Overview:

Where are we four year later after the closing of schools due to COVID-19?

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The looming presidential election this fall provides the kismet to see our last four years through the standard “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” while posing that same question to ourselves as public educators: Am I, as a teacher in America, better off now than I was four years ago? 

I teach twelfth-grade English at an urban high school in Upstate New York. The poverty rate here is high. And violent crime is a common occurrence. I’ve devoted my entire career to serving this population, so I fully understand how hard our families were hit by the Covid-19 pause. For a large number of students, the school day provides basic needs: food, shelter, safety. Lasting damage was done to this community when access to the physical school building(s) was suspended for a full calendar year. And I’m certain this is the story for such communities across America. The pandemic might be over, and Covid protocols revoked, but many public educators and their students are still struggling in the New Normal. 

March 17, 2020-COVID Pandemic Starts

March 17th, 2020, our high school faculty was summoned to the auditorium after classes. There’d been rumors all day about a closure. Downstate schools had already pulled the trigger. And Governor Andrew Cuomo had directed the National Guard to New Rochelle, but none of us teachers thought it would make it here. Our principal explained–or tried to explain–what was happening. “…it’s a two-week pause,” he said, “but when you leave today, take everything with you. Supplies. Plants in your classroom. Clear any food out of the faculty fridge. There will be no entry into the building until we reopen. Till then, stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you on the other side.”

When the meeting broke up, I went back to my classroom, sat behind my desk and stared down at the calendar blotter. There were a slew of upcoming meetings scheduled. The boys varsity basketball team would play for a sectional championship on Saturday. Jasmine’s 18th B-day!! was written in swoopy pink pen across the square for March 26th. I packed my materials into a box, powered down the computer, drew the blinds, and right then, I had a feeling that that would be the last time I’d ever be in this room. In my mind, I saw a faraway image of hard-hatted men pushing through the door, finding everything coated in dust, and one of those men eyeing something with my name on it, perhaps my state teaching license, and saying, “Guy named Huba was here when the Pandemic hit.”

Four Years Later

“This month marks the four-year anniversary of Covid’s initial devastation in public ed., a day that will, for us, live in infamy,” said Derek Shuttleworth, a college-comp and writing teacher. “Four years ago we were sent home to begin the process of cobbling together some sort of school while it seemed like the world was coming undone. We sure don’t need another critical analysis of what was bungled or how difficult it was. As Americans we think in four-year cycles, our American gestation period of ideas and events, our place to rethink our direction.”

There is no doubt being in the school building is better than the alternative. No educator, who truly loves their work, entered this profession to conduct lessons through a computer screen. Ours is a hands-on industry, a craft made great by that mentor-protege dynamic. But the truth is educational rigor isn’t what it once was. I’ve had to simplify my curriculum post-Covid. And accountability has all but gone out the window. Standardized scores are down across the board, whilst behavior issues are on the rise. Being locked down for so long seemingly made us forget what being civil looks like.

“Students now just wandering the halls nonstop, always late for class,” said John Durant, a high school security monitor who works in the Albany, New York area. “When they’re told to ‘get to class,’ they always have something to say back and it’s always negative. There are no consequences and a thousand second chances. We need more people, more security. We need a dean who does nothing but discipline.”    

Struggles after In-Person Return

Educators writ large are struggling like never before. Mental meltdowns and on-the-job burnout are routine. When I entered the profession in 2006, and first applied to be an English teacher, the competition was white-hot. Every opening (full-time, part-time, even short-term leaves) brought forth hundreds of applicants. I had to interview sixteen times before being hired. Today, there is a nationwide teacher shortage. This has forced states to lower standards. And still schools are struggling to fill out their faculties and support staff, which in turn negatively affects learning and makes the building harder to manage. 

“As a public educator, I have seen the state of education decline drastically,” said Mariah Winston, a special education teacher. “Pre-Covid, I was a vibrant teacher with a positive outlook on the future. Currently, I am exhausted and frustrated with current levels of students and their blatant disregard for day-to-day tasks. I question my future daily and frequently look for other job opportunities that may be available, should I choose to leave the teaching profession, something I am now seriously considering. If you told me four years ago that this is where I would be, I would not have believed you.”

Am I better now than I was four years ago?

In an age of sound-byte answers and parsed semantics, I need commensurate ink to answer this overly complicated question: Am I better now than I was four years ago?  On many levels, I am. Covid has given me the green light to go digital, a shift I’ve wanted my whole career. No more fighting with the photocopier at seven a.m. on a Monday morning. No more illegible essays on crinkled paper with no name on top. Every student has a school-issued Chromebook, and every assignment and communication for my English classes run through Google Classroom. It’s clean, efficient, easy. I’ve also ditched the necktie and dress shoes. Right now, I’m wearing khakis with a pullover and a pair of Sketchers. I’m comfortable. I’m ready to get to work. And the Covid-19 pause taught me to never take that for granted.  

That’s just one part, though. At the same time, as a teacher, I’ve gone through the metamorphic equivalent of chemo and radiation therapy to treat cancer. The past four years have been brutal in our profession; Covid and the social-professional realities we faced obliterated our mental immune systems.  We were (are) in fragile states, clinging to our support systems, colleagues turned trauma-bonded families. But those of us who have endured, have prevailed. We have tolled the bell. We are in remission. 

What about the students?

“Attendance is an issue,” said Greg Betts, a high school administrator. “After Covid, kids don’t wanna come to school anymore. I’d like to see attendance numbers for pre-Covid vs. post-Covid. I bet we’re down five percent. And that’s a lot.” 

And now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are being charged with rewriting the contract between schools and their communities, a contract that has been left largely uninvestigated for decades. Communities need different things from public ed. now. And vice-versa. Exactly what? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I need to evolve and teach differently, just like the cancer survivor needs to live differently. Yes, I am doing this job when I am more tired than I’ve ever been, when student dysregulated behavior is hard to put into words fit for print, when communities that once thanked us, have cast us out of their hearts and their confidence. 

Educators as the Enemy

For many, public educators have become the scapegoat. Or worse: the enemy. We’ve been accused of indoctrination and elitism. Being from Upstate New York, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of untruths about public ed. being spread by high-profile figures like Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. In 2022, Ms. Stefanik publicly attacked a school in Mayfield, New York, accusing it of putting an educator on leave because that educator expressed anti-mask sentiments on social media. The school called Stefanik’s statement(s) “misleading and inaccurate,” and Stefanik called for the “Resignation of any and all administrators who made this wrongful determination.” There is zero evidence this happened as Stefanik describes.

A few months later, in May of 2022, Stefanik claimed New York schools spent millions in federal funding on Critical Race Theory, which in turn forced “radical and racist” teachings upon its pupils. Responding to Stefanik, State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said, “As frequently indicated, the State Education Department does not provide Critical Race Theory. What lesson are we teaching our children when a U.S. representative traffics in conspiracies — and conflates opinions with fact?”

As a New York educator, I can report that Critical Race Theory has never been taught in any classroom I’ve been a part of. But reality doesn’t matter. This is an all-out campaign to undermine education. To kick us when we are down. 

Parental Rights Movement

For my profession, as a whole, this new-fangled version of the “Parental Rights Movement” has been entirely corrosive. We’ve seen news clips of community members irrationally shouting down school employees. We’ve read about the threats of violence against “Woke” Board of Ed. members. The “conservative” organization, Moms For Liberty, whose members and leaders have been accused of harassing and/or threatening teachers, school librarians, and school board members, is a malignancy. 

In June 2022, Cabot, Arkansas police opened an investigation against Moms For Liberty after a recording surfaced featuring one of its leaders fantasizing about shooting school librarians, saying “they would all be plowed down with a freaking gun.” In March 2023, a South Carolina M. F. L. member that served on a local school board was asked to resign after allegedly making violent threats towards local teachers. 

WRGB, a CBS affiliate out of Schenectady, New York, which serves the state’s Capital Region, routinely runs a segment called “Crisis in the Classroom” as part of its evening news broadcast. I’m not used to seeing such blatant bias on local news, so I did some research, and found out WRGB is operated by Sinclair Broadcasting. Sinclair owns 193 news stations across America and is viewed in 40% of households. A 2019 study in the American Political Science Review found that “stations bought by Sinclair reduce coverage of local politics, increase national coverage and move the ideological tone of coverage in a conservative direction relative to other stations in the same market.” The company has been criticized by journalists and media analysts for requiring its stations to broadcast packaged video segments and its news anchors to read prepared scripts that contain pro-Trump editorial content, including warnings about purported “fake news” in mainstream media. 

Right now, in North Carolina, a woman named Michele Morrow is running as a Republican to oversee the state’s public school system. According to CNN’s KFile, between 2019-21, Ms. Morrow took to social media to call for the deaths of Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as other prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo—all while promoting QAnon conspiracies and disparaging public schools as “socialism” and “indoctrination centers.” When confronted about her comments, Ms. Morrow refused to address them directly. Instead, she said, “Do you know that education is a problem in this entire country?” Morrow, who homeschooled her children, defeated the incumbent superintendent in a GOP primary earlier this month. Should Ms. Morrow win a general election in November, she’d be in charge of the state’s 11-billion-dollar public schools budget.

While the majority of schools in my region returned to in-person learning in September 2020, our district lacked the funds to reopen at that time, so we remained remote until February 2021, when our Superintendent announced, “We’re back!” Right before we returned, I spoke by phone with my supervisor. I asked him if he worried that the Covid-19 pause might never end. He answered, “Yep, it’s all I ever worried about. Sitting in an empty school building day after day after day, running meetings through a monitor, is the worst thing imaginable for a guy like me. All I ever did was worry. I worried we might lose the whole thing. Our school. Our system. Our way of life.”    

I’m not mad at Trump and/or Biden for the difficulties we face in this profession. Blaming others offers a quick high but solves nothing. Under both Presidents, training was offered. I took it. Anyone who needed time off got it. Trump put my student loans on pause. Biden forgave them, free and clear. As an educator and an American, I believe we should not measure the last four years solely on the size of our bank accounts. Rather, we should ask ourselves: where do I put my faith? Who is going to rally my spirit when I’m beaten down? Who is going to help me endure so that I may prevail? Donald Trump fills me with dread, anger, and a hopelessness I cannot afford when facing high-schoolers. President Biden, for all of his faults, still holds the very idealism that I want to carry when I’m eighty years old and long gone from the classroom. I do not need a President to fix my problems. I need a President to help me believe I can fix things myself, with my friends, with my colleagues.

”Comparing education now to education four years ago is apples and oranges,” said Kyle Dalton, a high school civics teacher. “They just aren’t the same, never will be.”

Return to In-Person

On Sunday, February 28, 2021, I took a second shot of the Moderna vaccine, and the next day, Monday, March 1, 2021, returned to school. I still remember the moment I unlocked my classroom door and stepped inside that darkened room. More than half the student desks had been removed, and those that remained stood six feet apart. Thick lines of masking tape crisscrossed the floor. Jugs of surface wipes and sanitizer were stacked on the podium. I flipped on the lights, walked to my desk, set the cardboard box with my teaching supplies upon it. The calendar was still turned to March 2020, showing those meetings that never happened, the basketball game that was never played, Jasmine’s 18th B-day!! in time-faded pink pen. Jasmine was almost nineteen now. All grown up, but not quite. My state teaching license lay face-down and dust-covered on the computer table. I turned it over, blew the dust away, then stood it back up. After unpacking the box and replacing my supplies, I sat in my chair, put both hands over my mask-covered face, and cried.  

Brian Huba’s essays have appeared in VoegelinView, the Wilderness House Literary Review, bioStories, Men Matters Online Journal, the Superstition Review, In Parentheses, and the Satirist. His creative nonfiction has been published in 101 Words, Reed Magazine, The Griffin, Down in the Dirt, Literary Juice, and The Storyteller. Brian has placed op-eds in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Democrat & Chronicle, New York’s Journal News, the Syracuse-Post Standard, the NY Daily News, Albany’s Times Union, and the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Brian has taught high school English in Upstate New York for 18 years. 

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