Guest Writer: Callie LaBarbera

On Friday at 11:30 a.m. I stared at my cellphone willing the alert that our Governor was live to pop up on my screen. In NYS, I was not alone in doing this. Parents and teachers alike sat with bated breath waiting to hear if the Governor would give us the go-ahead to return to our brick and mortar schools. Then, only a news alert: “All Schools Can Reopen”. A collective sigh within the state of New York was released from parents thankful that they can send their children back, parents concerned about what this means for their work schedules and children, students either excited or bummed about having to return, and teachers.

For teachers, that sigh was full of emotions from excitement, concern, and anxiety. My sigh released a string of emotions I was unaware were even being held inside of me. I knew we were going back because our infection rate was lower than the predetermined 5% set by the Governor months before. I kept telling myself that I was using this summer to prepare to be the healthiest I could as I go into the school year. I’ve been eating all of my fruits and vegetables, getting sleep, running, and working out to boost my immune system. I’m young and healthy so I felt like getting the news of returning to school would be that next step so I could begin my planning for our school’s proposed hybrid model. I was wrong. I was unprepared for the highest anxiety I have ever felt which was followed by the crashing bout of unexplained depression and extreme two-day stomach ache. I can’t describe what happened Friday evening into Saturday, I can just say that the buildup of anticipation, the news stories, and the continued questions of “what ifs” in a Facebook group I’m in finally became all-consuming and my body and mind gave out.

I was unprepared for the highest anxiety I have ever felt which was followed by the crashing bout of unexplained depression and extreme two-day stomach ache. Click To Tweet

Fast forward to Sunday, when I finally returned to the land of control and decided that I could only do what was in my power. You see, I’m a High School Special Education Teacher and teaching Special Education in the age of Covid-19 is like being on a merry-go-round, facing the wrong way, and hanging upside down. You continue to try to catch up but you’re tied down, working against the movement, and dizzy from the amount of information and obstacles being tossed your way. During the Spring, I found my rhythm. My students had their scheduled meetings online with me, I had my daily schedule to keep things organized and complete the work I needed. Now, we venture into a brand-new school year where we will all be first-year teachers again. As a Special Education Teacher, I find my focus differs from that of my General Education colleagues.

Contacting Families

This seemed like the logical first place to begin. I have a caseload of 15 students of my own and 38 students to whom I teach a supplemental reading program. Our district is offering the option of either going fully virtual or participating in the hybrid model. For our higher-needs students, they have the option to come to school for four days a week. The students on my caseload, although they are Special Education students, don’t fall in the option of attending school four days a week. I contacted my families to answer questions (to the best of my abilities) and find out if they would be participating virtually only or if they will use the hybrid model. This one act alone allowed me to reconnect with my students and their parents which immediately eased their anxieties and my own.

Figuring Out My Space

Unlike my General Education colleagues, I do not have my own classroom. I share a space with six other teachers, 30+ TAs, and all of our students. Although we are doing a hybrid model which will allow us to only have a few students in a room at once for our 15:1 classes, my supplemental reading program may have up to 10 students in the classroom at once and space is currently not set up to be able to successfully station my students six feet apart. I have three long tables and there is a pole in the middle of the room (this “room” to which I refer was actually the old conference room and really isn’t set up to be a classroom) and desks or smaller tables are very hard to come by. Although I will go into school tomorrow to try to MacGyver space out of the room for my students, I still don’t know fully what the schedule will look like. All I can do is try to set the room up to the best of my abilities to hopefully keep my students safe.

Planning for The First Days

If the rug being pulled out from educators in the Spring taught us anything, it should be that we need to be proactive rather than reactive. Trying to explain expectations and corral the students after we left school in March was once again like being on that merry-go-round. On our first day back to school when we typically go through my syllabus, I will cover the expectations of virtual learning days, in-class learning days, our Wednesdays which are still TBD, and spend that first-day answering questions and checking in with students about their emotional well-being. I have already chosen that the first few days back will not be days of learning, they will be days of caring and support and guidelines.

Setting Myself Up for Success at School

As a Special Education Teacher, we don’t just have a curriculum to cover, but IEP goals to support, documentation to be completed, the interaction between General Education Teachers and Therapists, and the list goes on. All of my beginning of school paperwork such as program modifications and testing accommodations sheets, IEP data-tracking program, Read180 software program setup, and student schedules checked will all be completed before school begins to allow me time in those first few weeks to navigate our new normal.

Setting Myself Up for Success at Home

It’s no secret that teachers will now have a greater risk of getting sick and bringing Covid-19 home to their loved ones. As dramatic as it may sound, each of us needs to decide what our non-negotiables are and what we are willing to do to keep those around us safe. As school nears, I will visit my Grandmother and other members of my family and once school begins, I will not be seeing them until I feel that it is safe to do so. I have a bag ready to go that I will carry my school clothes in, I will change at school into my school clothes, change out of them at school, and carry them home in the back which will go directly into the wash along with my mask for the day. My school shoes will stay at school and I have antibacterial wipes in my car to wipe down my cellphone, water bottle, and lunch bag before they go into the house with me. I will continue to meal prep my healthy food and schedule my workouts after school to stay healthy.

Remembering What I Can Control

Control…that magic word. Educators like control. We like to know what is coming our way and be able to plan. Unfortunately, we are currently living in times where those of us with type A+ personalities need to take a deep breath and evaluate what we actually have control of during this new season. Many of us are not invited to “the room where it happens” where our administrators are making the determinations on how our school year will run in our classrooms. We can voice our concerns to our Union Representatives, talk amongst our colleagues, and do the best we can to be as prepared as we can be going into the year. When it comes down to it, we can fight for support and safety for our students and ourselves, but I have found that the fight in me needs to reside with what I can do on a smaller level. I can’t fix the HVAC system in my building. I can’t put a window in my middle-of-the-building room for circulation. I need to leave the fight about whether masks are mandatory per administration to those with a louder voice and figure out how to encourage my students to wear them in my room and an incentive to make it happen.

I am a teacher. At the end of the day, it is my job to teach my students. I will support them emotionally, socially, and with their education. I will do what I can to keep them, myself, and my family safe. I will keep a positive attitude and be student-centered. I will continue to be a superhero in heels and a mask for added protection. Here’s to our first year of teaching…

Signed,

A 10 Year Veteran Teacher

COVID-19

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