By Teresa Henderson
As my students head back to school this week, I’m excited to see them. But like many teachers across the country, I’m facing this academic year with mixed emotions — the kind I’ve never before experienced. In the midst of a global pandemic, teaching and learning this fall will undoubtedly be different.
For 10 years I’ve been a special education teacher at Summer Grove Elementary School in Shreveport, La. I teach students with moderate mental disabilities in a self-contained classroom. This year my class consists of five fifth-graders, one fourth-grader and one second-grader. My students have a range of disabilities including autism and cerebral palsy.
“I’m facing this academic year with mixed emotions — the kind I’ve never before experienced.”
After closing schools in the spring, our school district decided to reopen them this year with several changes to ensure everyone’s safety. Parents do have the option to keep their children home, and four of my students will be learning online. But, really, my whole class will be accessing the curriculum through the internet. Even as I teach in person, each student will be on their own device, because teachers are not allowed to go within six feet of students. I’ll make good use of my smartboard so that all students, those in person and those learning virtually, can see what I’m doing. Our district has encouraged us to be as paperless as possible.
To stop the spread of germs, there are dispensers for hand sanitizer on the walls throughout the school. The water fountains have been shut off, and students have been told to bring their own water bottles. Students, teachers and school staff must wear masks at all times except while eating. My students must remain in the classroom for nearly the entire school day, which runs from 7:20 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. Because they are not allowed to go to the cafeteria, all students will each lunch at their desks, which are now spaced six feet apart. The two paraprofessionals who work with me will ensure that students stay safe as they learn. We’ll have to check students’ temperatures several times a day and also make sure they wash their hands.
Students will be allowed bathroom breaks two to three times a day. We’ll make sure they stand six feet apart when they line up to walk to the restroom, which they must use one at a time.
We’ll also make sure they’re spaced appropriately when they line up for recess. Students will still be allowed to go outside, but in August in Louisiana it’s often too hot to play outdoors. So administrators have told us that on days that are sweltering or rainy, students will be allowed to do activities at their desks, like Play-Doh, which is good for my kids because it helps build their fine motor skills. Students will still have enrichment classes in art, music, physical education and library (this year there’s also a new writing enrichment class), but these teachers will all come into our classroom.
We’re supposed to keep our distance from the students while we teach; our administrators have said we cannot hover around students’ desks. Instead, we’ve got to walk by very quickly to make sure they’re staying on task.
My students are really sweet children. I had the five fifth-graders as fourth-graders last year. They’re salt-of-the-earth people. If they have one crayon and they know you need one, they’re going to give it to you. They’re going to share whatever they’ve got. I think that the hardest part for my students, besides staying in the classroom for most of the day and keeping their masks on, will be trying to understand they can’t touch me and I can’t touch them. My students are very affectionate; they all like to hug. If a classmate has to leave early for the day, everybody wants to give them a hug, and we can’t do that this year. That’s going to be a struggle for them to comprehend — that for everyone’s safety, we have to stay far apart.
“I will do my absolute best not to share my anxiety about all these changes with my students.”
I will do my absolute best not to share my anxiety about all these changes with my students. If I put on a brave face then everyone in my room will think everything’s OK. I’ve got to be the one to set the tone for my kids and the paraprofessionals who work in my classroom. Because if I’m agitated and showing my stress, it’s going to rub off on them, and we’re all going to be unhappy. And the kids don’t need or deserve that. Even though this year is different, they remain my №1 priority. I want them to know I’m still here to support them.
Teresa Henderson teaches special education at Summer Grove Elementary School in the Caddo Parish Public Schools in Shreveport, La. She is a member of Red River United.