An Educator's Pandemic Experience

[Editor's note: Edited for length]

I’m a 3rd grade teacher at a small school on the top of Lookout Mountain in Walker County, Georgia. I’m president of the local association of educators, a wife of 32 years, and a mother of two daughters, aged 27 and 23.

My oldest daughter, Krista, asked me to write my account of living and teaching during the pandemic. This has been an extremely challenging year in every manner – professionally, physically, emotionally, politically, spiritually, etc. – so I’ll try to give an honest and fairly detailed account.

In January of 2020, my oldest daughter, Krista, who is an English teacher in South Korea, told me of a new, deadly virus that had surfaced in China. She was fearful of it spreading to South Korea, which is typically the pattern of viruses that originate in China. US news was not reporting on this virus yet, and none of my friends or colleagues were even aware of it. In mid February, people in the US began becoming more aware of the virus, but few people were concerned, because it was still half a world away.

Then March hit, and the virus began spreading more rapidly in the US.

I remember Friday, March 13th very clearly. I sent my class to activity while I had planning, from 12:05 to 12:50. As I dropped my class off for computer class, the teacher told that President Trump would declare a national state of emergency at an emergency press conference at 1:00pm. I then checked the news and read that the WHO (World Health Organization) had upgraded the

covid-19 epidemic to a pandemic. When I heard this news, I turned my classroom lights off, put my head down on my desk, and cried. I knew that in the next months, or even years, I would see and experience things that, up to now, had been unfathomable. I pictured people dying of the disease, people losing their jobs, people losing their homes, and people committing suicide because of the financial, emotional, and physical stresses caused both directly and indirectly by the covid-19. Because I had been following the progression of the disease so closely, I went through all of the emotions much quicker than most of my peers.

The school system told us to prepare for students to be out of school for 3 weeks. After I spent a few minutes processing the news, and my predicted dire outcomes of the pandemic, I had to prepare to say goodbye to my students, knowing it would probably be the last time I would see them again.

I did everything I could to prepare my students in every way. I told them what was happening, and showed them a Brain Pop video explaining what we knew so far about covid-19. I answered their questions. I told them that things would be different for a while, and they may not be able to play with their friends or extended families for a while, but that, eventually, things would return to normal, and that they needed to hang on to that hope for the future. Then I gave them 3 weeks worth of math work in hand-stapled packets, hugged them, told them I loved them, and said goodbye. I did all of this while trying desperately not to cry, because I didn’t want to alarm them.

At the end of the 3 weeks, we did not return to school. At first, it was decided week by week whether we would return. Eventually, we were told that school would not resume for the rest of the academic year. Some teachers tried to teach virtually, using zoom (an online platform that many of us had not even heard of), google meet, or other platforms. Many teachers loaded assignments into a digital format for students to access. Many of us, including me, had never taught in any digital format and were entirely lost.

Teachers across the country were told to not teach any new material, to not require students to log on to their digital classes, and to not require students to do any work. Teachers worked more hours trying to connect to students than ever before, but we felt like we were just spinning our wheels uselessly. We found out that the economic divide was greater than we had realized. The “haves” had computers at home they could use, as well as reliable internet connections. The “have nots”, had neither computers nor internet connection. Libraries, which provided both computers and internet access to anyone, were now closed. Unfortunately, we found that students who were poor, and/or students who were not fortunate enough to have involved parents, were falling behind, and there was nothing we could do.

My youngest daughter, Hailey, graduated from Georgia Southern University with a degree in Biology in May of 2020. My husband, Hailey, and I sat on the couch in our pajamas, watching her university professors and administrators recognize her in her purely virtual graduation. Krista, who was in South Korea, and Hailey’s boyfriend, who was in South Carolina, joined us virtually to watch the graduation. Neither could travel to our house because of travel restrictions. We then got dressed up, putting on something other than pajamas or sweat pants for the first time in months, to go out to eat.

Because I live in a very Republican county, the school system decided that masks would not be mandatory, and that school would be conducted fully in person. There would be an option for students to attend virtually, but educators would not be given that option – we would all have to attend in person or quit. These decisions were made in spite of many teachers, including me, writing letters, making phone calls, and addressing the superintendent and the school board privately and publicly. I also spoke to the media several times, trying to relay the fact that educators wanted to work, but that we wanted school to be safe for students and staff. I received sympathy from the media, but not the educational decision makers.

When school began in the fall, there were some changes, such as having to spray desks down between class changes with a questionable pink spray we were given to use, but overall, things remained the same. We quickly learned that it was impossible for students to social distance from one another, especially because many of them had not seen their friends for months. Some students wore masks, but many others didn’t. Unfortunately, some students who began the school year wearing masks, were shamed by their non-mask wearing friends, and then stopped wearing them. All of this would lead to our county shutting down schools for 2 weeks in November and moving to a hybrid schedule for 3 weeks in December (where only ½ the student body came to school at a time) because we had over 1000 students and staff quarantined at one time. (Since we only had about 8,000 in-person students at this time, this was a huge percentage of our student body.) This story made local and national news, which seemed to embarrass our school system leaders.

As the year progressed, it seemed that our school administrators were quarantining fewer and fewer people, despite more people contracting covid-19. People were getting tired of the pandemic, and began acting as if it was over.

I had my first quarantine due to a close contact with a covid-positive person in mid-November, when I was informed that another teacher on my hall had tested positive. At this time, it was still difficult to get covid tests, so it took her 3 days before she was tested. While in quarantine, I took a covid test the day before Thanksgiving, and was relieved to test negative. I decided to go Christmas shopping that afternoon, and while I was shopping, I received a call from my principal letting me know that I had been exposed to a student who had tested positive, so I had to go into quarantine again. I took another covid test a few days later, again testing negative. Although I was happy I wasn’t sick, I was not able to see anyone for Thanksgiving except for my husband and my daughter, Hailey.

When we returned to school after Thanksgiving, we taught in a hybrid model for 3 weeks, meaning students would learn at home for 2 days, in person for 2 days, and all students would be online 1 day. The thinking was that the chances of contracting covid would be greatly reduced since we would only be exposed to ½ the number of students at a time. Teachers assigned work to students when they were at home, but many students didn’t do this work, and we were told we couldn’t require them to.

A student of mine was quarantined for a couple of weeks during this hybrid schedule, because she had a sick family member at home. She returned to school on the last day of school before Christmas break. When she returned, I noticed that she had a runny nose, a cough, and a fever. When I asked her if she had been tested for covid, she responded that she had not, but that she had been sick for about a week. I immediately notified the school nurse and my assistant principal. When they heard what had happened, the nurse, assistant principal, principal, and custodian came to my class. The nurse removed the student from my class and sent her home, then my principal told me that I, and the rest of my class, needed to be removed from the room in order to fog it. We found a vacant room, and I had to create a lesson on the spot, with no materials, while trying to keep calm so that I wouldn’t alarm my remaining students. That was one of the most stressful days of my career.

When I got home that afternoon, my husband and I decided that I needed to quarantine again. He got a phone call the next day, informing him that he was also exposed to a positive person at his school, so we both were quarantined for Christmas. Once again, we got our covid tests, and received our negative test results about 9pm on Christmas Eve. This was a great Christmas present, which would allow us to visit with a few family members for New Years. We knew it was safe to meet with these family members, because they had quarantined for two weeks, and were not symptomatic.

When they walked in our home on December 29th, it was such an eerie feeling.

No one had been in our home in over 9 months. We hugged them in greeting, which also felt very strange, and a bit scary, because we hadn’t hugged anyone other than immediate family members since March. We had a lovely time with them, visiting the Chattanooga Aquarium, where masks were mandatory, hiking outdoors, and playing card games in our house.

School began in January, as usual. Many students didn’t wear masks. Covid cases around the country, state, county, and school increased. My daughter who lives in Korea still didn’t know anyone who had contracted covid. I knew too many people to count. The US topped the charts with the most number of cases, and most deaths. We had a new president, who believed in wearing masks and the science behind covid, but too much damage had already been done.

I was exposed a fourth time, which I detailed in an open letter to my superintendent and school board. I tested positive on February 28, 2021, after being exposed to a positive student at school. I took a rapid test, which is supposed to take 15 minutes to receive results; my results came back in less than 5 minutes, showing that I had a large amount of the virus. Of my class of 13 in-person students, 7 tested positive within a week. A few students tested negative, and the others were never tested, because they were not required to. I spread covid to my husband, and several of my students spread it to their family members. Thankfully, none of them spread it to anyone who had a severe case. During this time, around 15% of my school tested positive, including teachers and students, but school did not shut down. I taught virtually from home the first two days I was in quarantine, then took covid leave for the next two weeks, not working, but concentrating on getting better.

It is April 19, 2021, and I still have symptoms. My doctor has said that my lungs are clear, which greatly encourages me. I still have a deep, persistent cough. I’m still working on regaining my stamina and strength, but I feel confident that I will return to my old, pre-covid self soon. Although this has been a long two months, I feel very fortunate that I had a relatively mild case, and will probably have no long-term damage. As I write this, over

3 million people have died worldwide, and over 581,000 Americans have died.

Yet many people still believe this is a politically driven disease that doesn’t exist, and many people are still refusing to wear masks.