Editor’s Note: Jami Cole is a fifth-grade teacher in Oklahoma. She runs the Facebook group Oklahoma Edvocates. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I wake up eager to get to school in the mornings. I love my students and am energized by their excitement to learn and face new challenges every day. With the support they have in my fifth-grade classroom, I know that they will be resilient enough to overcome adversities, and they consistently prove me right over the course of a year. Then, I beam with pride when they go to the sixth grade.
But this year, like the last two before it, things have been different.
After starting the year with relative stability (at least for a pandemic school year), rumblings of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which many feared would be even more contagious than Delta, started making national and local news around Thanksgiving. All I could think was: Please don’t let this lead to another surge, another episode of school closures, another wave of fear about my students’ health – and my own health. But in a matter of weeks, my fears were confirmed.
Now, I find myself in my classroom every day in a state of desperation, doing my utmost to provide education and support for my students while trying to keep them – and myself – safe.
From the outside looking in, it may seem that with the preventive measures at our disposal to protect against infection, masks chief among them, we should be able to continue teaching in person safely through this surge. But we are largely operating without many of these protective measures, kneecapped by the Oklahoma state government’s refusal to mandate mask usage and its effort to prevent schools from requiring mask use in the classroom. It’s not enough to have knowledge about how to stay safe; to prevent illness, that knowledge must be utilized.
But to truly understand the emotion that has overcome and overwhelmed teachers as we have battled through this Omicron spike, you must know what the last two years have been like for us.
Since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, every teacher has faced their own challenges. For me, these were both professional and personal; it was near impossible to feel like I was properly supporting my students while their education was in a state of chaos and uncertainty. And, on the personal front, I was terrified that I would catch Covid-19 – or worse yet, that my husband, Drew, who is a high school teacher, would catch it. I was recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and Drew is battling leukemia. These conditions make us particularly vulnerable to severe disease if we catch the coronavirus.
But we kept working, dedicated to teaching our students.
I started realizing how much my kids were being impacted by Covid just before spring break in mid-March of 2020, when one of my students asked for a hug before he got in his car.
I replied, “How about a fist bump instead?”
He was crestfallen. I’ll never forget the look in his big brown eyes as he said, “Is it because of corona?”
Indeed, what was to come was the end of that school year as we knew it. During spring break that year, my public school district shuttered schools through the end of the academic calendar. So, my students and I began navigating the world of virtual learning. I conducted my lessons on a whiteboard in my living room as our dogs barked. My students were more interested in showing me their toys than paying attention to their work. But we made it through the end of the school year.
Fast forward to August 2020 – a brand new school year and a return to in-person learning. Being back in the classroom quickly became a game of coronavirus dodgeball. While it was hard to come by masks and hand sanitizer, we used everything we had access to, following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as they changed and evolved with new information about the virus. Teaching in a mask wasn’t easy – but I did it gladly, thankful for the thin sheath around my face that gave me some amount of protection.
When wearing a mask was uncomfortable, I would remind myself of those days of virtual learning and how difficult – even traumatizing – they were for the kids. I thought about how my students hovered by my side during recess when we returned to in-person school, as if they were trying to stay as close as possible to any element of stability they had within reach. I thought too about the attention issues I had noticed upon our return that I hoped would not persist as time passed.
While my students are still resilient, the instability of the last two years has taken a noticeable toll. And so I know how important it is for communities to do everything in their power to keep schools open and keep kids and staff safe within their walls – and that means wearing masks.
I have to imagine the anti-masking crowd does not think about these realities of learning and development when they issue their cries about personal freedoms and not muzzling kids. To them, it seems, teachers who advocated for mask usage have gone from heroes who teach and care for their kids to oppressive bad guys. The anti-mask messages have swirled on social media sites, and legislation in my state has been passed to keep mask mandates out of public schools (though luckily an Oklahoma County District Court imposed a temporary hold on that law in September). Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, the first known governor in the nation to catch Covid, made it clear that he was not going to prioritize health and safety over his own personal beliefs.
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So, now, teachers like me are at a loss. Over the course of the pandemic, I have, unsurprisingly, caught Covid twice, disrupting the school year for both me and my students. Drew, by some miracle, has not caught it. I worry for him every day. I worry, too, about what the rest of the year will bring for my class.
Teachers need support to keep their classes running. We need to be able to show up every day with the knowledge that we are empowered to protect ourselves and our students. Whether we will get that support, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I will keep showing up for my kids, because that is what teachers do.