Pandemic Teaching: Living the Worst Case Scenario but Imagining Something Better

I’ve heard it said of the pandemic that it didn’t have to be like this: if we had taken different steps at the very start, we would have neither the death toll nor the economic disaster we’ve seen the past few months. 

I have been teaching for 9 days so far this school year. Nine days of three preps, six classes a day, all of them in two modes simultaneously: socially-distanced (sort-of) face-to-face in class, and online teaching (ironically named LIVE!). In my smallest class, there are about seven in class and two on the computer. In my largest, there are 19 in class and 13 on the computer. I have three students who went from face-to-face to online because they’ve been quarantined. We’ll see how many more students that happens to. 

I am cheerful, humorous, and, I hope, engaging to both audiences. I am doing my best. I am trying very hard not to let the cracks show. But this is really, really hard. I teach my students about attention, and how multitasking is actually a myth. What you are actually doing when you multitask is “task-switch” from one task to another, usually rapidly, in a way that means you are not giving any one task your full attention. I have never experienced this fact as vividly as am now.

I realize that “normal” classroom teaching is multi-tasking, or rather, continuous rapid task switching. In 2014 I did a strip about that very fact. 

But now, now we can add keeping track of mask-wearing, keeping track of sanitizing desks and computers between classes, closing out one class-call on Teams and starting the next one, making sure the right bell-ringer information is being projected on the screen in class and posted to the chat in Teams, as well taking careful attendance in both modalities and keeping scrupulous seating charts for contact-tracing. And being a little weirded out that I am in a room with about 20 students in it half the day – 20 students who simply cannot be socially distanced. I’m super careful with my mask. I have an air purifier. Fear still exists though, pulsing up from my lizard brain from below the level of conscious thought. 

I’ll say this: my students are wonderful. They are great about wearing masks. They are well-behaved. So it could be a lot worse. But they are also, I think, dealing with my divided attention, with their own fears, with being new to high school, with having been out of school for six months. Because of these and other reasons, getting class discussion going has been difficult. They may be afraid to speak for fear of spreading the virus. I can’t blame them. But in any case – doing the things that usually work in my class – pair/share, small group discussion, writing groups – aren’t allowable now. 

But all of that exposition is just a prelude to this fact: It didn’t have to be this way.

There are so many ways this could have been different. We could have done an AB schedule that separated students into two groups, A and B, that came on alternating days. On their home days, students could have been given work to do and come back with it the following day. Instantly, we would have had half-size classes and virtually no need to send anyone online. 

We could have divided online and face-to-face students between teachers. Some teachers could have been devoted to just teaching on their computers, in their classrooms all day, with purely online classes. Other teachers could have been face-to-face all day. It would have taken more work up-front, but that work would have been over with quickly, and it would have been less work for teachers every single day of every single week until this pandemic ends. 

We could have gone all online for everyone. This would honestly be my least favorite, but probably the absolute safest for everyone. I was getting used to teaching online last spring. I could have made it work. 

I suppose we could have just asked everyone to come back to school and hoped for the best. 

But we didn’t do any of that. Now a lot of students are off taking virtual school (I think – there were problems getting it started in my district). And at school, most of us are teaching in two modalities at once, but also dealing with more students in class than feels safe.  It’s the worst of both worlds: I don’t feel safe from the virus in my non-socially distanced classes, and I don’t feel like I’m teaching well, either, because this model leaves me task-switching and trying to keep track of too much all day. 

In my creative writing class Friday, I felt sure I’d lost the day’s assignment by closing the Word document somehow without saving. I had to hastily reconstruct it in front of both classes, on-screen, apologizing all the while. It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I realized the assignment was actually there on my laptop – but in a PowerPoint. I’d been too frazzled to realize it.

So I am exhausted every day. I feel unsafe every day. I feel frustrated by my own inability to teach to the standard I set for myself. But if things had been different, if we had tried some different options, I might feel feel safe. I might feel like I was teaching better. And I might not be end-of-the-year tired every single day. 

Of all the options, this is the worst. But it may be too late to change it.