'My Freshmen Are More like 7th Graders': Inside the Omicron-Era Classroom

Photo credit: Photo illustrations by Elaine Chung / Getty Images

The great American schools debate has featured a lot of justifiable concern around the pitfalls of virtual school: learning loss, stalled behavioral development, childcare strains, and the many other cascading effects of losing these institutions that we have made core gears in our social machine. Sometimes, these debates have veered into speculation about whether teachers are really doing everything they can for students. But we rarely hear from teachers themselves. So we asked six educators from K-12 schools across the country what it has been like teaching this year, particularly since the rise of the Omicron variant in December.

Each of them said the administrators at their schools are doing everything they can. “I am deeply supported by the people in my immediate sphere,” said Taylor Costas, a 6th grade humanities teacher at a Manhattan public school. “The situation is just garbage.” Each stressed that you can’t fix the American education system by shoveling blame at individuals. And perhaps most of all, they said they and their colleagues are doing everything they possibly can.

These interviews have been condensed for clarity.

On the Return from Break

Ashley McCall, 3rd grade English and Language Arts teacher at a public school on Chicago’s South Side: Our first day back, on [January] 3rd, our student attendance was about 65 percent. We had about 10 teachers out. The second day, our student attendance was about 75 percent and we had about seven teachers out.

Morgan Johnson, reading specialist and humanities department chair at a Washington, D.C. charter school: I realized this wave was going to be the trickiest last week. Just the sheer number of students out because of need to quarantine, close contacts, or students who had COVID themselves, were definitely the highest numbers I've seen across the board. We had less than a quarter of the students in the building in one grade. I was supervising lunch and there were no kids, and I thought that they were split up in other classes. But actually that was just all of them.

Sharon Bates-Thompson, 8th grade ancient history teacher in Mobile County, Alabama: There are very few subs to get…Subs just don't want to come into the schools because of the current situation with COVID, and I don't blame them. So when we have teachers out typically, if there's no sub, we [have] what they call "split classes." And we could have anywhere between two to 12 extra kids in a class, depending.

Eva Moss, learning specialist at a private school in East Palo Alto, California: We get an email every morning saying who's out, just so people are aware of where coverage is happening or who might be a little bit stretched thin. The first day back from break, when we got that email, there were like 12 names on it. So we were all kind of walking on eggshells. By Thursday [January 6th] there were still a fair amount of teachers out, but classrooms were missing 10, 12, 15 kids in each of them.

Sandy*, 3rd grade teacher in East Tennessee: When the CDC changed the guidelines to returning after five days, that’s when my coworkers and I were like, “Oh good, this is going to go very well for us.”

McCall: The protocols are different in every district, but if we have individual students who are exposed outside of the classroom prior to coming to school, then that individual student can quarantine and join the lesson from home. But if we find out through our weekly testing at school that a student tested positive and has been in the classroom and has been in close contact with their peers, then the entire classroom has to flip remote.

Photo credit: Jon Cherry - Getty Images

On Virtual School

Johnson: We've been in-person for the year, with the exception of when we came back from winter break. We were virtual for that first week while students and families had time to get tested, so we were virtual. But then we came back the following week.

Costas: We did not go remote at any point. We've been fully in-person, although we've had higher than normal absences.

McCall: We're expected to prepare for all options. I need to prepare online materials, I need to prepare packets, I need to prepare to have kids in person. I also need to prepare to teach kids online at the same time. And most classrooms are only operating with one primary teacher in the classroom. So one person is expected to manage humans in all spaces and be communicating with families about constant changes. It's absurd.

Johnson: I've adopted the mindset this year that anything I plan, in the back of my mind, I'm always trying to think about what the virtual plan will look like. It's honestly easier to plan something that is computer-accessible and virtual from the start, and then if I'm lucky and get to do in-person pieces, that's great. But I would say, as a teacher, it's much harder to pivot going from a lesson that's supposed to be in-person and making it virtual. There's always going to be a kid out here or there, so you might as well always plan to make it virtual and then adapt. That's my approach, but I know different teachers do it differently.

Bates-Thompson: We have been virtual this week [of the 17th] because the numbers were getting so bad that our county had to close two different schools, because so many teachers were out. So our superintendent made the decision to go virtual for a week, to try to give people a chance to get well if they were getting sick. Which helped, because another one of our teachers got COVID during this time. So it helped them. Because we have to use our sick days if we get sick. They don't give us days anymore.

On the Kids

Costas: We're dealing with kids who are both out of practice at being in school and also just anxious. It's been two years of a pretty scary world to live in. And they're being asked to be in crowded spaces, and they have to wear masks all day long, and it's cold with the windows open. So there are just environmental factors that make it hard to focus for any person, let alone a kid.

There's a misalignment of the needs, because some kids in my classroom did most of 5th grade in person, and now they're ready for 6th. Some kids walked in having not been in school since midway through 4th grade, and so the disparity and the norming of behavior expectations and attention span and all of that—I mean, it's a curveball to be able to plan for.

Photo credit: Getty

Does it feel like you've got a bunch of kids in the same grade but they're almost different ages?

Costas: Yeah. I mean that academically, emotionally, behaviorally. That goes in both directions. I think there's a lot of "deficit" language happening around learning loss and how kids are behind. But you can also see in ways that scare me, too, how resilient and mature they are because they've had to be. There are kids on the other end of the spectrum who took care of sick family members, or were overseeing the education of their own younger sibling, and they're just more grown than an 11-year-old should be. And then there are other ones that haven't had the socialization that they should have had, and they're struggling to control their impulses, and maintain their attention, and work in a group, and all of those things that are really elementary-school fundamentals.

Bates-Thompson: Most all kids will tell you they prefer to be in class. They hate being online. Our kids do, anyway. They prefer that interaction. Some of them, they get the positive support they need if they don't get it at home. Plus the socialization with their friends. They were upset last Friday when they found out we had to go virtual. We said, "It's only for a week." A lot of them were skeptical, wondering if we would get to come back at all. Because two years ago, that's what happened. We got sent home and it was for the rest of the year.

Sandy: Academically, the kids are alright. They are cruising right along, and the data would suggest they're one of my higher academic groups ever. I think that's a lot to do with the work we're putting in as a school. But emotionally and behaviorally, they are behind. They're struggling. A lot of people that I know in education are saying things like, “My freshmen this year are more like 7th graders.” Or, “my fourth graders are like second graders.” Because when trauma happens to you, you tend to kind of get stuck at that age until you're able to process through that. And of course, it's still happening, so we're not processing too well.

Moss: We need to be prioritizing kids connecting to each other, playing with each other, forming relationships. Because I'll tell you, those are the glaring issues we're having right now. There are a lot more behavior concerns, and a lot of kids voicing some really scary views about themselves or about others right now, because they haven't been around children, or they've had really limited social experiences the past few years.

My younger kids, my second graders that I work with—there are some that kind of jumped right back in, and were good to go. And those are a lot of the kids who have siblings, have cousins that they've been seeing. But a lot of our kids who are only children are really, really struggling. I've had kids straight-up say to me, "When it's recess, I don't know what to do.” We have a lot of kids dealing with attachment things, because it's been hard to leave their parents, or they're worried about their parents going to work with COVID. So yeah, there's a lot of big feelings, and a lot of behavior, because they don't always have the words to explain what's going on.

Photo credit: Jon Cherry - Getty Images

McCall: We did a check-in on our first day back. Our sentence starter was, "I am feeling blank." And you had a range of responses from, "I'm feeling excited to be back in school," "I'm feeling excited that I get to be with my friends," "I was feeling bored at home," to "I'm scared that I'm going to [get] COVID again," or "I'm worried that my little sister or my baby brother is going to get COVID," or "My dad's in isolation and we have to leave food outside the room and we can't see them."

Johnson: I work with middle schoolers, so getting a read on a middle schooler's emotions is always a little tricky. They can be kind of cagey. But I've noticed that my students are in a better spot than they were when they were virtual. They're still seeing their friends, they're still spending time with other people, they're getting out of their house, out of their bedroom. You can see kids' personalities come through. I've gotten to know kids much better that I only knew from a black box last year on Zoom…

My fifth graders, the last time they were in school they were third graders. So when they were coming back, that developmental difference is significant. But I think since being back in school, the kids have been able to adjust quickly.

On Criticism

McCall: My personal feeling is that there is very little understanding unless you are either in a school building, you have a child in school, or you're somehow affiliated with education. You have no idea the type of chaos that's occurring. Last year was incredibly difficult as families were expected to both provide childcare and monitor remote learning, but there was a level of consistency. One of the challenges of this year is that while we're back in the building primarily, there is no predictability. My team and I are constantly talking about "embracing change" and just accepting every single thing we plan will inevitably fall apart. Because we'll find out a couple of hours [before], or at the end of the day: Hey, a kid tested positive. You have 24 hours to prepare 29 computers, chargers, headphones, copies, online materials, so you can start remote learning the day after next. [I laughed.] Yes, thank you for that laughter. It is the only appropriate response.

If you think too much about what you're being asked to do, and the resources with which you're being asked to meet those needs—on top of the very strong opinions people have about you and your profession and your priorities and your values—it's overwhelming, and I would say most people would not volunteer to experience that on a day-to-day basis.

Johnson: Everybody wanted us to go back to schools, and then nobody gave us any of the resources to do it. And I'm at a charter, so we have more resources available to us than even public schools. But it was just like, "Figure it out and make do." It feels a lot of times like teachers are set up to fail. Because you're working within a system that doesn't value you. I think that's something really important for our society to keep in mind as they make those decisions—that we're real people who work with their kids all day long, and there's a lot that we need in order to do our jobs and do them well.

McCall: When you have mandated quarantine—so that we are not exposing students or families—but you expect schools to be running at full capacity, it just doesn't work. Because either you have students who are not receiving their legally mandated services because we're pulling their staffers to cover other spaces, and/or you're combining classrooms. You can see pictures from auditoriums around the country full of students where they're essentially being babysat because the school cannot function without appropriate staffing.

Bates-Thompson: Have a little patience. Have a little patience with your own kids. It's not any one person's fault that this happened. Administrators are trying to support us, we're trying to support the kids. In my opinion, in our country in general things are not as bad as what sometimes the media tries to make out to be.

Costas: The thing that gets lost in a lot of that Twittersphere is that the reason teachers are exhausted and defeated is because our job is a vocation rather than a job. So it would be possible to phone it in and check the boxes, but doing those things, and spreading oneself so thin, removes the reward of why we are teachers to begin with. So the reason that I'm drained is not because I can't remain afloat, it's because it's hard to do this many things at the quality that would be required to be a stable adult in a kid's life, and teaching them to love reading…

I know that sounds so lofty and self-congratulatory, but the reason it's frustrating is that the goal matters so much. And I think that a lot of times, there's this false binary that's like, "Teachers who don't want to do remote school”—or teachers who do want to do remote school, or teachers who strike, or whatever—“don't appreciate the emotional importance of school." And I think it's just the opposite. I think they're doing all those things because they appreciate that, and they want to do it well.

[Right now] you can't be the kind of teacher who's providing the support that people defend when they say "keep school buildings open at all costs." People are defending a level of excellence and nurturing and knowing your kids—that kind of teaching is not the kind of job you can just put your head down, bite the bullet, and do it because that's what you signed up for. Those things are fundamentally at odds.

On the Toll

Costas: Exhausted. I've never been so tired in my life. There is nothing that my principal could be doing to prevent that from being the case. There are no extra demands that the parents at my school are putting on me. But it's just untenable.

Johnson: This is definitely the most tired I've ever been as a teacher. There's physically tired and then there's emotionally tired. “Physically tired” I'm used to as a teacher. You're running around all day, you're used to chasing after kids and being on your feet. But I think the emotional piece…you just get drained more than you realize, and that does take more of a physical toll.

Bates-Thompson: Teachers are always tired. But just for me, personally, I haven't felt that it was so horrible. I've had a lot of personal issues in my life to deal with. I use a wheelchair. There are things you have to accept and move on with, and this is just one of those things. Other teachers have had different experiences, where it bothers them more and they were more stressed out about it than others. Math teachers always have it harder than everybody else [in virtual school].

All the kids are not having emotional problems. People are not as down in the dumps and gloomy as one might expect…They may be behind a little bit, some of them. They are. Especially as far as maturation, they're behind. But they will catch up, and they will be OK. I feel like they will. They want to succeed, they want to make a difference, they want to have a normal life and get past this.

Sandy: We're doing the best we can. We started this because we wanted to be there, and we believed in public education. But most of the time I don't want to be there now. This is the first time ever that I've been like, "I don't really know that I want to be there tomorrow. What's the point?"

Do you worry about falling out of love with the job?

Absolutely. That's why I'm working so hard to set the boundaries that I am. Because I am doing everything I can to make sure that I'm not completely burnt out. I am not responding to families' messages after hours. I am doing everything to protect my time, so that when I'm there, with the kids, I'm giving it my all. Because when I'm there and I don't want to give it my all, and I don't want to be there, it's not a fun job anymore. I've said so many times this year that I am grieving, desperately grieving, how much I used to love this job.

Honestly, from the depths of my soul, I just want people to know that we're trying our best. It probably doesn't look like our best, because it doesn't look like it used to. But it just can't. There is no way possible for it to. And honestly it's just unfair to ask that of us—for it to look like it used to.

*We’ve identified this person by a pseudonym and approximate location so that she felt comfortable speaking freely.

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