'Every day looks absolutely wild': the chaos of teaching during a pandemic

Mario Koran in Oakland

In less than three months, the coronavirus has upended America’s public education system.

The virus triggered closures of unprecedented scale and forced educators across the country to quickly transition to online teaching, many for the first time in their careers.

Roughly 11 weeks since the start of the pandemic, 124,000 US schools remain closed for in-person instruction as they limp toward summer break, affecting almost 51 million students. 

The coronavirus is quickly becoming the defining moment in education for a generation of schoolchildren and their parents. 

But what of the teachers? How are they managing this new reality? The Guardian checked in with four California educators …

‘It feels like The Twilight Zone’

Just as closures have affected the nature of work, they have changed the complexion of teachers’ home lives.

“Every day looks absolutely wild. I was not prepared to spend 24 hours a day with my children,” said Shelly Steely, who teaches at an alternative high school in San Diego geared toward students who are at risk of dropping out.

Since the lockdowns started, she has struggled to keep pace. 

“My husband is working at a call center, so it’s really tough to have time for all the work plus caring for my own kids, cooking and cleaning and helping them with their homework. And we lost our babysitter because my dad is high-risk and hasn’t been able to do it,” Steely said.

Teaching in saner times. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Tina Alcatraz Andres, a middle school teacher in Santa Ana Unified, just south of Los Angeles, said she has been working disjointed, 15-hour days as a parent to two children, 14 and 15. Layered upon those stressors, Andres’s father was diagnosed with Covid-19 days after schools closed.

“We have times where all four of us are on Zoom calls,” Andres said of her working husband, also a teacher, and her kids. “And sometimes the internet goes down and it’s panic mode.”

Andres has also noticed the lockdown has shifted her family and students’ schedules. Everybody seems to be waking up later now.

“I can’t really plan anything early in the morning, because kids don’t show up,” she said. “I’ve been doing most of my grading at night, around 10 o’clock. Sometimes I send a paper back and I’m talking to students after 1am about the work. It’s very weird and adds to the Twilight Zone feeling of this whole thing.”

Andres notes one unexpected perk of the new normal, however. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know some of my students better. Some who have been quiet seem to have come alive.”

Digital disconnect

In the weeks that followed the first school closures, teachers describe frantic scenes of hustling to get laptops and hotspots into students’ hands or cobbling together distance learning plans, often from scratch. Stories of teachers scrambling to connect with awol students abounded. 

At Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, roughly 15,000 high school students were absent online and completed no school work in the transition to distance learning. 

In San Diego, trying to engage students online has been Steely’s biggest stress point. 

Security guards talk on the campus of the closed McKinley school, part of the Los Angeles Unified school district system, in Compton, California, just south of Los Angeles, in late April. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

“I can’t get my kids to connect,” she said. “I’m over here like: ‘Can someone text me back, please? Anyone? I know you hear me because I see the message on ‘read’. You have to graduate next month but you have to do some work for me to pass you in good faith.’” 

Her students are dealing with a lot: one has been couch surfing, three have become full-time caregivers because their parents are working. A couple have full-time jobs they are still going to because their work is considered “essential” work. 

“One of my students up and left town,” Steely said. “I’ve been altering his assignments so he could do them on his phone. Half my students didn’t have computers. It was a whole ordeal trying to get them the devices and now we’re dealing with bad connections.”

Angela Der Ramos, who teaches sixth graders in Salinas, a central-coast city made famous by John Steinbeck, has been working to keep kids tuned in, turning quizzes into games and focusing on reading, percentages and ratios – lessons that will build skills they will depend on for life. 

Many families speak a language other than English at home, she said, and face some of the “hidden challenges” known to teachers: lack of access to the internet, overcrowded housing and concerns over immigration status.

“In one of my student’s families, three children and their mom rent a room inside a house,” said Der Ramos. “Where is he going to go to log on to a computer?” 

Of the 27 students in Der Ramos’s class, only about six routinely log in, she said. About 10 other students aren’t regulars, but do some of the work, enough for Der Ramos to say, “OK, good. You’re alive and at least engaging in some way”.

The shift to distance learning affected school districts unevenly. In Menlo Park, an affluent Bay-area community in the heart of Silicon Valley, officials chalk up a relatively smooth transition to the fact that most students in the district had access to devices going into the lockdown – in addition to teachers who were trained in distance learning techniques. 

But the same wasn’t true in many rural or disadvantaged areas. 

Ken Johnson, a high school government teacher and president of the teachers union in Manteca, a Central Valley town an hour east of San Francisco, said he has been working 12-hour days, taking meals at his desk, in part because he and other educators had to create distance learning plans from scratch.

“This is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. We’re doing things on the fly. Everyday is different. If the software is glitchy, you have to become Mr Google and figure it out,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said he has encountered an irony facing a generation of digital natives in his classes. 

“The funny thing is that kids can spend the entire day on Instagram or TikTok, but when it comes to taking a picture of their work and uploading it … or even just sending an email, that’s something they apparently don’t know how to do,” he said. 

‘It’s like learning to teach all over again’

Distance learning has upended the entire way educators teach, throwing a wrench into years of professional training and finely tuned lesson plans. Teaching sixth-graders in Salinas, Der Ramos said she had come to rely on students’ body language, the way they roll their eyes or drift off when they are not interested. 

But online teaching has blunted her ability to read her students – especially when so many seem to be hesitant to show their face, or the inside of their homes, to the camera. (All teachers interviewed for this story noted the same.) 

“Teachers normally have to play a little psychology with our students – but this is harder, because we’re not in front of them. When I teach online I’ve learned I can’t call on students to answer,” she said. “In real life you can sort of stare them down until they respond, but start calling on them online and one by one you’ll see them start to log off, like ‘byeee’.”

Teaching math is a particular challenge, teachers say. Teaching math concepts involves looking at students’ work and seeing where they went wrong.

“What are you thinking about? Making mistakes is what a lot of teaching is based on. But in this case we don’t have the same opportunity to go through the actual work in the same way,” said Der Ramos.

“It’s like having to learn to teach all over again, but underwater. And we don’t have the oxygen to share with the students.”

‘I miss my students’

Teachers say much of their time since lockdown started has been consumed by in-the-moment logistics and planning for the future. But it is also proving to be an emotional time for teachers – both for their students and their own families. 

Steely in San Diego, for example, said she has been gobsmacked by the amount of homework given by her twins’ teacher. 

“My boys have six hours of homework each day, plus Zoom calls. I’ve seen some complaints about teachers not assigning students enough work. I think those are in bad taste, let’s be real,” she said. 

Among Steely’s biggest concerns for her students is what will happen after summer. School officials in California are looking at dividing the student body in half and staggering school schedules to allow for more space to physically distance. But that creates a major problem for Steely.

“As a family, we were all waiting for our kids to be in school so the money we paid in childcare could finally go to other things. And it’s not just us. A lot of parents rely on public schools for childcare,” she said.

One and a half hours north, in Santa Ana, Andres said she has also been surprised by the timing of some parents’ feedback. 

“As we’re nearing the end of the school year I’ve had a flood of parents whose students haven’t been doing anything for the past eight weeks and are suddenly very interested in how their kids are going to get caught up,” Andres said. 

Meanwhile, Johnson in Manteca is coming to terms with the fact he wasn’t able to close out the year with a group of students, many of whom postponed plans to leave for college in order to help their parents pull through the pandemic and its financial toll.

“I miss my students. I won’t be able to be at their graduation. I want to be able to see them after their graduation and hear their laughter and stupid jokes. That’s why teachers teach – we have that rapport with our students where we’re just feeding off of it,” said Johnson. 

“I feel like I haven’t been able to see my kids finish growing up. I’ve been doing this 31 years and I still get teared up talking about this.” 

Still, he has been touched and encouraged by his students’ thoughtful responses to lockdown measures

“They say they’re bored, but they don’t want to go outside because they don’t want to bring the virus home to mom and dad or grandpa,” he said. 

“These kids, they get it. Even as young as they are, they understand how serious this is and they’re concerned for others. It gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it?”