Is now the right time to open schools at the secondary level? I didn’t know how to feel about it. So I decided to ask the experts--the ones who would know best. I decided to ask a handful of my teacher-mom friends, some of the smartest women I know.
Meet Annie, Beth, Carrie, Donna, Ellie, and Frances. Each woman is (or has been) an educator in a public school--their total experience combined adds up to 109 years in schools. Each one is a mom of school-aged children. Each one is a smart, thoughtful, caring, well-educated woman, whom I would trust to give me carefully weighed answers based on facts and data. Each one is (or was) a teacher to admire, both in pedagogical prowess and building strong relationships with students. And each one faces the inevitable reopening of public secondary schools in the Denver Metro area, the earliest on March 22 and the latest on April 5.
So what did they have to say?
The Current Situation: Hybrid and “Chromebook Zombies”
All of the teacher-moms agree that hybrid learning, in its current mostly-synchronous iteration, is a poor substitute for full time in-person learning. Absolutely no one said that the current situation is what’s best for kids. But all four women who are in the classroom are doing their best to make it work.
But does hybrid have to be so awful? Not necessarily. The synchronous decision for students’ at home days was done “purely for optics,” according to Donna. If at-home days had been asynchronous, used as front-loading, reading, and preparing for the next class, it could have been much different. Parents, most school districts surmised, wanted to ensure that eyes are kept on their secondary students, creating more accountability and structure for their time at home. But all of this non-stop screentime comes with consequences. Frances, who has a middle-schooler said of her daughter, “She’s turning into a Chromebook Zombie.”
But as with most compromises, no one is happy. But some teacher-moms, like Donna, feel that it’s the best option we’ve got. “[T]he kids, the teachers, the staff in the building all seem to understand in an unspoken way that this is the best [alternative, with hybrid] we’ve got” (Donna).
It would seem that professional development and time spent on equipping teachers with best-practice techniques for managing hybrid and remote learning would have been the priority. But it was not. Beth’s district did not have any trainings for teachers on best-practices with remote or hybrid instruction, and so she, like so many other teachers, has had to figure out how to navigate this new way of teaching on her own. Beth remarked, “The district has optional trainings, but [teachers] may not realize they don’t know enough or that they could do it better.” Another factor could be the already-existing boa-constrictor-like squeeze on time, as it is. Regardless, Beth’s district has not made teacher training a priority and so many teachers have floundered or are, in Beth’s words, “just trying to get through it, thinking things will go back to normal next year.”
While school operations may be far from normal, some students have continued living their lives on the outside as normal. “I know students are seeing each other outside of school. They are not getting infected from my classroom,” Carrie, a high school teacher said.
But will relatively low infection rates within schools continue, if all students return?
Is it Time? What Science Suggests
The CDC’s recommendations for schools had remained much the same throughout the pandemic: six feet of social distancing, frequent handwashing, mandatory masks except for when eating and drinking, improved ventilation and open doors and windows (when possible), and students all facing the same direction are still best practice for schools.
However, just days ago, the CDC changed the guidelines. Now, the recommended distance is three feet. The CDC’s justification is this: “Three studies, published in today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)...build on evidence that physical distancing of at least 3 feet between students can safely be adopted in classroom settings where mask use is universal and other prevention measures are taken.”
In some cases, such as communities where transmission of the virus is high, the CDC has maintained that classrooms be set up with six feet of separation with one-way traffic patterns, which is--if schools move to 100% in-person--entirely impossible.
What about earlier fears about teenagers catching and spreading COVID-19 in ways similar to adults? Are teenagers less at risk than was thought March when most schools first closed?
According to the most recent report released jointly by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, of the 3,168,274 child cases throughout the United States and its territories, “[c]hildren were 0.00%-0.19% of all COVID-19 deaths, and 10 states reported zero child deaths.” This is good news. It still doesn’t say what the age ranges of the infected children were (Infants? Elementary school-aged? Teenagers?) as the data wasn’t collected that way, it seems. But nonetheless, for many parents, this is the rainbow they’d been waiting for for almost a year now.
During the winter of 2020-2021, there has been just one child death reported throughout the entire United States due to the flu, according to reporting by The Washington Post. It would seem that the mitigation strategies, including masks and distancing, set in place to prevent COVID-19 infection, have had a startlingly positive effect on beating child flu deaths into near oblivion this year.
If mitigation strategies, such as universal masking and social distancing in classrooms are working, this is a cause for celebration. But will just masking be enough with the 100% return of students in-person?
The teacher-moms I spoke to are well aware of the conundrums they face when secondary schools resume at 100% in person. “[W]e still can’t make class look like it did, pre-COVID. Everyone is still going to be on a screen. We can do fewer hands-on activities because I can’t sanitize everything quickly enough to turn it around for the next big group” (Donna). Beth noted that due to increased class sizes and an inability to socially distance in the average classroom, “Schools [currently] close for [deep cleanings] with quarantining [when there are a handful of cases]--there will likely be more of that.” She also noted, in regard to her daughter’s experience, “Cohorting at the high school level is impossible.” And Beth also said what all of the women I interviewed knew to be true: “[We] won’t be able to keep the six feet of distancing with everyone back. Other protocols won’t be able to be followed, either.”
Emily wondered, “What will the protocol be if someone gets sick?”
It is possible that quarantining and temporary school closures for deep-cleaning may rise with a 100% return. Donna, speaking for her son’s experience and for that of her students’ said, “I don’t want to see kids quarantined over and over again, getting less time in the building than before.”
Beth, speaking not out of fear but merely being pragmatic, cautioned that it will take some time to figure things out before students can come back. “All furniture has to go back in the rooms, and we have to figure out where kids are eating, when hand-washing times will be, and [time is needed to allow for] schedule changes that will occur” [when parents shift either from in-person to remote or remote to in-person],” she said.
Despite these challenges, schools are in a race to get ready for reopening.
What Teacher-Moms Think
The teacher-moms I interviewed are gearing up for the impending return to 100%. Frances said that, “The safety of it makes me nervous but the mental health of [her daughter] and the rest of our family overpowers any concern.” She added, “The last 10 months have been the worst family dynamics we have ever had and I am very concerned for all of our mental health.”
Carrie is looking forward to returning to 100% in-person. “I miss my students desperately,” she said.
Donna is not enthusiastic about her district’s decision. “Going back to 100% in-person...feels like the choice [of hybrid] that I really carefully considered [for her own son] is being taken away from us.” She also discussed the reality that some students will choose to stay 100% remote, which in her district, means Zooming in and watching from home. “One of my biggest worries is what happens to [remote students]... If my classroom population increases...my eyeballs will be on my in-person class more. I worry that my remote students will be getting even less of my attention and I don’t know how to fix that” (Donna).
Beth and her husband “think school [this] year should finish as-is. At earliest,” she said, “we should go back in April so that all [teachers] who want the vaccine can get it.”
While Annie is “excited for the kids to come back,” she is also concerned. As a mom of a high schooler, Annie thinks students could still get sick if they come to school in larger numbers, as they are not vaccinated. While she believes it’s not likely they will get seriously ill, she realizes that they still could. Despite this clear-headed awareness, “I would rather have the kids come back now,” Annie said.
Emily would prefer to remain hybrid for the rest of the year. “Why change another thing?” she said, in reference to the many changes teachers and students have had to adjust to this year. “I would like to wait until more of the country has been vaccinated.” But she also “sympathizes and empathizes” with parents. She can’t imagine, if her own five children were younger and all spread out through the grade levels, doing remote learning of any sort would be very hard. “Logistically, I get it,” she said, about parents’ challenges at home. “It’s tough.”
And so, out of the educator-moms I spoke to, four said yes; two of them resoundingly so, with the other two far more tentative. Two said, continuing with hybrid would be their preference. For the record, no one said they wanted to have students return to 100% remote learning.
Teachers, Parents, and District Leadership: “I wish we could all be on the same team”
The clock is ticking and by April 5, nearly all public middle and high schools throughout the Denver Metro area will be fully in-person. While all of these caring educators enjoy seeing their students in the classroom, many of them spoke to the chasm they feel has grown between educators and parents.
Donna said, “I wish the public knew that a lot of us teachers are parents and [we] get it. But we can’t be irresponsible. And we can’t wish away the reality that we are still dealing with a pandemic.” Annie feels that teachers have been lumped together and perceived as callous. “Parents might think that teachers don’t want the kids to come back, but it’s not true.” Emily feels the parent perception of teachers’ workload falls far short of the reality this year. “Non-educators are not seeing the amount of blood, sweat, and tears,” she said.
In addition to a disconnect with many parents, teachers have felt sidelined by their districts, as well. “[Forces] outside of the building are making this harder than it has to be,” Donna said. “Teachers, kids, and support staff have great ideas and suggestions, if anyone in charge would just listen. We live this day to day, and yet, we seem to have no agency.” Annie agreed that district leadership has been lackluster, at best. “District communication has been poor, and it shows a lack of trust in staff [members] with messages being sent out to staff and parents simultaneously.” Emily also felt a disconnect between the district she is associated with and its teachers and staff. “Why can’t we follow a proven method?” she wondered aloud, commenting on his dislike for the soon-to-be phased out synchronous version of hybrid learning that has been the model in so many schools. Many of the teacher-moms I expressed a lack of support from all sides.
“I wish we could all be on the same team,” Donna said. “I feel like I work for the world’s most hated profession these days.”
While it is nearly time to return 100%, the time for healing strained relationships has yet to arrive and may be a long time coming. Meanwhile, with the 100% return to the classroom, teachers will have to cross their fingers, adjust their masks, and hope for the best.
Recently, a group of teachers at Mandalay Middle, a school in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, declared that they would only work contract hours. It was a form of protest, meant to highlight the lack of teacher say in decision-making by higher ups on issues like working conditions under COVID-19 and in support of bargaining.
Pictures on Facebook showed a group of 15-20 teachers standing outside of the school entrance, waiting in the cold for the official start of the school day, before heading inside.
But it begs the question: How is working only the hours you are being paid to work a form of protest? Shouldn’t working the hours you’re paid for be the expectation?
But there’s this: Is it possible to be an effective teacher and only work contract hours, or are the expectations too much to be dealt with during the hours of a normal work day? Do teachers need to behave as martyrs, sacrificing all aspects of personal time and self for a job?
And then I wondered: just how many hours ARE teachers working this year, compared to the pre-COVID days?
So I asked the experts: the teachers.
I got my sampling of answers from questions posted in teacher groups on Facebook. Some of these teachers are friends or former colleagues, and some I don’t know at all--they hail from all parts of the country, all grade levels, K-12, mostly public, with a few private and charter schools, too. Can this be counted as official data? Probably not. But 200 or so teachers responded to my question, “How many hours do you ACTUALLY work, before and during COVID?” And there were notable trends that emerged. For the sake of their privacy, all names that follow are pseudonyms.
Teachers are spending, on average, 10 hours more per week because of COVID. And it appears that for most, the hours they worked, pre-COVID, were already beyond contract hours of 40 hours per week.
Here’s a snapshot of what I learned:
Tom worked 43 hours a week before COVID as a math teacher. Now he works 55-56 hours per week, from 7am until 4:30 each day, with an additional eight hours on Saturday and five more on Sunday. He has a wife and school-aged children of his own.
Jim works a whopping 83 hours per week teaching science, working from 7am until 3:30 during each school day, and from 6pm until 11pm each night. The rest of the time occurs on the weekend. Pre-COVID, he worked 65 hours a week, he figures.
Francesca works 9-10 hours each day at her high school, teaching English, with another 2-3 hours on the weekend. Her work time has not changed much, and she attributes this to a highly supportive administration, that has allowed teachers as many hours as possible for personal work and planning time.
Jane works from 6:30am until 3pm each school day, also teaching high school English, with another two hours per night at home. On weekends, she tries to limit her work time to eight hours.
One teacher, Mike, after reviewing the comments from one thread, had this to say: “I feel bad for a lot of people on here. Hours of work at home daily? I get that, if it’s your first year or you’ve got new subjects. I get needing to grade too, but don’t you get planning periods? Are these mostly first year teachers?”
None of the four teachers whose hours I just shared with you are first year teachers. In fact, all of them have made it well past the five year fight-or-flight moment, where so many teachers leave the force. Each one has worked as a teacher for more than 10 years. I know these four teachers personally, and all of them are excellent teachers, well-seasoned veterans, who are proud of their craft.
So what’s going on here? How are these crazy hours possible?
In a year where so much was new, so much was still expected. Tamara, a middle school teacher with 25 years of experience, said, “I’ve primarily been teaching on a hybrid model this year. The prep work is crushing.” She said she worked about 42 hours a week last year--this year? 56 hours per week.
So there’s that: this year has been one of total change for many teachers. There are new tech tools and programs to learn, not to mention new modes of teaching, including remote, hybrid, and the juggling act that is teaching online students while simultaneously teaching students in-person. To say it’s a challenge is an understatement. And sometimes a lesson that a veteran teacher has used in the past, with manipulatives or perhaps done through cooperative learning in pairs or groups of four, has to be entirely upended and digitized, which is not a quick process. The saying “When you know better, do better” coined by Maya Angelou can cause great stress for veteran teachers this year, who may know better, but also know that to do it will take a lot of time they just don’t have.
There’s also the new load of digital communication, through email, chat, and office hours. Rather than being able to answer a student’s question in five seconds, a teacher now has an inbox chock-full of emails that demand a response--and that can be overwhelming and a total time-suck.
These days, with everything going online, it’s not so easy to turn it off when the work day should be over. Brenda said, “I’m constantly responding to student emails... there’s really no “off” switch. I know I could turn off notifications but then I would never keep up with the constant need to individualize everything I teach... it seems like part of meeting the emotional needs of students is letting them know they’re not alone.”
But it’s not only students who are suffering this year. Teachers are feeling it, too, in a variety of ways.
One teacher of 27 years, Paul, said, “[My wife] decided to be a teacher when she was 7. It is all she has ever wanted to do. Now she wants to get out of this abusive situation as soon as possible.” He explained that she’s been working more than 80 hours per week. Of the hours and efforts this year, he said, “It’s killing her.” In his view, it’s all been a ploy. “It is apparent that we have been playing the social benefit game where we do what is necessary to create the greatest good for society. It is apparent that the district, the state, and the federal powers that be have been playing the capitalist game where they extract as much labor as possible while giving as little as possible.”
Imagine being towards the end of your career and feeling this way about your life’s work. It’s incredibly hard to hear.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Some people hit the wall. And instead of continually ramming into it, they instead put the car in park.
A trend that was quite apparent was that many teachers, in the face of an impossible task and many asks this year, refused to work beyond contract.
Those teachers also seem much happier.
One middle school English teacher, Sarah, said, “[My hours are] 6:30-3 most days. Contract is 7-3. I rarely grade on the weekends or after work anymore, but I do grade during my lunch. I used to kill myself working 60 hours a week. Last year, I decided my family is more important than getting an essay or project graded super quickly.”
Brittany said her contract hours are from 7:30am-3:30pm. Her former reality of actual hours: “pre-covid - 6:30-5:30 plus about 10 weekend hours.” But now: “pandemic hours - contract hours only. However, I had a baby. I promised myself that once my husband and I had a kid, family would always come first.”
And some other respondents also spoke up, saying that they had changed their workaholic ways a few years prior to the pandemic, citing the desire to “avoid burnout” and life balance (said by Tim, a former workaholic, who routinely put in 60-70 hours per week at his high school English job).
Tanya, a veteran teacher, said, “I had to prioritize my own mental health, raise my own children and be a present wife- a partner. Loving teaching does not mean that you have to divorce yourself from everything and anyone else. It took me a long time to realize that this job is how I make a living and a PART of my life, not my whole life. I am much happier because of this.”
But in a career like teaching where so many go into it as a calling and not for the money (who does?), it can be hard to draw that line in the sand between personal time and work.
But still, those who said they refused to work beyond contract hours were in the minority.
Many community members point to summers off as the reason why teachers should expect, perhaps, to spend a few extra hours at work during the school year.
In March of 2008, a study called “Teachers’ Work Patterns” was published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The findings in this report were based on the American Time Use Survey, and while some of the results align with common thoughts on teacher time, such as teachers working less in June, July, and August, other findings diverge from the norm.
Something that will come as no surprise to most teachers is the finding that “Fifty-one percent of teachers worked on an average Sunday, compared with 30 percent of other full-time professionals” (Krantz-Kent 53), a statistic that aligns with my own inquiry. However, aside from that, the report seemed to suggest that teachers work less than most other professions, on average, and spend more time on “household activities—such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management” (Krantz-Kent 58). Still, the report did acknowledge that teachers tend to hold a second job more often than other professionals, with 17% of all teachers polled responding that they had a second form of income from other work (Krantz-Kent 58).
So, I wondered, were my results a fluke? Were the people who responded mostly workaholics in the minority? Do teachers work more than other professions or not?
According to the Brookings Report, “During the school year, [West’s] calculations [based on the ATUS] show that teachers work 39.8 hours per week while nonteachers work 41.5 hours. During the summer, teachers do work noticeably fewer hours. West reports that teachers work 21.5 hours per week during the summer” (Startz).
But there’s an issue right there: teachers are not paid to work during the summer. These are in fact, unpaid hours.
One teacher’s solution to not putting in overtime during the school year is to plan it all out during the summer. Anita said, “I have two small kids. I teach with systems and structures so that units are often repeated throughout the year. Lots of student choice so I’m not always writing curriculum. And I work through the summer so that most of my planning is done for the year by the time school starts in September.”
But here’s the rub: over the summer, she is putting in three hours a day, which is unpaid time.
Another teacher, Rebecca, said: “One thing that I also want to point out is that people always complain that teachers ‘get the summers off’. We don’t. We are per diem salaried employees who are only contracted for around 185 days. Most teachers pay is spread out over 12 months, but we aren’t being paid when we are ‘off.’”
That raises another question--should teachers be working for free, then, during their personal time? Or should they hold to contract hours? Or is it possible that teachers are working harder, not smarter?
A synopsis of a report published in Scholastic called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appears to entirely upend the findings of the ATUS. This report attests that teachers spend, on average, 90 minutes extra per day beyond contract time, plus an additional 95 minutes at home, “grading, preparing classroom activities, and doing other job-related tasks.” 10,000 teachers across all 50 states were polled, which makes these figures appear more salient.
Some of the teachers who responded to my question offered a few tips on what they do to try to make it work. Through experience, they have learned some ways to streamline their use of time, and to cut down on their extracurricular work hours. They reached out and offered ideas and advice to try to help because that’s what teachers do.
Here’s the thing, teacher friends: no one wants to lose you. There are rumors flying around that anywhere from 20% to 30% of existing teachers plan on either quitting or retiring at the end of this year.
That’s terrible news for your students. Think of all of your talents and years of experience gone to waste. No one can do it like you can—and you know it. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: you can’t just get any bum off the street and throw them in a classroom and expect them to survive. Trust me, I’ve seen first-year inexperienced teachers locked in their own closet by their students on day one and a former cop crying after school because he was almost done showing a movie and he didn't know what to do next. Not everyone can do what we do.
While there’s no doubt that this phase, this year of teaching has to been one of the hardest ever, that doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself. Here are a few tips on how to save yourself some time, straight from the experts: teachers.
Clearly, the amount of hours worked by teachers has expanded this year like a waistline during a pandemic. And no, these ideas above won’t make it so your work hours fit neatly into a 7-3 box, tied up with a ribbon. But it’s a start. And we all know that ultimately, you’re no good to your students if you burn out or if you leave the profession because you can’t strike a balance between work and life. As Tanya said, teaching is a part of her life, not her whole life.
Don’t let your teaching job consume you. Instead of holding to “When you know better, do better,” think to yourself: “I am how I spend my time” and try to make some changes. Draw the line where you can between work and your personal life so that you will be happier--as a teacher, and as a human being.
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.