I’m not going to lie: COVID-19 scares me. But I’m a teacher. It’s not just what I do — it’s who I am. Plus, I have four kids to support, so I feel lucky to have a job, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
I love my university and my students, but it’s hard to balance that with my concern for my own children and my fears. I’m sure you are experiencing a myriad of emotions as well. I am teaching a summer course face-to-face and want to share my experience and observations with you. I don’t mean to frighten you but rather to prepare you if you are going to teach face-to-face in the coming months, as well.
When I first walked into my classroom after four months at home, it was surreal, but not just because it had been so long. The entire atmosphere felt different. It was as though the building — the very air — knew something was wrong.
I walked the empty hall from my office to my classroom with trepidation. Standing at the podium waiting for my students, I wore a thick, three-ply cotton mask with medical tape across my nose to prevent my glasses from fogging up and a face shield for maximum protection. I didn’t feel like me, and I didn’t feel the joy and excitement I have always felt on the first day of school.
Students began to file in and take the seats that weren’t marked off-limits. They were wearing masks, and for the most part correctly, but they were uneasily quiet. We were all quiet. I noticed that no one used the hand sanitizer or paper towels attached to the wall, but I didn’t want to be “Mom,” so I didn’t say anything. My classroom seemed plenty big enough for the social distancing of my 15 students, and I’m glad I was scheduled in a computer classroom, since I had flipped my class.
I designed my course so that all readings and videos could be watched as homework, and class time would be spent for in-class writing and projects and limited lectures. I even created discussion board assignments to be completed in class so students can critically engage with the previous night’s material and important concepts. As part of their homework, they need to read the board and respond to other posts to connect with their classmates, even though they can’t really talk in class. I want to limit talking because we are in an enclosed environment, and the more talking, the more spread — or so I keep thinking.
That first day, I took roll at the beginning of class, although I’ve decided not to allocate points for attendance as I have for the past 20 years. Instead, I will be taking attendance in case we need to trace COVID-19. I also use the seating chart feature in Canvas so I can learn their names since their masks make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify them by face.
I then began to lecture on technical communication concepts because I felt it was necessary on the first day, and that’s when things got difficult. I guess you can call me an energetic teacher — animated even. I get louder, use my hands and walk around. I tried to stay at the front of the room, but I couldn’t keep from moving down the aisle, and although the face shield seemed to be too much, I am glad that I had it on.
As I continued, it became difficult for me to breathe, and my eyes and nose began to run. I also felt my heart beating faster, and I was breathing as deeply as I could, but I felt like I didn’t have air. I apologized to my students. I am pretty sure that I repeated “This is difficult,” although that may have been in my mind. I have never had a panic attack, but I imagine that is what it would feel like.
I finished my short lecture and gave my students a writing assignment so I could excuse myself. I grabbed my hand sanitizer and water, which had a closed lid, and went out into the hall. Luckily, it was empty. I cleaned my hands with the sanitizer and took off my mask and the medical tape. As I ripped it off my nose, I let out a scream from the pain. I realized that I was shaking and almost in tears.
I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and took a few drinks of my water because my mouth was so dry. I calmed myself down and went to my office to get a disposable mask and tape, so I could replace the heavy one I was wearing. The disposable mask didn’t fit well, and I didn’t have any more medical tape, but I went back into the classroom and I felt more comfortable. I also didn’t put the face shield back on, and I forced myself to stay at the front of the room.
The students were still writing, and I noticed that a few of them had their masks pulled below their noses, so I reminded them to pull their masks up. They worked quietly until we started discussing their first assignment. I asked a few questions, and some of the students spoke, but it was difficult to hear them. I had to ask them to repeat themselves because the masks muffled their voices. I also had to hold my mask in place since my glasses kept fogging up and the mask moved every time I spoke because I didn’t attach the mask with tape.
At the end of class, I said they could go, and I realized I should have dismissed them by rows, but it was too late. The students all got up at the same time and walked out together.
I took a short break between classes to use the restroom, and I noticed that many students were walking in close groups and others were waiting up against walls for their next class. Most were not six feet apart.
Learning as I Go
I have to admit that my second class of the day went better than the first because I knew what to expect and it was much easier to breathe in the disposable mask and without the face shield. I can’t tell you how exhausted I was after that first day. I’m sure part of it was because I was simply out of practice teaching face-to-face, but it was also because of the emotional and physical toll of COVID-19 and the protective gear.
The next morning, my university sent out an email reminding us to have students clean their work area, so I decided that I would be more proactive. When I got to the classroom, I cleaned off my own workstation, which I neglected to do the first day. I pulled off several sheets of paper towels from the machine attached to the wall, sprayed them with sanitizer, which was also hanging on the wall, and wiped down my podium, keyboard, mouse and even the light switches. I then pulled off another 15 sheets of paper towels, and as students walked in, I doused a sheet with sanitizer and handed it to each of them. They each thanked me and cleaned off their areas.
I also used a different mask — one a friend made me that was not so heavy but still had multiple layers. I again put the tape across my nose, but since I was out of medical tape, I used what I had — masking tape — and it worked just as well. I also decided against the face shield (probably still a mistake) because I felt so claustrophobic the previous day. We analyzed infographics in class, and the room seemed much more settled. I again had to remind students to cover their noses with their masks, but everyone was respectful and did what I asked.
At the end of class, I grabbed the sanitizer and dismissed students more slowly than the previous day. As they left the room, I sprayed each student’s hands with sanitizer, and they each thanked me.
There is definitely a learning curve to COVID-style teaching, and it is a lot of work. The main takeaways thus far: wear a comfortable mask, be proactive in getting your students to sanitize their areas and don’t be afraid to remind them how to behave according to your institution’s rules. (Embry Riddle’s fall 2020 plan, including health protocols and the university’s testing strategy, is online here.) You need to keep yourself and your class safe.
I have also learned that it is important to leverage technology to connect with students and help them connect with each other because it is difficult to talk in class with masks from six feet away. In fact, I have had to remind students more than once to not pull their chairs closer together. In the three weeks since my summer class started, I have used Canvas’s discussion boards, Perusall to annotate a shared document, Google Docs for team assignments, Zoom for synchronous meetings and breakout rooms for teams, and Screencast-O-Matic to make videos where I explain important concepts and walk through assignment guidelines, which I can’t do easily in class. My students also use Discord, GroupMe and WhatsApp to stay in contact with one another.
Ultimately, I’m not sure how effective all of the precautions will be. But I’m doing what I can to protect us all from getting sick while still teaching them the material and building a community of learners. And I’m hoping for the best.