Like many educators in NC's largest city, Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter returned to the classroom Monday in the midst of a resurgence in the state's COVID cases. (Image via Justin Parmenter) Back in the Classroom
Like many educators in NC's largest city, Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter returned to the classroom Monday in the midst of a resurgence in the state's COVID cases. (Image via Justin Parmenter)

Some NC schools opened despite COVID. An educator talks nervous kids, nervous teachers, and teaching in-person and virtually—at the same time.

[Editor’s Note: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reopened for some in-person instruction this week. The following comes from a Charlotte teacher on his first day back in the classroom.]

My first day teaching students in my classroom since last March 13 began in classic 2020 fashion:  dashing through a downpour to the school building carrying a large potted plant, rain splashing soil all over my white shirt and tie.  

This is the year that just won’t quit.

It felt like the first day of school in many ways, albeit with a pandemic twist–students entering the classroom tentatively, glancing around as if to say, “Am I in the right room?” After that, they  pay a visit to the gallon jug of hand sanitizer, then make their way to one of the widely spaced desks.  Me asking many of them for their names, because it’s hard to recognize someone by just the top third of their face. And for those who prefered to keep Zoom cameras off during remote learning, I’d never even seen that much of their face.  Students peered carefully at each other to determine masked identities, eyebrows occasionally rising in recognition.  

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Those 25-year teacher reflexes kicked right back in, and I found myself unconsciously working to establish the same classroom culture I’ve always prioritized, one where students feel safe and protected and learning can flourish.  

I was able to connect with students in a way that’s simply not possible via video and provide the one-on-one help they needed with assignments while we worked carefully to follow safety protocols which will hopefully keep us from infecting each other with COVID.

A couple of key takeaways after Day 1:

My teacher bladder is seriously out of shape.  If you have a job where you can pee whenever you want to, you need to feel some gratitude for that life.  Coffee rationing is in effect while I work on regaining my previous form.

Teaching online and in-person simultaneously is hard.  Like really hard.  

A Fool’s Errand?

A few months ago I was happy to be invited to a planning session with a group of other Charlotte-Mecklenburg educators, giving feedback to my school district’s leadership on pandemic education.  I was looking forward to a free-flowing exchange of questions and ideas.  

Instead, teachers were presented with a single question:  

How can we effectively teach three different groups of students at the same time–those who are in-person, those who are in-person but currently at home waiting for their turn to rotate through, and those who have elected to stay in remote learning for the foreseeable future?  By the way, your suggestions must be budget neutral, meaning you have no additional resources to accomplish that task.

I’m still waiting for the definitive answer to that question.  I suspect it might have been a fool’s errand.

Adapting K-12 education to an online setting overnight back in March was rocky to be sure.  

This past summer we had some really talented people working to develop tools that would help to bring a more consistent and effective virtual learning experience for our students.  There was a steep learning curve at the beginning of the school year for many educators, especially those who have relied heavily on more traditional teaching methods.  Just at the moment when those educators are starting to master virtual teaching we’ve thrown a new monkey wrench into the works by moving to a hybrid model.

Now teachers are responsible for delivering engaging lessons simultaneously to students who are at home on Zoom and sitting in our classrooms, providing enrichment for those who finish their work very quickly as well as modifying instruction for those who require additional support.  

All the while we’re awash in technical difficulties, both on our end and on the students’ end, from the Chromebook that won’t turn on anymore to the forgotten passwords to the laggy wifi to the spotty audio that at times reduces us to teaching via chat box.  Oh, and watching out for Zoom bombers. (Today I had someone named oof x2 in my waiting room.  No sir.).

To say the least, it’s hard to be as effective as we’d like under these circumstances.

But for me, dwarfing the problem of how we teach students well during this pandemic is a more crucial question: How do we keep each other safe during this pandemic?  

Is today the day I get COVID?

My first day back happened to be a day when North Carolina set another new high for COVID hospitalizations–the third consecutive daily record.  It coincided with the last day of a month that has seen more COVID infections (4.4 million) than the first five months of the pandemic combined.  Those facts stand as grim reminders of what awaits those who do not exercise due caution in the face of this deadly virus.

School officials around the state keep telling us that COVID is not being transmitted in our schools.  At the same time, we’re learning that North Carolina’s contact tracing efforts are largely ineffective, with only 10% of the needed tracers currently at work in our state and many possible COVID contacts not answering the phone.  In other words, we often have no clear idea of how people are getting infected.

It’s not a recipe for confidence for those who are working face to face with students.

Speaking of face to face, when students sat unmasked in my classroom eating lunch on the first day back, a gust through my open window blew papers off my desk.  I half jokingly told them it was how I measured the air circulation that is so vital to keeping them safe.  Then I thought of my many colleagues in the building hosting lunch in a classroom with no windows.  I know that, like me, many of them are driving to work in the morning wondering if today is the day they get COVID.

This is a really hard spot to be in for a teacher.  We derive the passion and joy that keeps us in this underpaid, under-respected profession from working in person with students.  However, we also believe that the safety of those we serve—and that of our own families—has to be the number one priority.  

For too long we’ve been asked to do more with less.  We’ve grown so accustomed to working without the resources we need that it’s widely seen as par for the course in public education.  But the life-and-death stakes of maintaining that approach during a pandemic make it unacceptable for many of us who are on the front lines.

As our nation prepares for new leadership, we need to redouble our calls for K-12 education to receive the funding and support that it needs, so that educators are able to provide for our students’ needs more effectively.  In the meantime, local policymakers must heed community COVID metrics and make decisions which prioritize safety for those who serve and attend our schools.