Teachers’ Perspective on the Calm After the Omicron Storm
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Over these past two years, teachers, experiencing a loss of connection with their students and struggling to adapt to working at home, have undoubtedly been impacted by COVID-19. Accordingly, when in-person school rolled around in September and vaccines became more accessible, most teachers, along with their students, were excited to return to the building. When the Omicron surge hit the school in January, however, many people didn’t return after winter break due to a rise in positive cases in both students and staff.
“I think one of the most stressful things about this January was not knowing how quickly the wave would pass or how many of my students would get sick,” English teacher Victoria Crutchfield noted in an e-mail interview. Now, as attendance rates are returning to normal and the surge is dying down, some teachers feel that they are relatively safe at school. “I feel safe going to school,” Crutchfield explained. “I myself am triple-vaxxed and have had COVID, so I think I’m about as protected as a person can be.”
English teacher Eric Grossman expressed similar sentiments, explaining that COVID-19 rates are not as high as they were in January and that most students and the entire staff are vaccinated. “I hope that, if rates continue to plummet, New York will eventually decide that it is safe to follow Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and other states in setting a target date for doing away with the mask mandate,” he added. He also pointed out, however, that it is unclear when such a transition will occur due to the various perspectives on the situation. “A lot of the city and DOE regulations surrounding COVID feel inconsistent or contradictory. That said, there’s no perfect way to manage a public health crisis of this magnitude, especially given the range of attitudes and views of students, parents, and educators,” he said.
Science teacher Dr. Maria Nedwidek-Moore agreed, revealing that COVID testing for teachers isn’t flexible or reliable. “The city testers do not visit us when I’m free, and they also test very few staff,” she said. As a result, she gets PCR and rapid tests weekly. With the number of Omicron cases dropping both in schools and the city, some states are planning on removing mask mandates in schools, and Dr. Nedwidek-Moore strongly believes that if this change happens, there should be a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all students.
Though the influx of reported positive cases has decreased, many teachers have been taking extra precautions. For example, Crutchfield has switched from using a cloth mask to wearing an N95 mask, especially after getting Omicron herself. Similarly, Dr. Nedwidek-Moore opts for a N95, which she has been using since the start of September. “Closed public spaces are intrinsically high risk, so no, not terribly safe,” she responded when asked about how safe she feels at school. “I don’t take my mask off indoors ever, unless I’m sure I’m alone in the room and it hasn’t been recently populated.”
On the bright side, numerous teachers reported that they do not currently have any students absent with the virus. “The main difference is [that] I’m glad to have no more students in quarantine as of February 8,” Dr. Nedwidek-Moore emphasized. Despite this shift, most teachers are continuing to incorporate virtual resources into their teaching. Dr. Nedwidek-Moore, for example, administers all tests online. “All work and resources are accessible through my [Google Classroom] from anywhere,” she said. “Any student can participate from anywhere, because I’ve been streaming lessons over Google Meet every day since September.” Google Classroom, a platform that was crucial during remote learning, is also commonly used by teachers to communicate with quarantined students. They consistently update the stream with classwork, resources, and assignments so that students can easily catch up with lessons and submit asynchronous work.
For subjects more difficult to teach with masks on, such as music classes, teachers must find other and more digitized ways of helping students. Chorus teacher Liliya Shamazov described the arduous process she has learned over remote learning: “Over the last two years, I started creating vocal practice tracks for students to help them review and learn music more independently. A vocal practice track is when I make a recording of each vocal part of every piece we are studying by singing and playing the part on the piano.” Students can listen to the vocal track and sing alongside it, helping them learn the music more quickly and practice outside of class. “While creating these tracks is very time-consuming, I still make these tracks available to my singers by posting them to our Google Classroom,” she said.
On top of being able to access digital resources, quarantining students are able to attend office hours held once a week. “I know it’s been one more extra responsibility for most teachers during an already difficult time,” Grossman recognized. “Thankfully, every English teacher maintains a Google Classroom, and it has made it much easier to ensure that students who miss school can stay up to date with classwork and assignments.”
Crutchfield remarked, however, that most of her students do not attend her Zoom office hours. “I think that’s partly because I adjusted my curriculum significantly so that people who had to be home wouldn’t fall behind,” she said. To accommodate both in-person and remote students, she allowed those at home to record their performance projects via Zoom, and made the units asynchronous and self-paced. While the removal of the mask mandate is something many look forward to, some teachers believe it would be wise to keep it because Omicron may not be the last strain. “I would be thrilled to stop wearing a mask and to see my students’ whole faces,” Crutchfield shared, putting her trust in health officials. “If and when health officials say it’s okay, I’m all for it. And I’ll be ready to put it back on if a new variant makes that necessary.”
After the alarming number of cases in January and with attendance rates rising again, most teachers have returned to a new normal, putting in the additional effort to look after their students’ and their own wellbeing, mentally and academically.