Story by DARIENNE DEBRULE
The emotional and physical health of students has been at the forefront of the discussion surrounding the reopening of Utah schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers across the state are also struggling to adapt to the changes caused by the pandemic.
In the summer the Utah State Board of Education did not require school districts to create protocols for responding to the virus. Each district was expected to create its own plan, which resulted in Salt Lake City School District moving to online classes completely, 16 districts moving to a split schedule and 25 other districts allowing students to attend in-person as normal, according to AP News.
The coronavirus pandemic and lack of instruction by the districts made it so individual schools were expected to provide training to teachers regarding online instruction. However, the amount of instruction actually given was dependent on school administration and teacher coaches, said Amber Rogers, Corner Canyon High School government and history teacher, who teaches both online and in-person sections.
Teachers had to change the way they prepared for the upcoming school year since many districts opted for hybrid learning. So they had to get ready for in-person classes and were also expected to become well-versed in online instruction seemingly overnight.
“A lot of teachers were on the verge of a breakdown,” Rogers said during a Zoom interview.
Many teachers, including Karen Millenbach at Indian Hills Middle School, frantically tried to convert their lessons onto Canvas in the allotted time before the school year.
“It’s exhausting, even for the most experienced tech people,” Millenbach said in an email interview.
Teachers have also been limited in their interactions with students. This has led to many educators feeling disappointed because they are unable to give their students the same quality of instruction and support as before.
The quality of online instruction has been questioned as many believe it is subpar to in-person instruction and that there is no substitute for in-person learning, according to “Pros and Cons of Online Education” by Dhirenda Kumar.
Rogers said over Zoom that in-person learning allows for teachers to teach a lesson and have students ask clarifying questions throughout the lesson. However, if online instruction does not take place through that platform, teachers are expected to just upload online lectures. This does not allow for students to ask real-time questions.
“Every day I have office hours during my class time, but it’s optional and only a few kids come online for content,” Rogers said. “Learning is on them right now.”
Rogers said she believes the lack of engagement from her high school students is the hardest part about teaching in this new normal. She became a teacher to help kids connect the pieces together that make them excited and passionate. But she wants to keep them safe so she will do whatever needs to be done.
Rogers was the Canyons School District’s Teacher of the Year recipient in 2018 and she is doing everything she can to help her students be successful in this unprecedented time.
Teachers are finding different ways to keep themselves safe inside the classroom, but some of their precautions can be hard for them emotionally.
“Teaching from my desk can be a very sad and frustrating thing,” said Millenbach, the teacher at Indian Hills Middle School.
Due to the size of her classroom, students can only be placed 3 feet apart. After having a student test positive for COVID-19 and other students rotating in and out of quarantine, she decided to teach from her desk to avoid circulating around the classroom to prevent the possible spread of the virus.
While online teachers are not faced with the same in-person pressures of avoiding a COVID-19 classroom outbreak, they are still struggling to create relationships with their students via online platforms.
Natalie Culine, an online elementary student teacher, said in a Zoom interview, “It is hard to be so far from my students, know they are struggling and not be able to offer as much support as I would like.”
In addition to the hardships online teaching has created, teachers have also been subject to the mental and emotional stress caused by the pandemic.
A few weeks after schools first closed, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence reported that many teachers were experiencing overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, and confusion — the same feelings that many are currently having.
“When our school days are over I feel emotionally exhausted and worn down,” Culine said in a FaceTime interview.
She misses the in-person interactions with colleagues and students, but said she would not feel safe if she was teaching in person.
In-person teachers also have to deal with the emotional stress caused by being at a high risk for exposure to the virus.
Rogers said she has not been able to visit her parents since the start of the pandemic because they have underlying health conditions and she is exposed in the classroom.
Political leaders and community members have debated whether it is the federal government’s, the state’s, the district’s, or individuals’ responsibility to keep teachers safe.
Rogers, the social science teacher, drew on her knowledge of government to reflect on the debate and said, “It’s a constitutional gray area because there is no precedent for it.”
Teachers across the state will continue to follow the guidelines set in place by the health department, school districts, and administration as the United States enters flu season.