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Teacher Survey Project

Teachers discuss the challenges and the limits of a partial reopening

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Introduction

From April 30 through May 20, 2021, Teacher Consultant Response Network (TCRN) members responded to a survey about their experiences with the reopening of their schools for in-person instruction amid the waning coronavirus pandemic.

One hundred thirty-six leading teachers responded to 27 survey questions and offered almost 1,900 thoughtful comments.

In this Spotlight, we shine a light on how teachers experienced the spring reopening.

The Data: Survey questions about schools resuming in-person instruction

Sometimes words like “reopened” don’t accurately describe reality. While the majority of schools have technically reopened, in-person instructional time is limited, and teaching is constrained by the need for safety protocols. Thanks to the reports and insights of the 136 members of the Teacher Consultant Response Network, this Spotlight delves into the experiences of some of the most accomplished California teachers as their schools attempt to “reopen.” As the survey data and the accompanying comments reveal:

What is your district’s current status and plan for reopening? (N=134)

Note: While nearly half of the 135 teachers responding reported that their district has reopened for all students, the “reopening” entails limited in-person instructional time, typically just a few days a week for a few hours a day. The teacher comments below provide vivid descriptions of what their “reopened” classroom experience is like.

What is your current status of your own classroom and current teaching arrangement? (Choose one that best describes your situation) (N=134)

Note: As the teachers report, teaching arrangements are still heavily dependent on distance learning. At least 80 percent of the teaching arrangements involved some level of distance learning. As the teacher comments illustrate, hybrid models (some in-person and some distance learning) are difficult, unsustainable and not very effective.

We also asked teachers “If some or all of your students are attending in person, on average, what percentage are attending your classes each day?  Teachers report that nearly 40 percent of students who have in-person instruction available are attending class less than half the time. And, fewer than a quarter of these students are attending at attendance rates typical before the pandemic. Teacher comments suggest that the low attendance rates are a result of a combination of factors, including health concerns, lack of transportation, parent work schedules and lack of child care.

Comments

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While we have re-opened for all students, we do not have bussing for all students. So, it is dependent on students ability to get their own transportation to school.

– A teacher in a middle/high school with 80% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

We opened up for students to attend either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday for 90 minutes each day. The rest of their schedule did not change, all their classes are still virtual. Out of 1700 students (at my site), we have 230 that opted for any in-person.

– A teacher in a high school with 70% low-income students in the Inland Empire

All students had the option to return, but only about a third have chosen to come back as it is still “zoom in the room”

– A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

The structure is called “simultaneous teaching” but in reality it is still distance learning but now a handful of students are in the room instead of at home. Students were provided with headphones so that they can hear online and in class discussions and instruction. It’s exhausting for everyone.

– A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Central Valley

We are using a modified schedule with cohort groups and students can be on campus but most choose to stay home and continue distance learning for High School. Teachers had to move into the classroom to teach both in person and complete distance learning. That is overwhelmingly not effective but we only have 2 weeks left! Hanging in there.

– A teacher in a high school with 65% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

We are at 50% capacity, but only students and families who opted in during a 1-week window were able to return. We are using a “zoom in the room” model, so there is no different instruction for students at home or those on campus. All students have 6 feet of space between desks, must wear masks, and have plexiglass dividers on their desks.

– A teacher in a high school with 48% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

English language development, special education, and students with multiple D and Fs are back on campus to get in person support in small cohorts. All other students could elect whether or not to return. About 20% of our student population elected to return to campus and they are split into A and B cohorts.

– A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

My district gave parents the option to choose whether they wanted their children in person or to remain online. About 40% of students are in person classes while the other 60% remained online. One of the main reasons was the fact that classes in person were for only about 2 hours on the other hand had school been the full day many parents would have had their children return to in person teaching. Childcare issues and not so much COVID was the determining factor.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

Due to our large classes and social distancing requirement my classroom can have a maximum of 16 bodies. Even taking turns I cannot see all the students I teach in person. Many chose to stay remote.

– A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

I feel like my class was ahead of the curve. I was the only teacher at my site to really bring a significant group of students in Phase 1. This was on account of the many parents telling me/willing to have them here and my efforts to create that environment. So I know have a lot more kids here in phase 2, with only about 8/30 at home. We are really humming now. But I think the average class in the district is maybe 30-40% back.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego area

Lack of transportation, responsibility for younger siblings due to parent work schedules and a fear of Covid with relatively high rates in our zip code have deterred many.

– A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the Central Coast

The 13 students that are in-person are thrilled and excited to be back despite the fact that they have no recess or any sort of interaction with other students. They are confined to their desk and individual plexiglass surrounding their desk as well as their masks. The first day of school I was told, “This is how you really look?” …They were mesmerized with the fact that I was physically in front of them. It was truly touching!

– A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

Responses to the question: To what degree is your classroom, your school, and your district “back to normal”?

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I do not think we will be “back to normal” ever again. I do not think we should go back to normal. Right now, we have an opportunity to reimagine education and to shift our paradigm about how to best meet the needs of our students moving forward with the lessons that we have learned throughout the pandemic.

– A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

I don’t think we could call what is happening now “normal”. And yet, there is a sense of joyfulness that I believe teachers and students are experiencing when on campus even with masks on and physically distanced.

– A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the Central Coast

I don’t know that we will ever be back to normal. We are improvising and playing “school.” This experience is an exercise but not at all an authentic teaching or learning experience.

– A teacher in a high school with 35% low-income students in the San Diego area

I haven’t put a number to the degree that my district is “back to normal”. 50% of my class attend in person for 2 hours a day, 3 days a week so we are still far from back to normal but it is a start.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 41% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I would say we are about half back to normal. It’s nice to have kids back in the classrooms. That is where they thrive. Their personalities come to life, and we can watch real learning happen right in front of us! Half of our school is still on Distance Learning model, and unfortunately if the student is not a self-starter or motivated they simply do not succeed in that setting.

– A teacher in a middle school with 0% low-income students in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

I would say we are at 55-60%. But it’s not equitable. Kids with families with means and expectations are getting far more out of virtual or in person instruction. … Parents’ expectations matter. Study habits matter. Socioeconomic status and stable home environments matter. These cause gaps. If this is not a conclusion drawn from the pandemic it will be a detriment I believe to our educational system.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego area

I wouldn’t call it back to normal. Students at my school are still primarily learning through zoom.

– A teacher in a high school with 66% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I wouldn’t call this normal at all. Kids are back in school 5 days a week (with a slightly shortened day), but that’s where the semblance of normal ends. Keeping kindergartners 3-6 feet apart at all times in a tiny classroom, no ability for collaborative work or play, no sharing of materials, constant procedures for sanitizing and hand washing. …  It’s what we have to do right now, and the safety procedures are to protect us all, but it’s nowhere close to normal.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 17% low-income students in the North Coast

It definitely does not feel back to normal yet! It is nice to see students during passing periods and lunch, but it is depressing to see them in my room with headphones on and staring at screens during class time. It makes me realize how boring this year must have been for them.

– A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Just shy of 20% of our students are back in person, the rest remain online. Trying to teach to both at the same time is exhausting, stressful, and unsustainable.

– A teacher in a high school with 74% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey Area

Most of the kids are back, we are teaching four hours a day now. But, no lunch at school and the kids are in sections on the yard; lots of “why?” and “how come?” about how the day is structured. It’s tiresome. … It really isn’t the same; the flow is gone. The day feels stilted and very constrained in a lot of ways.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 37% low-income students in the North Coast

My classroom is not normal. I’ve lost the DL mojo. …Our District is also using Covid as an excuse to not serve Special Education students. Students who have a diagnosis of autism are not being tested. The Special Education office says that because they haven’t been in person, they can’t be tested. … I differentiate through Zoom but I feel that the District is out of compliance and I am very sad about that and ashamed.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 41% low-income students in the North Coast

The very few students who come to in-person instruction sit by themselves six feet apart in isolated pods. Normal would be students sitting in groups using a common large piece of paper to process and share ideas. We are a long way from there [normal].

– A teacher in a high school with 90% low-income students in the Central Valley

I am still six feet away from students, masked, and students are not near each other, either. “Normal” for me is controlled chaos, but this model is much “cleaner,” and I miss the mess of true project-based learning.

– A teacher in a middle school with 24% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Nothing is normal, but we are managing to find that we have learned that we can do more with our kids in smaller groupings with flexible schedules. Technology integration can be both an advantage and a routine that becomes disengaging if overused. We like meeting in person, but also like the flexibility of attending remotely and recording our sessions for review and reflection.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 33% low-income students in the Sacramento area

There’s a reason for why the phrase, “back to normal,” is in quotes! I don’t want things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic. The school system needed a major overhaul and unfortunately, it took a pandemic to see the truth in this reality. I hope that there is no “back to normal” and instead create a new way of what it is to be in school.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 40% low-income students in the San Diego area

We are not “back to normal” at all. I hoped we would take some time to re-imagine what our new normal would be, but with the focus on logistics, we really haven’t thought about how we need to adjust our planning and instruction to really meet our students’ needs.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 20% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

The Data: Survey questions about health and safety

Among the 136 leading teachers who participated in the survey, 96% had been vaccinated. Their vaccination status had a big impact on their views regarding teaching in person. About 80% of the leading teachers being vaccinated eased their concerns about their own health, but some are still worried.

Being vaccinated also eased teachers’ concerns about the safety of their families, but about a third are still concerned. Nearly 70% of the teachers reported worries about the health and safety of their students and their families.

How much does your current vaccination status affect your view on teaching school in person? (N=136)

For each of the statements below, indicate how much your own views have shifted about reopening school and teaching in person compared with several months ago: (N=136)

Comments

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I am excited to teach and physically see my students, but I am also aware that being vaccinated does not protect me or the others 100% to the contrary I truly wish students would have been vaccinated prior to reopening. We have had cases in which students are testing positive.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

While I am vaccinated, it does not keep me from carrying the virus so I am still aware of my proximity, hand washing and mask wearing and that of others near me. I have elementary age students who have returned to school in my same district, knowing that they are not able to be vaccinated, we have routines set for showering and changing when we come home.

– A teacher in a middle/high school with 80% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey area

I had begun teaching in person before being vaccinated. I thought the protocols in my district/school were well planned and executed (masks, 6 foot distancing, temperature checks). I have not had a student test positive in my class. After vaccinations we still follow protocols but it has relieved my level of anxiety. I am not as on edge each day. I do not worry as much when a student is absent or a mask slips down.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 14% low-income students in the Central Coast

At the start of the year, I was not vaccinated and less comfortable in the classroom. While I’m still concerned about my students (who are not vaccinated), there is less anxiety about becoming ill or passing it along to my family.

– A teacher in a middle school with 42% low-income students in the Sacramento area

I had Covid within a period that I felt made getting it a second time less scary. Now that I am vaccinated, I feel completely fine and I have no worries.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego area

I am so thankful to be fully vaccinated. I feel more comfortable about being in a room with students because of it. I wish they were vaccinated too, though.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 37% low-income students in the North Coast

If I wasn’t vaccinated, I would not return to in-person teaching. I feel a bit safer being vaccinated, but it’s still scary to know that kids could carry the virus and be asymptomatic and I can catch it from them. I teach kindergarten and keeping 6 feet away is almost impossible.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 83% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

While I’m vaccinated, and the people in my life are vaccinated, my students and their families have not. I’m still concerned for them. They have experienced a lot of loss from Covid and are nervous about returning.

– A teacher in a middle school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

Once I was vaccinated it gave me peace of mind, I now have a greater chance of surviving if I were to become infected with COVID. I have underlying health issues and was terrified to come back. I teach kindergarten and proximity is a huge issue. I have to be near them to support my students.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 74% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I feel safe about teaching because of my vaccination. I am concerned about student safety though.

– A teacher in a high school with 86% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey area

We have several students who are having trouble being mask compliant–not in a malicious way. We see a lot of noses and deal with that. It’s also impossible to help students with questions on a Chromebook from 6 feet away. Being fully vaccinated makes me feel safe in this environment.

– A teacher in a high school with 85% low-income students in the Sacramento area

The moment the 2nd vaccine went into my arm I felt a sudden excitement about returning to school that I had not felt before!

– A teacher in a middle school with 79% low-income students in the Central Coast

My family has an immune compromised minor. The decision to allow students to attend in person was a challenge for me because while I am vaccinated, my son is not. I know that I could spread the virus to him, even though I am fully-vaccinated. It also concerns me that our community is not practicing Covid protocols outside of the school day. …the virus is currently rising in our county and we remain in the red tier.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 33% low-income students in the Sacramento area

Decision-making during a pandemic

Being a superintendent, a school board member or a principal during the pandemic was an extremely difficult job. Leaders were pulled in different directions as the demands of parents, teachers and staff were often at odds. While some teachers responding to the survey acknowledged the difficulties, overall they were unhappy with the decision-making process and their opportunities for meaningful input into reopening plans and the use of state and federal resources. The survey results seem to signal a fairly even distribution, but teacher comments reveal a good deal of distrust among the 70% who reported that teachers’ thoughts and concerns were somewhat, a little or not at all considered. About a third of respondents had a more positive view and felt that teachers were a part of the decision-making process.

The state and federal response to the pandemic has resulted in billions of dollars available to school districts to help pay for the cost of readying schools for a safe reopening and resources needed to address students’ academic and social/emotional needs. While 92% of respondents were aware of these funds, only 8% knew how the funds were spent.

How much do you feel that your district administration meaningfully included the thoughts and concerns of teachers in making decisions about school reopening timelines and arrangements? (N=136)

 

In your opinion, how much do you feel that the district decision-making process of reopening timelines and arrangements has been …(N=136)

Do you know how your school/district plans to use the one-time funding of state/federal dollars to address the impact of Covid-19 on elementary and secondary schools?

 

Were teachers’ voices included in the decision-making process of how to spend them?

Note: Only about a third of leading teachers reported that they believed that their voices were meaningfully considered in their district’s planning for the timelines and arrangements for reopening. Even fewer reported being part of the decisions regarding how to spend the state and federal funds designed for safely reopening. While the survey results suggest teachers’ disappointment in their involvement in the decision-making process, their comments make it clear that labor/management relations may be at a very low point.

Comments

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Our District was planning to bring us back the same week that refrigerator trucks were being delivered to the hospital to handle the overflow of dead bodies. At the very last second, they decided that this was not the best idea. It is going to be years to heal that scar.

– A teacher in a high school with 21% low-income students in the Central Coast

It was a complete top-down decision from the Board without consulting principals, teachers, or janitors that were at the frontline of reopening.

– A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

I am a negotiator for the Teachers Association in my district. We were not in agreement about any part of the in-person return. Sanitization protocols were not and continue to not be adhered to. The school Board voted to return students despite our pleas to the contrary.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 39% low-income students in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

The district announced we will return with no teacher’s input or support. District directs all concerns be brought up to administrators who also are figuring things out as they go. To sum it up, schools are open to receive state funding and teachers are to figure things out.

– A teacher in a high school with 62% low-income students in the Northern Delta-Sierra Foothills

Many of us felt left out in the decision process. The only true communication we all received was a survey that asked if we would feel comfortable returning to school if all safety protocols were in place. We expressed our fears, worries, and our safety along with our families and nothing was respected. … We were pretty much forced to return when we felt it was not yet safe.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 90% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

The district over-promised and under-delivered to families. Teachers were often finding out about district decisions at the same time as parents. Technology materials were bought without surveying teachers about what was needed. Logistics were not thoroughly considered. At my school site, we have teachers driving home mid-day to teach from home because we did not have adequate space for classroom instruction and childcare.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 20% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

We have not been part of the planning. We heard the plan for in-person instruction and the reopening timeline at the board meeting from the superintendent at the same time as parents. We had to work weeks overtime (more than usual) to make the arrangements promised to the parents possible.

– A teacher in an elementary/middle school with 15% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

I think our district responded more to the demands of a vocal minority of parents than to the needs and wishes of teachers. Our district designed a schedule for teachers for the return to in-person learning which was nearly impossible for teachers to sustain. The district also failed to make crucial upgrades to school sites (re: ventilation, windows that open) during the school closure to make sites safer for teachers.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 72% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

We experienced very little flexibility or apparent concern about our health – as a union leader I can say that across our district teachers were highly demoralized that we had to fight for every little reasonable concession we got.

– A teacher in a high school with 8% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey area

The current situation was negotiated, but there was limited input into the process and the scheduling. Right now this is unsustainable and teachers are working harder than ever before. It is a blessing that the school year ends in 5 weeks.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 88% low-income students in the Los Angeles area

I think that the district had already made a decision about how they envisioned the re-opening timelines and arrangement. Teachers were consulted about the process, but to me, it seemed more like a courtesy or lip service so my district could check the box to say stakeholders were involved.

– A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

I feel like the district is more concerned about pushback from parents than the actual safety of their teachers. They abided by the Health Department’s rules and regulations, but the reopening date was set before they knew that teachers would be eligible for vaccinations.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 31% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

We had a solid plan that gave equal instruction time to both hybrid and distance students. We had training on equity, social emotional support, and academics for this schedule. Then, at the last minute, the schedule was changed drastically which has left the distance learners in an inequitable situation, receiving only half the minutes of instruction that the in-person students receive.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 40% low-income students in the San Jose-Monterey area

Although I was shocked, I had a student present with Covid-19 in my in-person cohort and my district chose to say that this was a non-exposure. However, the student’s entire family had Covid.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 67% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Because the majority of families chose to continue in distance learning at our school site, “room and zoom” was the only option to avoid shifting our schedule for our largest group of students. This arrangement means teachers are unable to provide full attention to the students in the room, nor the students at home.

– A teacher in a middle school with 94% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Parents were the most vocal group in our community, and many demanded in-person often. The district worked closely with our teachers’ union several times over the last few months to get feedback and create plans that met the opinions of as many teachers as they could.

– A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I feel the district really tried to make everyone happy – this is just a situation where that is not possible.

– A teacher in a high school with 22% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I honestly think that they definitely needed to hear the different stakeholders’ opinions and feedback (which they did not), particularly that of the teachers since we are the ones with the kids every day and see firsthand the needs of the students.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 74% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I think that the district should not only consult with teachers and stakeholders, but use their input to develop and implement plans to address the loss of learning and mental health challenges when we return to school in the fall, rather than having a pre-determined plan of action having stakeholder go through the motions of “being involved”.

– A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in Southern California

Teachers’ challenges

After a very difficult year of mostly distance learning, the reopening was a challenge for both teachers and students. Over half of the leading teachers in California report that the transition has been very difficult. Only 14 percent reported that the transition was only difficult to a small extent or not at all.

Of the many challenges facing teachers during the pandemic, the demands of hybrid teaching were the most frequently mentioned as the most burdensome. Eighty percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that hybrid teaching was even more difficult than distance learning. The comments that accompanied the survey provide detailed portraits of how leading teachers experienced hybrid instruction.

For you as a teacher, to what extent has the transition to reopening been difficult? (N=134)

Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement: (N=131)

 

Responses to the question: What are the greatest challenges you now face or have faced during the transition to reopening?

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…the greatest challenge has been the expectation to teach concurrently. Two-thirds of my students are in person and the other third are at home. It is difficult to meet their needs all at once and I always feel like I am ignoring one group over another.

– A teacher in a middle school with 39% low-income students in the Central Coast

Because of our cohort model, some of my in-person periods are extremely small. In one, I only have 3 students in the room, and 35 at home. In another, I have 13 students in the room, and 20 at home. With small groups, and without the ability to do group work, class discussions have been a real challenge. I am talking a lot more than when I have large groups in the room that can work on projects together.

– A teacher in a high school with 30% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I have to take my technology back and forth between home and school. I have to plan for more than one lesson plan a day. I plan for in person learning and distant learning (whole group, small group, assessments, synchronous and asynchronous) I feel my head is going to spin off my body. I have less time to do anything else.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 41% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

I love being back in the classroom, however, I continue to work 12-14 hours per day in order to keep up with my commitments while planning for both hybrid in person instruction and virtual instruction in the afternoon. I feel like I have 2 jobs.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 74% low-income students in the Inland Empire

I think the greatest challenge is trying to address the worsening mental state of my students. We have had at least two families become homeless, an attempted suicide, an ugly divorce, and multiple kids sliding into depression. For some, school has been a lifeline, but for others it is a burden.

– A teacher in a high school with 79% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

It is just really hard to teach in person and online at the same time. Someone is always missing out. … No one’s done this before, so there aren’t models to look to. …I’m used to keeping a lot of balls in the air while teaching, but this requires more than I’m able to do effectively, and I know my teaching has suffered as a result.

– A teacher in a high school with 41% low-income students in the Central Coast

My biggest challenge is to find a way to support my in-person student with disabilities without spending hours making two different sets of lesson plans for each class. Last week, I was able to make something happen on a Padlet online and then think of a way that the live students could participate in something similar using manipulatives in the classroom; however, this took time.

– A teacher in a high school with 36% low-income students in the San Diego area

…the greatest challenges have been planning efficiently for 3 different groups of students and finding the time to provide quality lessons for the different groups, especially my online-only students. Parents of online-only students have expressed sadness and frustration towards the fact that their children’s time with me has been cut back significantly and I cannot offer much in terms of solutions, only commiseration, because I truly have no extra time to give anymore.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 72% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

Students have been in many cases on their own for a year. There are bad habits of body and mind to help them through. There are also many holes in their learning and their school habits. …I am scared about the GAP that will now exist throughout in my neighborhood compared to the affluent children who had parents at home right next to them.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 93% low-income students in the San Diego area

…I feel like I end up neglecting my students online to help the students in the class. I spent all year developing relationships through private chats and individual conferences on zoom–all of that is gone now. The classes are shorter so no time for conferences–and I have to run back to the computer to see the chat.

– A teacher in an elementary school with 67% low-income students in the San Francisco Bay Area

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  1. David costa 4 months ago4 months ago

    People of the age of 25 and below have more risk from the flu than covid! Get back in the classroom. We are not stupid!!