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I’m a Kindergarten Teacher & I Need to Stay Alive, for Your Kids’ Sake

Jennifer Dare

In the early days of the pandemic, when family members and children were just beginning to create a time and space for distance learning, a tweet from Shonda Rhimes went viral. Ms. Rhimes shared, “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

And, for a brief moment, it seemed that people throughout the nation finally realized and understood the invaluable work of teachers as they maneuvered Zoom meetings and Google classroom streams alongside their child. The curtain was pulled back for caregivers to observe the many roles we as teachers embody over the course of a school day, from storytellers and musicians to mathematicians and counselors.

Educators have endured the challenges of planning, teaching and assessing through remote learning, when we had only a few days to transform and innovate our physical classrooms to virtual ones. Many teachers also perform the impossible balancing act of collaborating in their own children’s distance learning and caring for family members, all the while taking the necessary precautions and safety measures to stay alive and well. As difficult as remote learning was for both teachers, students, and families, we were all working toward a common goal: keeping each other safe at home. By staying apart, we made the commitment to keep the virus from spreading to one another.

Now, as confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to soar throughout our country, the powers that be have called for children to return to school in-person. The CDC’s report, “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” asserts that, “Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school.”

And yes, as someone who is entering her 14th year as an early elementary school teacher, I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I worry especially about how this pandemic is affecting the social-emotional development of young children who, for the most part, haven’t been able to imagine, take turns, or collaborate with their friends face-to-face for months.

We want to be back in school as much as all of you. But there is so much about the learning experiences your child finds joy, delight, and comfort in that will be drastically different, because we are not only keeping your children safe; we are keeping ourselves safe. I keep imagining the first day of school for my kindergarten students. Picture dropping off your 4, 5, or soon-to-be-6 year old in some prearranged, staggered schedule at the front door because you won’t be allowed in, due to restrictions to the school building’s capacity and social distancing guidelines. Through a meandering of hallways or climbing of stairs, they will somehow make their way from the lobby to their new classroom, perhaps encouraged on by teachers spread out among these thoroughfares. They’re possibly scared, anxious, and sad between the shock of a new building, many individuals in masks, and the unknown that lies ahead.

By the time they reach me in my classroom, they might need a comforting hug because they miss their grown-ups. They might become so overwhelmed by the combination of stress of leaving their caretaker after months at home and the fear of being with a stranger, this brand new teacher in a mask, that they run from the classroom or sob inconsolably. How do we as teachers make the impossible choice between breaching social distance to provide safe and comforting contact for a scared small child — and protecting ourselves and our loved ones at home?

Teachers are no strangers to creating and maintaining safe environments for learning, both physically and emotionally. While creating a room arrangement that features open and inviting spaces for children to learn, play, and socialize, I am simultaneously designating our shelter-in-place area and making a mental note of which pieces of classroom furniture I would use to barricade my room. Most of my classroom teaching takes place on a colorful rug, where we can gather to sing songs, enjoy stories, and engage in meaningful discussions. Children freely move in and out of play centers, and work at a variety of tables, benches, and rug areas around the classroom as they engage in writing, math, and reading work.

But if we are all to stay safe in school, the structures that have defined the rhythm and routine of classrooms must be modified or eliminated. Your child will most likely be sitting at a desk by themselves, in the same spot, in the same room, for the majority of the day. In fact, your child may not even be with all of the other members of their class, because classes will be divided into halves or thirds to allow for safe distancing. All of the important work of collaborating and playing with a partner, growing ideas and deepening thoughts in small groups, or having those treasured one-on-one moments with a teacher will be on pause. Will a socially distanced, in-person school program be even more frustrating to children than seeing their friends through the screen on Zoom? To be close enough to touch, play, and talk, but to refrain and keep several feet away?

One of the main arguments for sending children back to school is that most children, miraculously and thankfully, have been less seriously affected by COVID-19 than adults. But what about the teachers, then? I combed through the CDC report for evidence and reassurance that our well-being, safety, and health was also being addressed. Yet teachers as a group are mentioned a mere seven times in the CDC report, which is downright astounding given our essential roles in schools. We are schools.

The CDC asserts that “based on current data, the rate of infection among younger school children, and from student to teachers, has been especially low, especially if proper precautions are followed.” It is not lost on me at all that there are no data sources specifically cited for that claim. While cloth face coverings are recommended for students and teachers, the CDC also acknowledges several paragraphs later that face coverings might be challenging for younger children.

I’m a kindergarten teacher, so I have already imagined all of the possible scenarios of masks gone awry in my classroom, from masks being reimagined as hats, necklaces and slingshots, traded and exchanged for different designs at lunch, or accidentally dropped in the toilet. Just for a moment, let’s imagine that young children don’t have to wear masks. A charming fact about early elementary school teachers: We encounter bodily fluids more than you can probably imagine. In preschool and kindergarten especially, we are usually the first ones to provide instruction to children on how to cough, sneeze, and blow their noses in a safe and hygienic manner. Just visualize that meme you’ve all seen about kids coughing like cats, and then multiply it by 24 or 30 to get an idea of how quickly respiratory droplets might spread on a daily basis in a classroom.

I, like many of my early elementary teacher friends, have been sneezed on or coughed on — directly in the face, and on a few unfortunate occasions, into an open mouth. Our masks will only protect us so much if all children are not masked as well. Moreover, teachers throughout our country already struggle to keep their classrooms stocked with tissues, hand sanitizer, soaps, and wipes, frequently purchased with their own money. If professional baseball teams that have millions upon millions of dollars to invest in PPE can’t even keep COVID from spreading to players, how can we possibly expect that schools will stop the spread?

There is also inherent risk for all of the teachers, students, and families who rely on public transportation to travel to and from school. I live in Queens, where, as of right now as I compose this piece, we have finally flattened our curve after months of heart-wrenching loss against the backdrop of wailing ambulances and refrigerated trucks. I haven’t ridden the subway since March 13. I still don’t know how I am going to be able to board a train again to ride the 45 minutes to an hour to my school every morning, and home every night.

Because many city residents still have the option, and privilege, of working from home, subway ridership in NYC has drastically decreased. On Tuesday, July 28, there were an estimated 1,237,702 riders; that’s a -77.5% decrease from a weekday average. If schools move forward with hybrid learning, ridership will naturally increase, leading to potentially crowded train cars and buses where it’s physically impossible to socially distance. One has to trust that each person will be properly masked on that train car, but that’s not a guarantee, given the politicization of, ignorance about, and even lack of access to masks.

I transfer to a different subway line halfway through my commute, which means another setting for potential exposure, all before I arrive at my kindergarten classroom in the morning. Many teachers, faculty, staff, and students have no choice but to take public transportation; we don’t live within walking distance of our schools, nor do we own and drive cars. So in each ride and every transfer, there is the possibility of not only bringing the virus to school, but also carrying it home to partners, children, and other family members who might be at a higher risk.

I always tell my students that my number-one job is to keep them safe. Yes, a large portion of my job is creating joyful and engaging learning experiences, carefully monitoring their progress with thoughtful informal and formal assessments, and ensuring that they have a wealth of opportunities to play, imagine, and cooperate with one another. But teachers, above all else, keep their students safe. We provide the comfort and support in acts of teasing, bullying, or hatred, as well as the skills and strategies to assist them in advocating and standing up for themselves and others. We pass out stuffies for our kids to hug and nuzzle during active shooter drills. We reach into our toolkits of band-aids, calming jars, and breathing techniques when hurt, anger, or sadness envelops their bodies and minds.

Because of the threat of COVID-19, it becomes that much more difficult to keep everyone at school safe. This is a novel coronavirus — there is still so much unknown about how children might transmit the virus to teachers, how teachers might transmit it to their students, how children transmit it to one another, and how teachers might spread it to each other. If you have read any of the obituaries of the seemingly healthy infants, children, and young adults who have been lost to this virus, you have to acknowledge that no matter what, there is risk for everyone.

I don’t have any underlying health conditions that would put me at a higher risk for severe complications for COVID-19. But neither did fellow New Yorker Nick Cordero, a young dad who recently passed away due to such exact complications. And if I allow myself to delve into my greatest fear, and one I think many teachers have also, it is that I will catch this virus. And what if I infect my students? My grade level colleagues? A fellow commuter on my daily subway rides?

I’m lucky that I live alone and would not put any family members at risk. But who would take care of me if I get sick? Who is going to be the one to tell my students, their families, and my friends, let alone my own family, if the virus claims my life? Are families prepared to help hold space for their children to grieve the loss of a teacher, or even a classmate? Are we willing to risk the potential deaths of teachers, students, and family members just so that we can have the faintest hint of normalcy?

If these questions fill you with terror, dread, fear, and anxiety, then you’ve just received just the smallest glimpse into the state of many teachers’ minds since the pandemic began. I have the faith and hope that we will be together again, that we can reinvigorate our classrooms with all of the wonderful rhythms, routines, and materials that our children hold so dear, that we will fill in the academic gaps in the time we’ve spent safely apart.

But we can’t do any of that if we’ve already perished.

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