provided me with a bottle of sanitizer, disinfectant spray and a box of gloves. I’ve been told more supplies are on their way. I wear double-layer, 100-percent cotton masks I have sewn myself. It’s hard to teach for two and a half hours with a mask on.

It’s hard to hear the soft-spoken students. I have to bend and put my ear close to them. It’s hard to manage activities when I have to wipe down all the shared equipment or tell the students to be extra mindful about not touching their faces until the activity is over and I can pass sanitizer around. It’s challenging to be told to “teach bell-to-bell” without breaks and keep students hydrated in this 115-degree heat.

Lucy Williams-Price, Kindergarten teacher, Washington, D.C.

My school is online until November, so I have set up my virtual classroom in my basement.

Key to my classroom is the document camera that allows students to watch me cut, paste, sort and glue during lessons. I can show my students how I form my letters with a pencil or marker and how to write on paper. While I will be using different programs to enhance their learning, nothing replaces real-time application and hands-on learning.

I have tried to incorporate different learning modalities throughout my lessons when in my regular classroom. With virtual teaching, it is very important to include music, movement, visual cues and tactile activities to address each child’s learning style and keep them engaged.

Molly Mackinnon, former first grade teacher, Lawrence, Kan.

While I recently decided to leave my teaching position, this is the outdoor classroom I designed. Beneath the shade of a tree, each child will have their own wooden pallet, a cloth covered hay bale with a hard drawing board for a desk, a soft mat and buckwheat pillow for seating.

The pallets and hay bales, besides giving the children clear spatial boundaries, also allow movement — like jumping during counting or mimicking animals in stories — to be integrated into our classes. There will be an outdoor hand-washing station nearby for regular hygiene practice. All of the classroom materials I scavenged from somewhere, including pallets from beverage distributors.

Ian Malmstrom, Middle school social studies teacher, Colona, Ill.

So far I have only purchased extra writing utensils since students won’t be able to share pencils or use the sharpener. Any precautions I would take, other than starting full remote, are required for us anyway, such as wearing masks, frequently sanitizing and maintaining distance when possible. I considered not teaching this year, but reluctantly decided to come back.

Teachers have been understanding about the health guidelines, but it can be frustrating trying to teach with them. The masks make it difficult to see students’ facial expressions. Students can collaborate with Chromebooks and Google Apps, but can’t work in close groups like they have in the past.

The consensus among our teachers is that it’s a matter of time before we go back to remote only.

Veronica Munaretto, Second grade special education teacher, Cook County, Ill.

While I am able to use my actual classroom if needed, I plan on using my corner classroom for most of my remote learning. Therefore I wanted to create a space that felt welcoming and included items from my classroom that would be familiar, to make a future transition back to the classroom easier.

From my classroom, I brought home any activity that can be done with me holding items up to the screen for students to view and respond to, like cards for sorting words based on vowel sounds, flashcards for math and language arts, a large clock and three dimensional shapes. I also brought home multiple picture books to use for reading aloud. These will be read throughout the school day, live and recorded.

Matt Roll, Middle School Teacher and Principal, Tucson, Ariz.

We are strongly advising our families to stay home and practice distance learning. However, we know that is not an option for all students. That is why we spent our summer making changes to our classrooms, procedures and technology to make our school as safe and engaging as possible for those choosing in-person instruction.

All of our students come from working-class homes. At least half of them do not have a parent at home during the day, so if we shut down, they would be put in day care. We strongly believe that it is better for students to be with us than in day care, given the tremendous amount of thought we’ve put into children’s safety and education.

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