Teaching Profession Opinion

‘I Didn’t Hug My Children for 3 Months’

When COVID-19 rates rose, a teacher’s sacrifices to stay in the classroom didn’t seem to count
By Lora Bartlett — August 02, 2021 2 min read
Conceptual image of teacher voice
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Rachel Larsen taught in person at her rural high school in Iowa all last fall. It was even harder and more stressful for Larsen than for other teachers in her district because her husband is in an extreme high-risk health category.

Determined not to bring COVID-19 home, at school Larsen (not her real name because she was promised anonymity in my research project) masked and shielded-up, installed plastic screens between seats, and altered her instruction to minimize student interaction. At home, she was equally careful. She isolated from her husband and school-aged children, changing clothes after school and restricting herself to a separate part of the house. She was always at least six feet away from them. For three months, she did not hug her children.

At the start of school, things went better than she had expected. Teaching in a mask with barriers between students was awkward, but community transmission rates stayed low, and few at school got sick. On the other hand, Larsen had to redesign all her lessons because the groupwork she liked to emphasize didn’t seem safe in the new physical reality of her classroom with students separated by thin plastic barriers but still very close to one another.

“I tried a lot of things,” she said. “I tried for a while putting them in [digital] breakout rooms, but they were in my classroom on their computer at their desk with headphones. It just didn’t work.”

Unhappily, she turned to a lecture format. “It’s not my style. But … I could do it.”

Adding to the strain of preparing for the four different courses she taught, a post-Halloween COVID-19 spike changed her feeling about the safety of the school environment. Suddenly, she knew a dozen people with COVID-19, absenteeism at school rocketed up, and her family was more at risk.

When I would come home in the evening, I'd change in the garage and put my clothes into a plastic bin. I'd go upstairs and shower and then I would remain in my bedroom. ... We would occasionally eat supper in the garage together, where I could blow [out the air with] a fan.

Larsen was appalled when in November, just as the community approached the transmission rate the board had set as the trigger to shift schools from all in-person teaching to some students online and some in person, the board switched to a higher transmission-rate threshold. Larsen and others favored the hybrid approach because a smaller number of students in the classroom would allow for safer distances between them.

The board’s rationale made their change worse. As Larsen recalls, a member of the school board asked rhetorically at the public board meeting how many teachers were going to big family get-togethers for Thanksgiving. And yet, he went on, teachers are claiming that they’re scared of COVID-19.

At that point, Larsen had been carrying out her elaborate protocols of changing clothes and isolating at home for three months. She said the board member’s remark and the board’s decision disregarded the sacrifices she had made to keep teaching.

Larsen took a leave of absence soon after, and at the end of the school year, she resigned. She is currently unsure if she will ever return to teaching.

More About the Series

Lincoln Agnew for Education Week
Teaching Profession Opinion What We Learned About Teachers During the Pandemic: A Series
In this series, a researcher shows how teachers went from making school happen to having little say in planning for an unprecedented year. View the full series and the researcher’s methodology here.
July 19, 2021

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Q&A 'Brown v. Board' Decimated the Black Educator Pipeline. A Scholar Explains How
A new book digs into a lesser-known and negative consequence of one of the nation's most significant civil rights milestones.
9 min read
As her pupils bend themselves to their books, teacher Marie Donnelly guides them along in their studies at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, New York, Sept. 28, 1959. In her 40 years of teaching, never has Donnelly had so many African-American students in a class. The youngsters were bused to the school from Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood where schools are overcrowded. P.S. 77, which had an enrollment of 368 all-white students, can handle 1000 children comfortably. Parents in the Queens neighborhoods objected to influx, but the children themselves adjusted to one another without incident.
A white teacher teaches a newly integrated class at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, N.Y., in September 1959.
Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I'm Afraid to Return to the Classroom': A Gay Teacher of the Year Speaks Out
Willie Carver, Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, is questioning his future as a teacher given recent anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.
8 min read
Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week
Teaching Profession Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here's Where Some Are Finding Hope
It’s been a hard few years for teachers. These are the moments with students that are keeping them going.
8 min read
Conceptual Illustration of figure wallpapering blue sky over a dark night
francescoch/iStock via Getty