The night before he returned to teach in-person last month, sixth grade science teacher Roger Lyons’ mind raced with concerns. Would he recognize any of the students he had taught all year through a screen? Would his school’s internet be able to hold up under the weight of students logging in at home and in his classroom? How would he teach the students in front of him and those on the computer screens?
But most of all: Would it be safe?
Lyons was skeptical about how beneficial a fourth-quarter return to classrooms at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore would be for students sitting 6 feet apart behind plastic shields plugged into their laptops all day.
For Lyons, the return brought more upheaval to a year of non-stop change. Teachers were pushed to be more flexible, patient and creative than they were before — experimenting on new technology, redesigning lesson plans and trying to connect with students who only appeared as black squares on a computer screen.
Sometimes the 20-year-veteran teacher felt more like a failure than a success, knowing he couldn’t blunt the effects of students spending a year away from school. Organic collaboration with colleagues, relationships with students or visits to other classrooms weren’t possible.
“It was the most challenging year. You are working three times as hard. You feel you have more expectations,” Lyons said. “You were stuck in this new world.”
When all schools statewide were ordered to close March 12, 2020, Lyons was at sea. His school — and his school system — had never invested heavily in technology. Not only did students not have laptops and internet, teachers didn’t always either. Lyon’s laptop had no camera, so when learning went virtual he appeared as a disembodied voice for his students struggling to learn something at home.
Some days, only three or five students would appear, he said, and he would wonder what he was going to teach.
“It was almost like I am wasting my time. No one is coming in and no one is doing any work. I felt like what I was doing wasn’t making a difference at all,” Lyons said. “I felt like giving up sometimes.”
Married to another city school teacher, Lyons, 49, and his wife were juggling their jobs on Zoom while trying to make sure that their two school-aged children were learning as well. Lyons, who is also a part-time pastor, sees teaching as a calling. He left the classroom for three years to work in the central administration in North Avenue, but he returned after deciding that he belonged in the classroom.
But this year had been his most challenging. That’s true for a lot of teachers.
“I am seeing a level of exhaustion, trauma and burnout that I haven’t seen,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents city school teachers, “but at the same time the soldiering on.”
“No group of people have been as creative and flexible in their adaption to the challenges of the pandemic,” Weingarten said.
When school restarted last fall, Lyons was hoping for a better outcome for his students. More students and teachers had the laptops and the Wi-Fi they needed for class, but the work load proved crushing.
Lyons found himself waking at 5 a.m. to work out before school and make his children breakfast.
Lyons said many of his students weren’t proficient in basic computer skills, while others had to be taught how to navigate between one platform and another. There were calls from parents and students who had been thrown off their Wi-Fi or were having trouble accessing a lesson.
After classes ended for the day there was another round of Zoom meetings with teachers to plan. And he had always led after school programs such as Stocks for the Future, and mentored first year teachers.
Then there were the daily calls to parents whose children weren’t appearing virtually. The school wanted to keep students engaged.
And it worked, he said. Students signed on, but Lyons never knew what was going on because students often didn’t turn on their computer cameras. Sometimes, he said he would see students taking care of siblings or leaving to go to the store with a parent.
The number of hours on the screen became mind numbing. “Can you get off Zoom for a minute?” his children would ask. Or “There you go again.”
Lyons found he had to shut down at 5 p.m. to pay attention to his own children and stay sane.
“We are working three times as hard. There are more things put on us with the pandemic,” Lyons said. “I am exhausted. The breaks are not really there.”
By the end of March, he said, the parent phone calls had diminished. The children were either coming to school or their parents had sometimes given up. One parent, who couldn’t be there to support her child during school hours, told Lyons: “I am tired. Just fail my child.”
Lyons said he had never provided his students with as much interesting and engaging material, recording lessons so they could listen to them when convenient. He had gotten more of the curriculum covered. He just didn’t know how much of it the students absorbed.
After the first round of return-to-school announcements, Lyons thought he had been lucky enough to not be called back. When the call came in the beginning of March, he was a bit surprised and nervous because of the safety issues.
By the second week, though, his classroom was in full swing and his booming voice could be heard online and in person. He wore a mask and a plastic face shield, and 360-degree cameras in the classroom allowed his students to see him as he wandered over to the desks of students who were there. Teaching 47 students at once, he switched between online and in person.
Hazelwood’s teachers found it easier to combine classes so that one teacher could teach the lesson while a second teacher monitored the chat feature, answering questions and making sure no one was having technical issues.
The next period they would switch. So after the other teacher taught math, Lyons rolled into a discussion of Chesapeake Bay species. He dashed between algae and blue crabs, stopping to comment on a student’s jazz playing in the background, and then moving on to a guest speaker talking about the health of the Jones Falls.
Every student was going to create a project to help clean up Baltimore over the course of the quarter.
“I love the participation today,” Lyons said.
In the chat, students raised their hands virtually by typing into their window, “Me. Me. Me.”
After a year of adaptation and change, Lyons is worried about the consequences of the pandemic. He doesn’t feel it is fair that teachers will be evaluated on how well students are doing academically, given that enormity of the issues that prevented students from learning.
“The kids get the benefit of the doubt. The teachers don’t,” Lyons said.
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And, he feels that teachers have gone under appreciated.
“People don’t notice the things you are doing,” he said.
Parents have often blamed the slow reopening of schools to push back by teachers unions, particularly in Maryland, which has been far behind most states in getting students back in classrooms.
Weingarten said the politicization of the return to school debate left teachers defending their need to have layers of safety. The effect of the fight for workplace safety, she said, was politicized “by the right wing and led to huge morale issues and skepticism and distrust by Black and brown parents about whether the schools were safe.”
What many parents also learned when they tried to help their own students, she said, was the value of a good teacher.
He said he was glad to be back, recognizing that it has been positive for students who returned. He feels his principal and the school system did a good job of installing safety measures. Two air purifiers hum in his classroom. Cleaning crews are evident and children are careful to stand apart while passing each other to pick up lunches doled out from a cart.
“Before we started I said it is not worth it,” Lyons said, but some children don’t have anyone at home during the day to keep them online, don’t have access to enough food and are distracted at home. “I will say we needed it. You have to start somewhere.”