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Big Story 10

Teachers, parents, students scramble as U.S. schools reopen

DURHAM, North Carolina (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The impossible task of being a teacher and a parent during a pandemic is enough to break a person, and on the Sunday before the first day of school in Durham, North Carolina, it almost did.

Sitting at the white kitchen table in her split-level home in a verdant, hilly neighborhood, seventh-grade English teacher Anca Stefan’s eyes welled up with tears as she thought about the days ahead.

She spent the last two weeks scrambling to learn how to use Zoom videoconferencing, getting up to speed on the state’s online learning platform, and figuring out how to translate her in-person lessons for a virtual classroom.

But she has wondered if academic rigor was really what kids need at a time when many of their lives were turned upside down.

To do her job, Stefan has turned her kitchen into her classroom and the table into her desk, against the backdrop of a sink stacked with dishes and a refrigerator covered with family photos.

Down the hall is a bedroom filled with stuffed animals, and home to a pet gerbil named Giblet, that will be the classroom for Stefan’s bubbly 8-year-old daughter Eliza, who goes by Ellie.

The bedroom, which will be used for remote learning at least for the first nine weeks of the school year, has been readied with a squat wooden table for a desk, a black Google Chromebook and a cup full of colored markers.

While some parents might be able to help their children find their way through this new and unusual school year, Stefan will be busy with her 110 students.

“SUPER VULNERABLE”

The hope is the two will be able to have lunch together, but with the flood of emails and requests for technical help Stefan receives throughout the day it seems unlikely.

“We’re not feeling confident right now, we’re feeling super vulnerable,” Stefan, a single mother, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She said she worries about what is missing in her daughter’s life and who Ellie will lean on when she feels lost or confused.

“(Ellie) doesn’t have her people any more, her friends, her teachers, and it breaks my heart,” said Stefan as her tears spilled over and rolled down her cheeks.

She said she too feels lost, isolated from other teachers and colleagues after almost 13 years on the job.

Yet in some sense, they are the lucky ones.

In Transylvania County in western North Carolina, some 260 miles away, the district opted for a Plan B re-opening, which allows schools to re-open for in-person teaching with social distancing, staggered attendance and a slate of health precautions.

Teachers there are struggling to be sources of support for students but worry about safety - the number of statewide cases has passed 167,000, with more than 2,700 deaths.

“I’m not on a ventilator yet,” joked Josh Tinsley, a high school English teacher and board member of the Transylvania County Association of Educators, the local teachers’ organization.

“I’ve come to learn that there will always be some level of uncertainty,” he said.

“I don’t necessarily fear for myself, and it’s not that I don’t believe I won’t get it, but in regards to students I have real concern about the impact on them and the impact on their families.”

TEACHERS’ DILEMMA

As schools face re-opening across the country, teachers are caught in a vice - being forced back into the classroom, risking spread of the novel coronavirus, or teaching remotely, feeling inadequate trying to reach students through videoconferencing.

In July, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced that the state’s 115 public school districts could follow a Plan B re-opening, allowing in-person teaching with reduced class sizes and various health protocols.

Districts could also opt for Plan C, which allows schools to utilize remote teaching for at least the first quarter of the academic year.

Most districts chose the latter, which proved its challenges on the first day of school when the statewide online teaching platform crashed.

About four dozen districts, according to a database maintained by the North Carolina School Board Association, chose Plan B to allow some in-person teaching.

A spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s school system, did not answer emailed requests for comment. Neither did a representative for the Durham schools.

Educators say they are concerned about how missing school will affect students in the long term.

“There’s quite a bit of evidence that in periods where kids have not been able to go to school at all, like summer or in other natural disasters, that students did suffer,” said Emiliana Vegas, a senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.

“These impacts aren’t just in the short term, but also are reflected in lifetime earnings and other indicators.”

While quantifying the impact of lengthy virtual or distance learning is hard to measure, educators and researchers agree that the pandemic will most affect students, districts and schools on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder that already struggle with fewer resources, less adequate facilities and a lower quality of education.

Technological inequalities already hinder poorer students and schools trying to secure resources like equipment and high-speed internet access, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.

REOPENING ISSUES

But the pressing issue now is how reopening schools is a huge responsibility being placed upon teachers, she said.

“It’s not an overstatement to say we’ve put the reopening of the American economy on the backs of America’s teachers,” Anderson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even when schools closed their doors in March, teachers took on roles delivering food and helping connect families with rent support and eviction prevention, all the while teaching remotely, she said.

One concern for many educators and experts is how teachers and school districts will attend to students’ psychological needs when the children are isolated from friends and possibly watching family members fall ill, be hospitalized or die.

Prior to the pandemic, a growing number of schools were practicing social-emotional learning (SEL), which seems all the more critical now, said Stefan.

“The question is what is the most meaningful contribution that I, as an adult guide and mentor, can provide for my students who are very raw and very green and being constantly rattled and shaken by a world in crisis,” Stefan said.

Tinsley said he is considering starting group meditation with his students to help them address emotional issues.

Abby Schachner, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, an education research and policy organization in Washington that focuses on SEL, said the pandemic could hasten the process in which schools are incorporating emotional health issues into their teaching and programs.

“This could take place in advisory meetings, and using these spaces to check in on how kids are doing but also teach strategies for managing emotions,” Schachner said.

For middle and high school students, she said, keeping a journal is a way to “reflect and process and talk through coping strategies and what they can do about the feelings they’re having.”

Daycare providers have been hit hard as well, struggling to stay afloat as parents opt to keep their young children at home.

NUMBERS DOWN

Enrolment at Cassandra Brooks’ two Little Believer’s childcare centers in the suburbs of Raleigh has fallen by almost two-thirds since the outbreak began.

“Like a snap of the finger there was major change,” Brooks said.

Most people pulled their children out fearing infection, but some children remained, particularly those whose parents were essential workers such as healthcare and transportation employees.

Before the children are allowed to enter the daycare centers, their temperatures are taken and parents let workers know if they have had a fever, cough or runny nose.

Inside her daycare center closest to Raleigh, housed in a red brick building that doubles as a church, the playroom is lined with a rainbow-hued carpet and filled with toys, but large pillows and other soft items that are hard to clean are gone.

Brooks said she has spent thousands of dollars on cleaning supplies and equipment, air purifiers and ultraviolet lights that are supposed to kill COVID-19.

At first she said she received money from the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program set up to help small businesses, but those funds ran out at the end of July.

The bills piled up after one child tested positive, and she was forced to close her doors and pay a cleaning crew $1,400 to scrub before she could reopen.

Brooks has 19 instructors, down from 24 after five quit over safety worries.

Brooks said she had seen an uptick in enrolment as some teachers return to school and need childcare, and also a bump in after-school program attendance.

“You can do everything you can to follow the protocols to be sure you keep a clean space, but you don’t know what anyone is doing outside of your space,” she said.

“It’s like you’re on a seesaw, and you’re hoping it’s going to balance back out,” she said. “Little did I realize that this is a journey, this isn’t going to let up anytime soon.”

In Durham, the school system stayed with virtual classrooms after an outcry by teachers, but the district will reassess its plans beyond the first quarter.

“If I’m in class with the kids, whatever that class looks like, I’m going to take care of them,” Stefan said. “I’m going to share whatever knowledge and expertise I have and I’m going to make them feel like their time is helping them to grow and improve and to ground themselves emotionally.

“When I’m not in class I’m going to continue fighting for them.”

This story is part of a series of photo essays called COVID-19: THE BIGGER PICTURE here

Reporting by Lynsey Weatherspoon and Zachary Fagenson, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith and Ellen Wulfhorst; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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