As students return to the classroom following holiday breaks, many educators are expressing concern around how increasing COVID-19 rates will affect their students and classrooms this term. Since the start of 2022, rises in COVID-19 cases have drastically increased throughout most states in the U.S. According to the CDC, 751,125 average new positive COVID cases and 1,612 average new COVID deaths were reported in the U.S., as of January 10, 2022. Biden’s administration is eager to continue in-person instruction, but as reports of insufficient COVID precautions in schools continue to emerge, many people are starting to consider if it may be safer to pivot to remote learning.
BLAC connected with Rozalyn Wingate, a fourth grade math teacher for Washington DC Public Schools, during an in-depth interview to learn more about how increasing COVID cases are specifically impacting her classroom and herself as an educator. Last school year, Wingate watched as her classroom dwindled in numbers from week to week. She estimated that roughly 50% of her students were absent at one point during the last term for COVID related issues, and that percentage seems to be increasing with the start of the new year.
Wingate said, “To put it into perspective for you, we have 24 kids total enrolled in the fourth grade, and today we only had 7 students show up. That’s two-thirds of our students who are absent. A lot of them have either been in close contact with a sibling or parent who has COVID, or they have COVID themselves.”
Wingate follows all of the CDC guidelines in her classroom, but she feels that even these precautions are not yet enough to keep the majority of students healthy and in school. Although her school provides rapid testing for students, Wingate believes that these tests are not required regularly enough to ensure the safety of students and faculty. Students are often sent home on the weekends, allowing them to be exposed to COVID by their community and family members, without being retested before they come back to school on Monday morning. Consequently, accurate reporting on the daily number of active COVID cases Wingate’s school is difficult to obtain.
She explained, “These rapid tests that they make the students take are not very effective. For example, they had the students here take a rapid test on Thursday, but after the students went home for the weekend, they did not receive another rapid test on Monday. They aren’t re-testing them every day, so there is no way to tell exactly how many people are passing [COVID] around at any time.”
Wingate’s students are all children of color, with 99% of her students being African American. A lot of Wingate’s students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, which makes the stresses of COVID all that more severe for them. In addition to trying to stay safe during this national pandemic, Wingate shares that her students are often also dealing with intense family trauma and few support systems, which makes catching up after COVID related absences that much more difficult for them. Several of Wingate’s students have missed weeks of learning because of COVID related absences, which has led to the students falling behind academically and developmentally.
“When my students have to quarantine, they lose the opportunity to fully build on the skills we’ve been working on. Now, once they’re better, they are weeks behind on classwork and weeks behind on where the other students are socially and developmentally. Like, maybe we’re on Division now, but when they left we were on Place Value. When they return, they’re stressed wondering how they will catch up, and for a lot of students it’s easier to just not try at all.”
Wingate’s students are not the only ones in her classroom who are feeling anxious and overworked. Wingate herself is struggling. On any given day, Wingate must teach her current lesson plan and help the students who have been absent catch up on their missed work, all while worrying about her own wellbeing.
Wingate confessed, “I’m always at risk for exposure. I also work with younger kids who need me to closely watch over them as they work, so it is not always possible for me to stay six feet away at all times. I do not want to be detached from my students because I do not think that would make me a good teacher, but every day I feel like I’m putting my health at risk because of this.”
Wingate also feels that she has had to take on roles outside of her duties as an educator to ensure the safety of her students. Wingate explained how she often feels she is playing “nurse” as she must constantly watch and enforce that her students follow CDC guidelines.
She explained, “On top of your normal duties as a teacher, you now have to be a nurse basically. It’s my job to watch out for signs of illness, to tell them to keep their masks up, to make sure they are sanitizing their hands and staying six feet apart, and that they are not touching other people’s stuff. It’s a lot. So now, in addition to all of the stresses teacher’s already face, we now have to be terrified that if we aren’t being vigilant, we are putting our students in danger.”
When asked how Wingate would like to see her community better support teachers and students this year, Wingate responded, “We just need to go home.” Wingate’s response echoes that of many educators, parents and school faculty who feel that a return to remote learning may actually be safer and more conducive to effective learning.