English teacher Amy Jo Holcomb met reality head-on during the first day of the 2020-2021 school year.
“I knew it was going to be hard, not just on us as teachers, but on the students too,” Holcomb said, seated at her desk at Itawamba Agricultural High School. Hand sanitizer, extra masks, and more PPE supplies are scattered about her classroom. “I just don’t think anyone realized how hard.”
Shortly after her first class began, a young man raised his hand and asked Holcomb in his muffled mask voice if he could he step out of the room for a moment.
“I could tell he was overwhelmed. I told him he could stand outside the doorway for a minute,” she said. With her voice subdued and her demeanor obviously dampened, she continued, “It just broke my heart.”
While the young man took a moment to regain his composure, Holcomb had to maintain hers.
“We have to do what we have to do,” she said. “We have to hold it together. We have to be the example.”
But Holcomb says holding it together is taking a toll on teachers like her. So much so that the twenty-one-year-veteran teacher approached the Itawamba County School Board during their September meeting to address what they were going through.
“I did not go to propose changes,” Holcomb said. “I simply wanted to be heard.”
Holcomb told the board she was there to speak on behalf of every teacher that she knew personally, and every teacher she had spoken with since COVID-19 changed their world.
Her close circle of fellow teachers could now only offer one another support through group text, since gathering for breakfast and lunch is now prohibited.
In her words, she was not there to play the martyr. Like all teachers, she is already overworked and underpaid in what she says was once thought of as a highly respected career.
“But what’s happening now is different,” Holcomb said. “Six months ago, we were saints. Now, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t and expected to do the impossible under unprecedented circumstances while being demonized by the general public who have zero idea of what our days are like.”
Holcomb said despite the summer meetings, the trainings and the best intentions of helping students feel safe, managing both traditional and virtual learning is taking an unhealthy toll on teachers.
“Every class is now three classes,” she said. “You’re juggling the face-to-face students, the virtual classroom, and making packets for those who do not have internet access.”
As an ICC online instructor, Holcomb was familiar with learning management systems like Canvas, which the school currently uses for virtual students.
“There are many teachers who were new to online classes and had to learn how to use it,” she said. “That has been stressful for those teachers and I try to help them as much as I can.”
To give the board a clear picture of the typical day-to-day tasks teachers face, Holcomb documented and read to the board her normal school day list during COVID-19.
• Make sure my mask is on before I walk in the building.
• Temperature check as I walk in the door.
• Clock in by required time.
• Complete COVID questionnaire.
• Check virtual absences from the day before.
• Send virtual absences to the secretary.
• Make sure today’s work is published in Canvas for virtual and quarantined students.
• Take lunch count in first block.
• Take roll for traditional students in SAMS
• Schedule different times for virtual, quarantined, and traditional students to submit work.
• Schedule Google Meet with virtual and quarantined to take tests.
• Email said students about Google Meet session.
• Make videos and post to Canvas for virtual and quarantined students.
• Make packets of each day’s work for the virtual kids who – despite having agreed to submit work online and despite being provided a computer by the school – are still not doing their work online. Many are not even turning in their packets.
• Grade yesterday’s or last week’s work. Most of us cannot stay caught up day-to-day because we now have to have an assignment every day that counts for attendance for the virtual students. Without a virtual Friday, I shudder to think how much more behind we would be.
• Transfer grades to SAMS from Canvas because the two still have not synced.
• Email virtual and quarantined students about today’s work.
• Respond to emails during school and after hours (usually the latter) from the virtual and quarantined kids about their assignments I emailed them about earlier in the day or the day before.
• Send SchoolStatus messages to the parents of virtual, quarantined, and traditional students who are failing or are in danger of failing.
• Send SchoolStatus messages to the parents of traditional students who are sleeping or being discipline problems.
• Send SchoolStatus messages to the parents of students we want to brag on. Yes, we do this, too.
• Troubleshoot Chromebooks and Canvas.
• Keep up with who goes virtual daily.
• Keep up with who gets quarantined daily.
• Keep up with which quarantined students come back on what days.
• Deal with normal discipline and attendance issues with traditional students.
• Design and input content for future Canvas assignments.
• Clean in between each class.
• Clean at the end of the day.
• Wipe down any shared materials like calculators, textbooks, etc.
• Monitor and enforce students wearing masks.
• Monitor and enforce one-way traffic in the hallways.
• Fulfill sponsorship and coaching duties.
• Have breaks and lunches with students in the room, which makes it very difficult to find time to use the restroom.
• Come early and/or leave late.
• Come to the school after hours and/or on weekends to try to get caught up.
• Work from home because there is not enough time in the school day.
“People in general don’t know what we do in a regular year. Now it’s a whole new world with overwhelming responsibilities.” she said of the list.
Yet Holcomb says most the overwhelming concern teachers face is how the students are doing.
“Then there’s the constant stress of what happens if we are quarantined or sick ourselves. We worry more about the quality of instruction our kids will get if we are having to prepare at home for virtual, quarantined, and face-to-face students than we do about our own health.”
Amid the stress-related anxiety Holcomb says is the fear that many virtual students will fail no matter how much effort is put into it by the teachers.
“It’s just not the same,” she said. “There are students that are just not cut out for virtual learning and no matter what we do it will not change the outcome.”
All-in-all she says the students are taking it in stride.
“I was afraid they’d be belligerent about all they are faced with, but that has not been the case,” she said. “They are taking it all in stride. It has really been amazing to watch them.”
If the students take away anything from this year’s experiences, she says she hopes that it’s little things like being able to drink from the water fountain.
If the teachers take away anything, Holcomb says she hopes that maybe that difficult kid won’t seem as difficult.
She recalled hearing a man talking about being asked what makes a teacher.
“After rattling off a litany of responses that have nothing to do with salary, the end result is that we make a difference,” she said. “Sadly, our students that are physically in our classrooms are getting less of us than ever before.”