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‘I Still Just Worry’: 3 Teachers on Covid’s Long Shadow Over American Schools

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Original article written by Kalyn Belsha, Melanie Asmar and Lori Higgins for the New York Times.

Teachers, students, families, and school administration have been faced with 2 years of disruptive pandemic schooling. First with the new challenges that began at the onset of the coronavirus in 2020, which closed school buildings and plunged teachers and families into the unknowns of remote learning. The 2020-21 school year that followed was a patchwork of remote and in-person instruction, with school districts around the country varying wildly in their policies.

Many hoped that 2021-22 would be the comeback school year, when schools would focus on recovery. The last schools that had been operating remotely fully reopened. Covid relief dollars poured into districts. The availability of vaccines for teens, and then children over 5, created hope. But just as the pandemic’s emotional and academic toll on students grew clearer last fall, staff shortages and the Omicron wave of cases brought half-empty classrooms or temporary returns to virtual learning. It’s been another year of survival and triage for school communities.

Now, as mask mandates are lifting, a new shift in schooling is underway and many are hoping to leave the pandemic in the past. But teachers like Ms. Barros are still grappling daily with issues that Covid has left in its wake, most of which defy easy solutions, “I really feel scared to say that we’ve turned a corner,” she said. “The things that we were struggling with, even outside of Covid, are just still there.” In Ms. Barros’s classroom at the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, many students require intensive support.

One boy didn’t attend a single virtual class as a sixth grader or return when the school building reopened last spring. It’s Ms. Barros’s job to keep him tethered to school. When one of Ms. Barros’s top students started having panic attacks in class, she helped come up with a plan to calm her heavy breathing. Her school has noticed an uptick in thoughts of self-harm, negative self-talk and meltdowns, and more students are asking to see the counselor.

Two years into the pandemic, teachers are experiencing extreme burn out. On top of the needs in their classrooms, teachers and their unions have faced scrutiny over school shutdowns, vaccine and mask mandates and Covid safety protocols, leading to labor strikes around the country.

Ms. Ali teaches freshman biology at Denver’s South High School, where she is also a teacher coach, an assistant track coach, and a sponsor of the dance team, Jewish Club and Black Student Alliance. She’s the kind of teacher who knows nearly everyone and will hop up on a table to help students understand a lesson.

Ms. Ali much prefers in-person teaching to what she called “the abyss” of virtual learning. Students had the option to return to classrooms part-time last spring and have been learning in person all of this school year, though Covid cases meant attendance was spotty until recently. There are signs of genuine joy in school: students giggling together in class, cranking pump-up music in the weight room and eating pizza off trays in the hallways. But Ms. Ali says her students have less academic stamina than she is used to, “I’m having more conversations with kids about not liking school,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Ali said she was getting through the curriculum, partly because the pandemic meant fewer guest speakers and field trips. But student absences because of Covid or Covid exposure have been another complication. The absences, a national challenge this year especially during the Omicron wave, pose a daily dilemma. When should teachers reteach a lesson that some students missed and when should they move on? The answers matter, as ninth-grade success is seen as a key predictor of whether a student will graduate from high school in four years. Last year, graduation rates dipped nationwide and more ninth graders fell behind on credits in some states.

Though schools in most of the country have lifted their mask mandates, Detroit district leaders are still weighing a potential change. For now, Ms. Barclay, a Kindergarten teacher, continues navigating the physical logistics as well as the emotional toll of teaching in a community that lost thousands to Covid. “How do you keep 5-year-olds socially distanced?” she said. “They love being near each other. A lot of them need that contact. They need to feel nurtured.”

Back in September, the stress of wanting to serve the students who needed her while avoiding getting sick herself got the best of Ms. Barclay, a South Carolina native who has taught in Detroit since 1999. On the school’s first in-person day, the principal, Frederick Cannon, popped his head in her classroom door before the kids arrived and asked how she was doing. Ms. Barclay burst into tears. “It was just the fear,” she says. Months later, as she was beginning to feel more comfortable, a new wave of cases disrupted everyone’s lives again.

Schools in the district went remote for weeks as the Omicron variant spread and again for winter storms, briefly severing the connection between Ms. Barclay and some of her students. A couple of children signed in daily but never turned their cameras on or responded when she called on them. Ms. Barclay remains optimistic about her students’ progress, and was grateful recently to be among a group of teachers who received recognition from the district for their work during the pandemic. She knows her students aren’t all where they should be academically, though. She has found herself reteaching lessons from the fall, like how to write words on the correct lines of their handwriting practice paper. “I’m still committed to coming in every day, trying to push and pull the greatness in and out of them,” she said. “I just still worry. How many of them are going to be prepared for first grade? I have to realize this is just what it is in the world right now, and I am doing all I can.”

This pandemic may become less acute, but its effects on schools will linger: the children coping with the death of their caregivers, the fissures that remain over how to keep kids healthy and safe, the kindergartners struggling with their ABCs, the seventh graders tamping down anxiety, the high schoolers fretting over their diplomas. Schools are now spending big on mental health programs, tutoring and other academic recovery efforts — work that is likely to stretch past the three years they have to use their federal relief funds. “Our hardest and most important work lies ahead,” the U.S. education secretary, Miguel Cardona, said recently.

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