Teachers across Illinois are embarking on another uncertain school year under the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
This time around most students are expected back in classrooms. Teachers say they are eager to work with students face-to-face again, but that excitement is overshadowed by fear of yet another pandemic year.
WBEZ checked in with four teachers to hear what’s on their minds as they return to school.
Aiming for a sense of normalcy
Rachel Esposito is prepping her eighth grade language arts classroom in southwest suburban Cicero like she does every year. Her students return next week.
She’s buying new plants and hanging posters that feature Hispanic leaders to inspire her mostly Latino students.
“If you can have a good relationship with your students and they feel respected, they are going to work for you,” Esposito said. “They are going to do things that maybe they won’t do for other teachers.”
Esposito wants to bring a sense of normalcy to yet another unusual and uncertain year shaped by the pandemic, particularly as the delta variant quickly spreads. Still, Esposito, who is the president of the local teachers union, says big concerns lurk right under the surface.
“We are worried about positive cases. We are worried about what quarantine is going to look like. We are worried about mask-wearing,” Esposito said. “Our district has taken some steps at improving ventilation,” she added, “but now at a 100% [student] capacity, things are going to change.”
Esposito is also thinking about how schools, in general, should invest their resources. For example, instead of spending more time, money and energy on standardized testing, she wants the focus to shift to increasing the number of social workers and nurses in schools.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the last 18 months about student learning gaps caused by remote learning and the hardships of the pandemic.
But all four teachers interviewed by WBEZ said they aren’t overly concerned about some students coming in with potential gaps. It’s their job to bring students up to speed academically — and they’re used to doing it.
They also say it’s short-sighted to pin the problems solely on the pandemic.
Monica Rojas taught last year at an Acero charter school on the Southwest Side of Chicago. She said the school struggled to hire enough teachers to fully support students.
She said the term “learning gap” has become a buzzword, but she thinks academic gaps are mostly caused by a lack of resources — not just remote learning or the pandemic.
“They come from us not having enough staff,” said Rojas, who recently got a job at a Chicago public school on the South Side. “For example, this past year, I was teaching a lot of different things. And one teacher cannot give support to 64 students the same way that two teachers will be able to, or three teachers will be able to.”
Bringing tech into the classroom
Karen Moore, a special education teacher in south suburban Harvey, was a tech novice at the start of the pandemic. But she jumped in, and now she’s ready to move to the next level.
“We learned by doing,” said Moore, who teaches at Maya Angelou Elementary. ”I feel like I know the surface level of being able to maneuver Google classrooms and Google Meets and all the different technology devices, but I want to go further, I want to go deeper, so that I could use it at its full capacity.”
She recently found an online program that she thinks will be great for her students. It helps them process information in a new way by reading assignments out loud. Students can then annotate and highlight important ideas, she said. “We don’t have to do everything with paper and pencil, and students can verbally give their answers to the computer and the computer will type it.”
Moore is adding new online skills on her own, but she’d love to see more training from her school so she and others can integrate the best of what they used in the remote classroom into the real classroom.
Relationships before academics
Jesus Diaz, a dual-language lead teacher in northwest suburban Elgin, is welcoming his students back to school this week.
He wears many hats at his school. Last week, he wandered the halls making sure his teachers had all the books, projectors and computers they needed. This week, he expects to take on the role of a life coach. “We don’t really know all the different challenges students experienced during the pandemic,” Diaz said.
He knows many students have been through a lot. And now, a new stress is getting used to a new school routine in person.
“On top of that, you have the pandemic all over you,” said Diaz, who teaches at Abbott Middle School. “You still need to maintain social distancing. You still need to wear those masks. You still need to add all these other protocols in addition to what normally happens in school.”
Despite all the unknowns, Diaz and other teachers want to be back in-person with their students. They say their top concern is checking in on the students’ social and emotional well being, and helping them relearn how to be back in school once again.
“Relationships with kids come first,” Rachel Esposito said.