As teachers head back into their classrooms for yet another pandemic school year, many feel a foreboding sense of déjà vu.
Most teachers are now vaccinated against COVID-19, a major distinction from the last school year. But children younger than 12 are still ineligible for the vaccine, and among the students who are eligible, uptake has been slow. (Only 30 percent of children ages 12 to 15 have been fully vaccinated, along with 40 percent of the 16 to 17 age group.) Mask wearing has become politicized and hotly controversial, with at least eight states forbidding schools from requiring face coverings, according to the tracking firm Burbio. And the Delta variant, which in rare cases can cause infections among the vaccinated, is spreading rapidly.
“I thought we’d be past this, but God, here we are again,” said Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary art teacher in rural west Tennessee. “It feels heavier this time.”
Most school districts are planning for students to come back to classrooms five days a week, and many have eliminated remote learning options. About one-third of school and district leaders said no one will be required to wear masks, and another third said they have not yet made a decision about requirements, according to a recent nationally representative survey from the EdWeek Research Center.
Teachers say they’re eager to return to normalcy and think that in-person instruction is the best option for most students, but they worry about all the unknowns with new coronavirus variants. And after a disruptive school year in which teacher stress levels skyrocketed and morale plummeted, the thought of going back to remote or hybrid learning weighs heavily.
Some experts have predicted that schools will struggle to remain open amid the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Indeed, just days into the school year, some schools have already had to shut down because of outbreaks. Others have delayed the start of school. Many teachers say they’re bracing for another year of disruption.
Yet teachers’ unions—which received blowback last year for taking a conservative approach to schools reopening—are championing students returning to school buildings five days a week. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, is spending $5 million to fund 60 “back-to-school” campaigns in 30 states. In many places, local union members are going door to door to encourage parents to send their children back into school buildings.
“We know that [kids] need to be in school, and we know everybody needs to be healthy and safe,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in an interview.
While Weingarten acknowledged the Delta variant has “given us a curveball,” she said in-person school can still be held safely with the right mitigation strategies, such as universal masking, good ventilation, and, if possible, reduced class sizes to aid with social distancing.
But there’s one mitigation strategy that she and National Education Association President Becky Pringle stop short of supporting: mandated vaccinations for teachers. Both union leaders support vaccination in general and say a vast majority of educators have already gotten their shots. Weingarten said she would prefer to see the parameters that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put on teachers there: Get vaccinated or get tested once a week.
“As strongly as I support vaccines, you have to have some voice and agency in determining whether you get the shot in the arm,” Weingarten said.
Even so, some cities are moving forward with vaccination mandates for public employees, which can include school staff. Denver teachers, for example, are required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.
Teachers are now worried about their students
In a shift from last August, when teachers were drafting new wills before heading back into classrooms, most teachers who are vaccinated say they’re no longer afraid of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19. While breakthrough infections can happen, the vaccines are still highly effective against hospitalization or death.
Instead, teachers now say they’re worried about their students and their own children, especially those in schools no longer requiring masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that vaccinated people can transmit the Delta variant to others, and that they recommend mask usage indoors—including in schools—so that the “vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones.”
“I’m having heart palpitations because I’m vaccinated, [my kids are] not, and I have to go back into a school system” that is not requiring masks, said Carla Mancuso, a high school special education teacher and reading specialist in Sussex, N.J., and the president of the local teachers’ union. She has 11-year-old twins, and while she plans to wear a mask in her classroom, she can’t be sure if her students or co-workers will, or if they’ll be vaccinated.
“I believe the kids need to be back in school right now, but as far as the Delta variant, I’m a little wary,” she said. “Are we opening a petri dish if we all go back?”
Vaughn, the Tennessee teacher, is also working in a school building where masks are not required—which terrifies her. She’s in her final month of pregnancy, and after a three-week maternity leave, she’ll be teaching and then coming home to an infant.
Fewer than half of the staff members in her school district have been vaccinated, Vaughn said, and none of her students are old enough to get the vaccine. While she’s vaccinated and plans to wear her mask, she said it’s still hard to trust that school is a safe place, given that she doesn’t have hot water in her classroom and was not provided with cleaning or disinfecting supplies. On the first day of school, few people wore masks, and there wasn’t much social distancing happening, she said.
“I just want someone that’s in charge and who’s making decisions to look me in the face and tell me that I will be OK, and that I will be able to deliver this child safely, and I will not contract COVID,” she said. “My No. 1 goal is to protect this baby.”
A vaccine could be available for all school-aged children this fall or winter—Pfizer has said it expects to have clinical trial data for children ages 5 to 11 by the end of September, although federal regulators recently asked vaccine makers to expand their pediatric trials, which may delay the timeline. Moderna is also studying the efficacy of the vaccine for children under 12, although on a slower timeline. Once the companies request to expand emergency authorization of their vaccines to that age group, it will take at least a few weeks for federal regulators to review the trial data and approve their requests.
COVID-19 is much less likely to cause severe illness in children than adults, although there are still some risks. But children are making up an increasing share of cases, given the Delta variant’s infectiousness and the fact that so many kids are unvaccinated.
Jana Angelucci, an elementary art teacher in Indiana, said she’s losing sleep over the possibility of transmitting the virus to one of her students. Her district has said masks are optional, although she plans to wear one.
“It’s very unnerving to think, what if I have [COVID-19], and I have a little child with asthma, and they get it?” she said. “I’ve never [before] started school wondering if we’re going to lose a child. … I can’t shake that thought.”
Pedagogy is a challenge, too
The CDC has recommended that, in addition to wearing masks, students should maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance in classrooms this school year.
“Without the physical closeness and the ability to read one’s mouth and facial expressions, it becomes really difficult [to connect] and you lose that collective effervescence … that can happen in a classroom when everyone’s connected,” said Samara Spielberg, a Spanish teacher at a private K-8 school in New York City.
Last year, her students had to sit behind Plexiglass barriers, facing the front of the room. They weren’t able to move freely around the room or in the hallways. Spielberg said she missed the energy of students opening up while learning. But given the spread of Delta, those mitigation measures will likely stay in place this year, too.
“It’s those little moments, those tiny moments of connection that pile up on top of each other to create this sense of belonging in school, that are missing,” she said, adding that educators have to figure out how to recreate a thriving classroom with the precautions in place.
Many pedagogical best practices involve students closely collaborating with their peers, said Lori Atkinson, a high school English teacher in Copenhagen, N.Y.
“That was the hardest part [of last year]: not being able to use the things that you know as a good educator help the kids and help the kids learn,” she said.
It’s even more challenging for younger grades, Atkinson noted: Reading instruction has been particularly challenging with masks, as teachers need to model the correct tongue placement and mouth formation to sound out letters and words.
While teachers adapted to the challenges, she and others said, the constant pivoting took its toll. And though teachers had hoped this year would be more normal, they’re bracing to do it all over again.
“With Delta ramping up, you have to find your ‘why’ again—what made you become a teacher,” Spielberg said. “We have to be prepared for a really tough year.”