What a week it has been! With the regular education students returning, the processing of the full force and enormity of last year’s shutdown came crashing to a sudden halt. No time to process, there we were, in class, with students who were our students last year, for half of the teachers, or with students we had met in September, as squares with a name on our Google Meets, for other teachers. To say that Monday was a bit shocking is an understatement, obviously, I think I am still trying to find the right words. As I gathered a handful of students into my classroom for the return to school ‘safety guidelines’ slideshow, I gazed gently at my students who watched the video in what appeared to be stunned silence. With a lot of time to settle into the school routine, the students and I decided to walk around the school and take a tour to re-familiarize ourselves and to practice the safety guidelines that were highlighted in the video, such as, one way hallways, social distancing while waiting for the bathroom and while eating lunch, and places for mask breaks.
There were six students in my classroom, and after the slideshow and the tour, they started to chat or at least wander around the room a little bit, asking questions about the schedule. They were transitioning from stunned silence into awkward chit chat, mostly about school. I shouldn’t lump them into the same category because they were reacting to the return to school in unique ways. One student who had been outgoing on Google Meets was unstoppable, and surely was not afraid of starting conversations. He behaved as if school had been out for a normal weekend and he was ready for a busy Monday. As we toured the building, he talked to the teachers he recognized, and engaged with the Gym teacher about the NBA’s recent trade deals, and got so close with the other male student in our group that the assistant principal had to remind him to “keep six feet apart!” You heard that right, one of my students had been gone from school for over a year, and within an hour of his return, he was already being reprimanded by one of our principals!
Later in the day, two of the students returned to my classroom for our regularly scheduled class. The outgoing male and his chatty female counterpart were the only students ‘live,’ and the other seven students were on Google Meet. I turned my computer around and sat in a student desk so that the kids at home could see the actual classroom, with their two friends in the ‘live’ setting. That was a riot! The kids at home were noticing when we weren’t following safety guidelines or school rules. For example, they thought that the students and I were not seated six feet apart. They noticed when one of the two students in class kept letting his mask fall under his nose. The kids at home noticed when the ‘live’ students were not following school rules, for example, the female student kept her hood on and repeatedly checked her phone. The chat box was filling with both negative and positive comments, including, “I am glad I am not there, it doesn’t look safe!” and “It looks fun, I wish I could go back!” Those comments in the chat box just about sum up what we were all feeling; students and teachers alike were expressing both excitement about the return to school, and fear about staying healthy and safe with so many new contacts.
So many new contacts, changing into new spaces all day long, walking through the hallways with hundreds of others, having close conversations, staying in enclosed spaces with no ventilation for hours…these are normal school activities, but they are all situations that we were told to avoid at all costs for over a year! We sacrificed so much for the health and safety of all members of our community. And just like that, one day we were protecting ourselves and our children from unnecessary contacts, and the next day, we were engaging in an almost ‘normal’ school experience. This is the part that feels the weirdest and the most surreal, the part that expects us to ignore the enormous feeling that an entire year of our lives was devastated or put on hold or paused, only to have the enormity of last year’s experience be dismissed by a return to things as they were. A colleague described the feeling as ‘being gaslighted,’ which is exactly what is going on here. We are (present tense) wrecked by a global pandemic, numbers continue to rise in our community, and yet we are being asked to ignore the despair and fear, and pick up where we left off. I am so unsure of where this is going, but I know this much is true: all of this is new and we must continue to honor the precarious position that we find ourselves in. In this plunge forward, it is imperative to remind ourselves that the situation we are in, requires us to wander into uncharted territory. Can we see ourselves as brave? As pioneers? As trendsetters? As awesome?
A little over one year ago….I couldn’t help myself from reading what I wrote about the beginning of the stay-in-place state of emergency. It was painful, and still brings me grief as I read it: “Friday’s shocking news about the state’s “state of emergency” sent me reeling into the weekend with one desire: take me away from all of this madness. The stress of the week’s developments was overwhelming, as my school-aged kids and I realized we were not returning to school, and as my college son arrived home, sad, but with hopes of returning to college within a few weeks. The family was stunned as we endured a Friday off from school with a barrage of emails and phone calls and news updates, changing the situation from bad to worse as the day went on.” It was a nightmare scenario, unbelievable to process that our lives were coming to a serious halt. Yes, we are in a different place than a year ago, but it is essential to give ourselves the space to process that our lives will never be the same. As we begin to enjoy a little more freedom and space to explore, stay safe and strong and aware of the tremendous effort required of yourself, your family, the community, to begin again with respect and regard for all of our determination. Let this be a time of renewal, not return.