Teachers: The Way Home Is Through Baghdad

That holiday break we recently finished was not a vacation. It was only a breath, a moment of pause in a pandemic. Sure, many of us rested but how many educators feel refreshed and ready to return? 
This piece is not about toxic positivity. No one has the patience for phrases like, “You got this!” or “We are all in this together!” Instead, my message is this:  the way home is through Baghdad.  The next months might be the most frustrating and demanding of the 2020-2021 school year. 
I do not intend to insult any military veteran’s experience. Still, I wonder if this is how soldiers feel when they have survived previous battles only to await the next one? Does the feeling manifest as waves of nausea, like when a stomach bug is brewing? Does the military train recruits on managing fatigue? How does one muster the resolve needed to march on? Ten months into our invisible war with this virus, medical personnel are overwhelmed, first responders are getting sick, and hospitals are at capacity. No one has any extra to give. The virus is victorious, killing over 350,000 Americans; it changes tactics with each mutation. Hopefully, we will win the war.
This week millions of students and teachers across America will resume remote learning. For most schools in my central New York community, educators and students will return to buildings to continue the arduous hybrid, synchronous teaching, and learning task. Although a few of the 700 school districts in the state have extended remote instruction until January 19, 2021, most are open and on time beginning on January 4, 2021. Remote-only instruction has its perils, but reporting to a school where you have no idea how serious the people you spend significant time with have taken precautions during the holidays is maddening. Returning to buildings when the positivity rate is over 7 percent and the local hospitals are overwhelmed is like being ordered to “go over the top” into no man’s land during the first world war.  
However, some neighboring districts have thrown in the towel, declaring that students will be learning remotely for a few more weeks. These school leaders admit that the plans made in August have reached an expiration date. Like strategic generals, these school administrators accept that they must adapt. The live stream-hybrid model with synchronous learning was always a temporary stop-gap until normalcy or pandemic won out. No one expected that we would limp along for 15 weeks, only to face higher illness rates and attrition of both students and staff.  
But, oh wait, teachers predicted this would happen. We wrote letters to those in representative (union) or authoritative positions. Those leaders told the teachers, who mostly belong to the “gentler sex,” not to fret. They informed these complaining teachers that all would be fine; they knew best in these unprecedented times. The only role the teacher had was the implementation of such plans. Teachers were to disregard their professional instincts and be good soldiers. 
Some districts, however, bucked the trend of going or remaining remote-only, attempting to win some imaginable award for toughness during a global pandemic. These districts declared: “We are remaining open.” Although many administrators, teachers, and staff have been or will be quarantined or ill, these districts stay the course. Although most classes average 1.5 students attending in-person per class, the buildings remain “open.” It almost seems fiscally irresponsible to keep the lights on for so few students. Teachers hear that schools are safe; schools are not sources of spread experts declare.  
School and learning must go on. There is little grace or flexibility for educators and students. Students continue to prepare for standardized tests, write essays, and complete lab reports while being graded in a system that never adequately measured student achievement or predicted future success. Fire and lock-down drills persist in a way that mocks our human need to feel a sense of control.  
The dichotomy of our current existence is surreal.  
We are all living in deficit. The food lines are long, and the stimulus check will not increase our bank accounts long enough. Click To Tweet
The lack of choices and influence chain together all essential workers. Teachers like nurses are professionals who wear comfortable shoes for a reason–they are both physical jobs. Medical professionals are the heroes playing the lead roles; teachers are the supporting actors. Teachers find themselves weeping at videos of doctors and nurses receiving the first vaccinations. We hope that their bravery will pave the way to a time when we teach without masks in full classrooms again. But, we have no idea when “normal” returns.  
The cliche that it is always darkest before the dawn is apt. This winter, we are all in a dark place, searching for the light. Hoping that next Christmas, with traditions renewed, our days of anxiety, exhaustion, and impotence will be memories. We await our turn for the vaccinations, while the political leaders promised 20 million doses delivered by the end of 2020, but only 4.28 million doses injected into arms so far.  
We anticipate that day when we can throw our masks up in the air like graduates with their mortarboards. Until then, many educators and students battle towards victory.  

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