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Teachers and students tested
by COVID-19 school start

Christine Taylor Thone teaches second grade at Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen for the Eastern Carver County Schools. “I am in-person teaching four days per week with all students present, not hybrid,” she reported. “It’s incredibly stressful and exhausting.” Taylor Thone is a a 33-year member of the Chaska Education Association.

Adapted from the Minneapolis Labor Review, September 25, 2020

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

MINNEAPOLIS — Two weeks in to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, public school teachers across the region reported that they’re already struggling to meet the increased demands brought on by distance learning  — along with their students and students’ families.

In school districts where a hybrid model is the approach to resuming school during the COVID 19 pandemic — with some students in classrooms some days, while other students learn from home — a multitude of challenges also are straining teachers, students, and families.

“Every educator’s biggest concern right now is equity and how distance learning impacts all the communities we work with,” said Jane Swatosh, a fifth grade teacher at Whittier elementary in Minneapolis and member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

Teachers report that while distance learning is working in some ways for some students, other students lack adequate internet connections, adequate computers or other devices, or even a quiet place at home to view classes online.

“No matter what the model looks like for an educator, they are doing double duty, double time and it’s not sustainable,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

“I heard from a teacher just two days ago,” Specht reported September 18. “She said, ‘I’ve only done this two days — I don’t know how I can keep this pace.’”

Teachers and local union presidents in several school districts reported teachers working 10, 12, or 14 hour days or longer.

“It was very difficult last spring. People had to turn their whole profession upside down and change everything,” Specht noted. “It’s still really difficult.”

“We’re going to see a lot of burnout,” Specht feared. “It’s not feasible to continue working under these conditions over a long period of time,” she said.

A handful of districts in the region resumed the school year with in-person classes.“I am in-person teaching four days per week with all students present, not hybrid,” reported Christine Taylor Thone, who teaches second grade at Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen for the Eastern Carver County Schools. “It’s incredibly stressful and exhausting,” she said. Taylor Thone is a a 33-year member of the Chaska Education Association.

Some school districts or programs within districts began the school year with distance learning — and a plan to shift to the hybrid model after a few weeks.

That’s what’s ahead for David Rondestvedt, special education teacher at Armstrong High School in Robbinsdale and 33-year member of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers.

For his special ed students, he said, distance learning “is 10 times harder than for a regular ed student.”

“We have a lot of interactive things we do with our kids,” he said. “That option is limited with distance learning.”

“Because we have such close  personal bonds with a lot of our students, that is the key piece that’s missing,” he added. “The isolation of having to look at a camera and a computer, that’s tough for a lot of our students.”

Looking at the camera and computer all day — that’s tough for teachers, too.

MFT’s Jane Swatosh said very few of her students turn on their cameras on their devices. “It’s hard to teach to a dot” on Google Meet, she explained. “It is nice to see their little faces sometimes.”

“For me, 25 years of teaching, and mostly fifth grade, what I do now is so different — it takes so much time,” Swatosh said.

“We are doing a lot on our own time, because we care. We love our kids,” Swatosh emphasized.

“We are on the screen too much and the kids are on the screen too much and it’s just not sustainable — it’s not healthy for anybody,” Swatosh said.

Bloomington is one of the school districts with tentative plans to bring students back into classrooms some days as part of a hybrid model. “Our biggest concerns are as long as we go back safely and the safety precautions we have can be met,” said Carole Bennett, vice president of the Bloomington Federation of Teachers and a third grade teacher at Westwood elementary.

Teachers, she said, “they’re just worried. They want to be safe. They want the kids we teach to be safe. Everybody wants to be safe.”

With COVID-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, Bennett noted, safety is even more of a concern for the schools in the district with a higher percentage of students from families of color.

In the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose school district, elementary students were already back full-time in classrooms while secondary schools were following the hybrid model,  reported Natalie Polaschek, president of Education Minnesota Buffalo and a sixth and eighth grade teacher.

“We’re all glad to have kids back,” she said. “There’s nothing better than to hear the voices of kids in the hallways, But there’s safety concerns, too.”

Unlike elsewhere, Polaschek reported: “We have access to the Personal Protective Equipment we need. We have access to cleaning materials. That’s been a positive, too,” she said.

But, she added, “it’s too early to tell” if safety measures in place will indeed prevent the spread of COVID-19 among staff and students over time.

“I think the biggest challenge of this hybrid model is teacher burnout,” Polaschek said. “I’ve had numerous staff tell me they are working 12-16 hours a day just to keep up… To have staff talking about burnout on the sixth or seventh day of classes is alarming.”

“We teachers do want what’s best for our students,” said Mark Duffy, social studies and math teacher at Anoka Hennepin Regional High School, the district’s alternative high scho ol. “We are by nature, in our profession, people who want to help others.”

Teachers’ desire to give their all is taking a toll, however. “I have never seen the amount of stress that teachers are experiencing right now, never before, ever,” commented Val Holthus, president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota. “It’s completely unrealistic what the district is expecting.”

“This is the time to get creative, think outside the box,” said Greta Callahan, kindergarten teacher and president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Unfortunately, “we’ve been given a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said “We want to be given flexibility,” she said.

“Nobody’s listening to those who are closest to the students,” Callahan said.

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