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Teachers Miss Their Students But Fear Returning To The Classroom

Homeroom: A Return to Learning

This story is part of ideastream's special series examining the challenges and perils of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

For Bonnie Monteleone, teaching is like oxygen – without it, she doesn’t feel complete.

But this year, the thought of returning to her classroom is keeping her up at night. 

“It feels like it is life or death,” Monteleone told ideastream. “If we don’t do what we’re supposed to do in terms of safety and wellness what’s the consequence to that?”

The first day of school is right around the corner for most of Ohio, but teachers who are normally excited to get back to school are instead filled with anxiety at the thought of having to teach entirely online or return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction in the middle of a pandemic. 

Monteleone teaches social studies at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, which is planning to resume classes using a hybrid model. Basically, students whose names start with certain letters will go to school on certain days, switching off on their designated days. On the days they aren’t physically in school, students will be expected to check in online. 

Monteleone also heads the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Education Association. Her union has opposed the district’s plan to reopen in-person. 

“We desperately want to be with kids in the classroom but we need to not be carrying something home to our extended family,” she said.

Montelone is also the primary caretaker for her elderly godfather and she worries about bringing coronavirus home from school to him. 

“Trying to think of how to craft a solution that gets us in the classroom working with kids while not potentially risking the lives of our teachers or their families, that’s a huge burden,” she said.

It’s a burden is on the minds of many teachers returning to the classroom this fall. 

Dan Heintz teaches eighth and 10th grade history at Chardon schools, which is also using a hybrid model. He has missed his students and his colleagues since school abruptly ended last spring. 

“I missed saying goodbye to them last year, so I’m eager to say hello this year,” he said.

On the one hand, he “can’t wait” to go back to school, to be with his fellow teachers again and to interact with his students in person. 

“But then there is this deadly virus, and that’s scary,” Heintz said. 

Earlier this month, he returned to his classroom for some back-to-school training. Everyone was wearing masks and had their temperature check on entering the building. Heintz figured, “even if we’re behind masks, it’s better than nothing.”

Heintz is also on the school board of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, which will be resuming classes entirely online. He voted for that plan because, he said, it’s the safest choice. But while online-only classes tamp down concerns over a potential outbreak, they present new challenges. 

“I have great, great trepidation about the plan because of those families for whom school is more than where kids learn,” he said. 

For many kids, school is where they eat, stay safe and maybe even get medical attention. Many Northeast Ohio families can’t afford to have a parent stay home with their child, and still more don’t have internet access at home

And then there’s the question of how to engage kids online. 

That’s the challenge ahead of Ian Steffen and his colleagues at Strongsville Schools, which also plans to resume school entirely online. Steffen teaches seventh grade science and is the president of the Strongsville Education Association. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t bother worrying because, you know, what’s the point? He’d rather get to work on a solution. Still, he expects the 2020-21 academic year to be the worst year of his life as a teacher.

“I don’t think there’s going to be very much that’s going to be super pleasant about teaching this year,” he said. 

Steffen’s favorite thing about teaching is the interaction with students when they are together in the classroom – something that’s difficult to capture online. 

“It’s tragic, we can get through it and we can get by, but it’s not going to be anything any teacher ever thought they were ever going to have to do,” he said. 

The teachers in his district want to see their students, Steffen said.

“That’s what we love and that’s what we do,” he said. But they also understand that the safest way to reopen is virtually, using “numbers and science” to make decisions about what school should look like in the coming weeks and months, he said.

At St. Mark Catholic School in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, fifth-grade teacher Patricia McGinty is ready to teach – to an empty classroom. For the first two weeks of school, all classes will be live-streamed and students will watch from home. But as of mid-September, students will be welcomed back into the classroom full time.

“We’re just super excited to have the kids back,” McGinty said. “We’re super excited for normalcy.” 

McGinty said while she acknowledges the seriousness of the virus, she also feels that it’s important for students to be able to attend school in person, “not only for the academic piece but also social and emotional piece.” 

She knows her students may need the occasional reminder to keep a greater distance from each other or to pull their masks up. In fact, St. Mark’s bought lanyards for all the students so they never lose their masks – even if they’re allowed to take them off for a few precious moments outside during recess.

Copyright 2020 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.