My name is Sarah Bryant and I’m a Washoe County teacher. This is a day-by-day account of my activities during the first two weeks of school in Reno, a city in the grip of the pandemic and blanketed in a pall of dense smoke from California wildfires.
We hurriedly prepared for the reopening
My school district decided just weeks before school started to operate in a hybrid A/B schedule. The district, however, also allowed students to choose a fully distance-learning option, with their enrolled teachers. This caused all kinds of problems with enrollment in courses and attendance, but I’ll sum it up. In a “normal” school year, I’d have five classes to prep for and take attendance for. Post-pandemic, I now have 260 students spread out among 14 classes. Some are at home and some are in front of me in school, in four subject areas and among three different grade levels. The amount of time it takes to keep all this straight is mind-boggling.
For almost all my classes, now I have to provide simultaneous in-person content and online content. I also, however, have a group of students who do not come on an A/B schedule, they come every day. So, now I have to come up with something else for those kids to do, since the rest of their class is only in front of me every other day.
School start was pushed back by a week for “professional development,” which primarily consisted of teaching staff COVID-19 protocols that changed soon after we learned them.
The first week coincided with wildfires
Monday, Aug. 17: School was supposed to begin, but due to the dense smoke from the wildfires to the west that blanketed the Truckee Meadows, our first day of school was canceled, gaining another professional development day.
Tuesday, Aug. 18 to Wednesday, Aug. 19: We held school both days, with 20 minute classes to instruct students in methods aimed at memorizing their masked classmates’ eyes instead of whole faces and to quickly give class directions and protocols. Oh, and with some peppy talk about still being able to love school even under these conditions.
Thursday, Aug. 20: Because of smoke, school was cancelled again. I thought we were supposed to be working as teachers, but apparently that day was like a “snow day,” and I worked all day for nothing. At least I got a whole bunch of on-line lesson plans loaded (that was eight hours work to upload a week’s worth of lessons). I was told I’d be able to use a program called “Edgenuity” for lessons, but it turned out there is no Edgenuity support for my content. So I have to create lessons from scratch.
Friday, Aug. 21: School was canceled again, also due to heavy smoke. Teachers were told we had to work. I was already working; students were communicating with me and attempting to do work.
In the midst of that, I was notified that six of my students have been “excluded,” due to COVID-19 protocols. This does not mean they have the virus, but there is some reason that they aren’t allowed to return to class, which makes me very nervous. How concerned for my own and my family’s health should I be? While I was writing this, I got an email from another student, confused why I hadn’t communicated with her, because she was also excluded. I had received no notification that she wasn’t allowed in class.
The smoke abates; the 2nd week of school begins
The week of Monday, Aug. 24 there was less smoke in the Reno area, so we were able to go to school from Monday to Thursday. Even with COVID, even with masks, even with hybrid schedule, I felt like we were starting to get traction.
“I should mention that I can’t really teach my content. Choir isn’t allowed right now, due to COVID-19 dangers. So, I’m a choir/drama teacher who can’t teach singing or acting. We can’t perform. We can’t do anything inside but hum. The district has allowed us to “sing outside.” But, it’s almost 100 degrees, and, as I mentioned, it’s smoky. We have to wear masks, and right outside my classroom is an extremely loud air conditioning unit.” — Sarah Brock, choir and drama teacher.
But sure, we can sing outside. The few days we had school, I did take some kids outside to sing for a few minutes. It was painful, to see not only the hope in their eyes — they’re hungry for this — and the pain, but it’s so far from actual choir.
‘Code Yellow’ declared, a lock-down follows
Tuesday, Aug. 25, during 5th period, we had a “CODE YELLOW.” That means there’s a nearby “threat off-campus.” For two periods we had to teach under lock-down, not knowing what was happening. After school, bus kids were raced to buses, and teachers were asked to stay with students who walk or bike to school until an adult could come pick them up. All this time, teachers were told nothing.
When we were able to check our own phones, we found out that across the street from the school, a construction crew had unearthed old dynamite. While scary, our imaginations had conjured much worse threats.
That evening, one of our school board members (who was among those who voted to approve the reopening plan that forced the in-person learning environment we’re now working in) resigned after the details of his messy divorce, which also exposed his other questionable actions on social media, surfaced in news reports.
Smoke rolls in, schools close down again
Friday, Aug. 28: That day should have been the third Friday of school, but under the reopening plan it would have been the seventh day of in-person instruction. It wasn’t. I got up, prepared for school, and got on the road. Suddenly, on the radio, I heard that school was being held completely as “distance-learning” that day due to more dangerous smoke rolling in from the west. I stared at the radio. At that point, I had received no communication from the school district itself.
I pulled over and waited for confirmation, which came shortly via phone and email. Yes, school was canceled. This was just over half an hour before classes were scheduled to start. I turned around. Once home, I frantically scheduled seven Zoom meetings, put announcements on our learning management system, attended to the Microsoft Teams’ learning platforms, sent out emails to all students as well as email notifications to their parents.
Then, I spent all day on Zoom, translating the content that would have been held in person to a digital format, all with a smile, all encouraging the kids as much as I could, as much as I could try to make this somewhat engaging and “normal.” However, even after all my work, after all my attempted communication, I had about 10 to 20% of my students even show up.
After doing Zoom presentations back-to-back all day, no time to eat, barely time to go to the bathroom, I then had to spend an hour taking attendance for all those students who were at home (How you ask? How do you take attendance for students you can’t see? That is great question.), and then tried to upload the Zoom meetings for the students who didn’t attend, only to find half of the computer files had gotten corrupted and wouldn’t upload.
And it’s only the beginning of the school year
So, there you are. There’s the first three weeks of “school,” in the age of COVID-19. I’m trying. I’m beyond exhausted. I’m weary. But, if you read the “bottom of the internet,” the comments on posts about school cancellations over the last two weeks, you will see plenty of comments about “horrible” teachers are, “how lazy, how liberal, how unionized, how we’re responsible for destroying the economy,” how we just want a “paid vacation,” how we just need to “shut up and teach,” and how other people’s jobs have changed, too.
Please, please, please explain to me and to all the other teachers who are weathering this relentless storm how we’re lazy, how I and all the others are still answering student emails, as I type this, after 6 p.m. on a Friday night.
Please, tell us, tell me again, how lazy we are.