As A Debate Rages Over Reopening Schools, Some Teachers Are Embracing A Return To The Classroom

school
Lemont High School teacher Angie Duensing said she's comfortable with the safety precautions put in place for in-person learning at her school, such as one way hallways and small class sizes. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
school
Lemont High School teacher Angie Duensing said she's comfortable with the safety precautions put in place for in-person learning at her school, such as one way hallways and small class sizes. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As A Debate Rages Over Reopening Schools, Some Teachers Are Embracing A Return To The Classroom

Lemont High School English teacher Angie Duensing started the school year teaching from her dining room table. She has a busy household. Her husband, who is also a teacher, and their three children, are all also tackling school from home.

Occasionally, Duensing has had to pause her class to help her youngest child with her elementary school work.

“My students have been really good about if I need to step away for a second and answer her questions,” Duensing said over a Zoom call. “It’s about being honest and open with my students.”

She says the e-teaching experience has been much better than the spring, but now things are changing again. Her school in the southwest suburbs is transitioning to a hybrid plan where she sees 25% of students in the building on a given day, while the other 75 % learn at home. Duensing is teaching both sets of kids simultaneously.

“We have some teachers [for which] technology isn’t a problem, and we have some teachers that are really struggling,” said Duensing, who has been teaching for 22 years. “I feel like I’m one of those ‘I got this’ teachers. You gotta make the best of it. You got to do what you got to do for the kids.”

Many schools in the Chicago area started the year remotely, and now some like Lemont are starting to return in some form. Amid the debate of reopening school buildings, and whether staff members are safe, some teachers like Duensing said they’ve gotten comfortable with the move and are glad to be back.

Duensing said overall the new plan is going well because she has just eight students in her in-person classes, and she’s comfortable with the safety precautions the school is using. She has the flexibility to teach from home for part of the week to help her youngest daughter. She teaches online from her dining room while some students are in the school building and the rest are remote.

When she’s at school, the all-day mask wearing hasn’t been a problem. She said the new way of moving around has started to feel normal. Now, she’s focused on getting kids back on track.

“The kids lost education time from March on,” she said. “There were kids I did not see once March happened, and [the Illinois State Board of Education] came out and said we are not doing grades.”

The state urged school districts to relax grades in the spring, but now schools are supposed to be using their regular grading practices.

The debate over in-person learning

Recouping lost learning has been a key point in some communities that are rallying for school districts to reopen school buildings. It’s been a contentious issue, and some parents have said they’re frustrated with how long kids have to spend in front of the computer when they believe it’s safe enough to return to the classroom.

In many districts, including Chicago Public Schools, teachers have said they don’t think there’s enough safety precautions in place to come back, like protective gear and repairs to old ventilation systems.

But teacher Denise Budney said she feels safe and is glad to have students back, at least part time. She teaches business at Lincoln-Way East High School in southwest suburban Frankfurt. It’s been on a hybrid plan for a couple of weeks now.

“I do feel prepared,” Budney said. “We had these guidelines established over the summer.”

There’s more of a challenge behind reopening high schools than elementary. There’s usually more people in one building, and students have varying schedules that have them moving around to different classes. Budney said the students are fidgety, but they’re adjusting to the safety guidelines together. She wipes down the desks between each period, and hallways now have a strict traffic flow.

Budney said she’s accustomed to reading students’ faces for some informal feedback on her lessons. That’s gotten harder to do with the masks. But she’ll take that over the lack of interaction during online classes that she led from an empty room at school.

“Now that we’re back, I’m liking it much more,” she said. “I like seeing students’ faces … 6 feet apart, anyway.”

Outbreaks and predictions

Across Cook and the collar counties, there have been a few coronavirus outbreaks associated with schools. An incident of two positive COVID-19 cases or more within a 14-day period in the same classroom can be considered an outbreak, according to the state. In McHenry County, a few outbreaks occurred during remote learning with only staff in the buildings. On the other hand, Lake County hasn’t had an outbreak associated with schools yet, just a few isolated cases where individuals quarantined as a precaution.

For now, schools across the Chicago area are starting to shift to some form of in-person learning. But since the summer, schools have been changing their plans to respond to the latest coronavirus data and teacher concerns, often at the last minute.

Budney said her school intends to finish the semester on its hybrid schedule, but it’s anyone’s guess if that will happen.

This is a year, Budney said, where “you cannot predict anything anymore.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.