What we can learn from our students as we return to in-person learning

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By Terry Kaldhusdal

This fall, my school district in Southeastern Wisconsin chose to open for in-person learning beginning on day one. About 15 percent of our students decided to stay home, so teachers are simultaneously teaching face-to-face and remotely. 

I wasn’t nervous to return to school until my neighbor informed me that she placed me on her prayer list. Suddenly, I was very nervous. 

I did find comfort in seeing the safety protocols my district had created over the summer. It takes nearly an hour for my students to enter the building to allow for social distancing. Lockers are no longer used. Students stay in place for the majority of the day. They are seated six feet apart with plexiglass between them. Lunch takes place in the classrooms.

I was, however, still uneasy about 11-year-olds following the CDC guidelines. Would they understand the severity of this new world? Would they wear a mask? Could they manage to stay in place for an entire school day? Because they don’t move from class to class, the teachers move. Like the rest of my colleagues, I am a teacher without a base. For the first time in my 30-year career, I have no classroom. I have six classrooms and 127 students. 

The students are very thankful to be in class. They are engaged. They are working hard. And they are following the protocols. There is very little complaining. This is their new normal.

For the adults, including me, it’s another story. 

I’m worried about whether my students and my colleagues are safe. Despite all the work the district has done to keep everyone healthy, the virus continues to spread at an exponential rate. Wisconsin is now a hot spot.

I’m one of six teachers in this 6th-grade “house.” At one point, I was the only one still in the classroom, because my colleagues were either ill or quarantined. The number of students who have to quarantine is growing, too. Less than five students have tested positive over the last few weeks, but more than 20 have been quarantined. School officials are not getting the help they expected from the county’s health department, but the school district is being proactive in tracing and contacting those who have been exposed. This is the new normal. 

I’ve struggled with dealing with the unthinkable. I am angry that the most powerful nation on earth has been knocked to its knees and more than six months later still lacks a national game plan. I’m angry that we have four percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s deaths when it comes to COVID-19. I’m angry that we’re leading the world, but in the wrong direction. 

My students, however, want an education. This class, this generation, appreciates school. They have been incredibly resilient. They’re excited to get to class in the morning and they say thank you at the end of the day. This is not a political issue for them. They just want, as our state motto says, to move “forward.” 

For the adults, there was no training to prepare us for this moment. There have been countless hours of fire drills, tornado drills, and, unfortunately, mass-shooting drills, but there’s never been a time to think or reflect on how to handle a pandemic. 

My team has spent hours and hours problem solving day-to-day issues. Should we have a nose-blowing station? Should that station be inside the classroom? Do we hand out paper or should everything go digital? Do we collect completed work with our hands or have students drop it on our desk? What is the protocol for checking out and returning a book?

The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. And as schools across the country make the tough decisions to re-open their doors for face-to-face learning, teachers will be grappling with these same challenges, worrying about these same physical and mental health issues.

While there are no simple answers—and we are still learning—here is some advice I would give, being on the frontlines:

Have the courage to make a decision that may not be good for you but is good for your students.

We started the school year with 18 students who decided to learn from home. Once students started testing positive or were suddenly quarantined from exposure to the virus, that number grew to more than 30. Some of the students at home were getting lost in the virtual shuffle, and their schedule no longer aligned. We decided students who suddenly had to go virtual will stay with their homeroom. That means we have face-to-face students and distance students in each classroom. It is a revolving door, every day is different, but the students understand the schedule and the routines. It may be chaotic for the staff, but it brings some stability to our students lives in an unstable time.

Let your students problem solve.

Have no fear of informing your students of a problem and including them in brainstorming possible solutions. Some of the small issues we have brainstormed with our students have made them feel heard and part of the process. For example, we talked about how we could spend our time during a mask break, and students suggested that we walk to the front of the building and listen to the band, which now plays outside. And then there is the big stuff, like lockdown safety procedures. My students are now in a common area. We have no door. Together we brainstormed the why, how, and where to evacuate. These are a fraction of the issues we deal with every day, but together, we will be figuring it out. I have always tried to push my students to think like authors, historians, mathematicians, and scientists. This is fertile ground for problem solving, and the process can often be ugly, but it’s healthy for students to see that we don’t always have the answer. We are learning too.

Be flexible and adaptable in your lesson plans.

Last spring, I was expected to teach a unit called “The Good Life.”  Students were expected to research what makes us happy and gives us joy. The answer, according to research, is family and friends. The problem is, my students were quarantined. They were not allowed to be with their friends and seeing their family was not an option. 

Instead, I decided to use current events in a powerful and relevant way by having them research what makes for credible sources, with a focus on COVID-19. My students realized how fast false information could spread. Did Vladimir Putin release lions in the streets of Russia to keep people indoors? Can hand sanitizer catch fire if left in your car? No, of course not. But these “news reports,” and many more, went viral on social media (including, for the latter, being posted on our local fire department’s Facebook page).

If you want to engage your students, have them look around and learn from the chaos. We, the adults, are making lots and lots of mistakes. Let’s all learn from them. I have students who are now studying the history of civil disobedience, the history of wearing a medical mask, and the lack of clear communication from government officials during the 1918 pandemic. Yes, we have been here before. Let us learn from it.

It has always been a tough lesson for my students to learn that I do not have all the answers. This pandemic, however, has pulled the veil back to reveal the realities of their world. My 6th graders can now witness their team of teachers problem solving in real time. We all have something to learn. Students can learn from us making mistakes and being open with them about not always knowing what to do during scary times, and adults can learn from students who are eager to show up and learn despite the challenges. Together, we will get through this and be stronger.

About the author

Terry Kaldhusdal, who has taught for 30 years, is a 6th-grade teacher in the Kettle Moraine School District. He was the 2007 Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year and a 2014 Lowell Milken Fellow. 

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