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.