Last year remote learning broke me, what will happen this time?

The text arrived yesterday at 7pm. It was from my department chair. He was informing the math department that school was closed for the next ten days. The “Situation Room” at the New York City Department of Education decided that their Covid threshold had been met and we needed to shut our doors. Remote learning was back.

Initially — within the first few minutes of reading his message — my reaction was indifferent. Closing our school was inevitable. Covid was spreading like wildfire and this was a necessary step for everyone’s safety. What had to be done had to be done.

Over the next half hour, there was a frenzy of emails and texts asking teachers to create Zoom links, notify their students, and jump headfirst back into a harsh world that caused me so much harm. As my phone rattled and binged displaying texts from colleagues wishing each other well, dread swept over me. I was hesitant, but decided to open my laptop. As I did, an unsightly number of emails filled the screen. After 10 minutes of gazing at an unwanted reality, my body felt heavy. The heartache from last year was resurfacing. I grew somber. My eyes watered.

Naively, when the year began, I figured I was done with remote learning. Years from now I saw myself looking back at the 2020-21 school year with terror, grateful that I never had to experience anything like it again. I see now that I was wrong.

Despite knowing our return to remote learning was inevitable, I couldn’t bring myself to reply to my department chair’s text message. Nor could I gather the courage to reply to any of the emails from school leadership about prepping Zoom links. I left them all unanswered. If I did respond, I knew I would be complicit in accepting our return to remote learning. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I ignored every message and request.

Feeling that remote learning was dragging me back to its dark lair, I spent the next hour reading some of my recent blogposts about the experience (here, here, and here). Though satisfying, I think this made my mental state worse because the posts find me relishing the freedoms that in-person learning has granted to me this year. It’s like what happens when you guilt eat a bunch of chocolate after a breakup. It feels great in the moment, but afterward you feel horrible. After I gorge on my posts, I look at the clock. It’s 8:30. I go to bed.

This morning, still unable to fully accept that remote learning has made a comeback, I wait until the last minute to create Zoom links for my classes. Deep inside, something in me believed that all of this would just go away if I refused to acknowledge it. I know this is foolish, but I couldn’t help it. Ten minutes before the start of 1st period, I create the damned links and add them to our school’s shared spreadsheet. Doing it felt like an out-of-body experience.

And how did today go? It was a struggle. The kids were all over the place. I had no significant plans and spent each period meekly checking in with students, asking about the transition back to Zoom and what they’re hoping for during our shut down. Some students joined sick and from quarantine, receiving their essentials like food and water from family members in isolation. Others were in an empty home, bored out of their minds. Many were angry that we were once again resorting to Zoom links and communicating through a chatbox. Just like me, the flashbacks to last year came without warning for these students. In 3rd period, a girl cried pleaded, “I feel robbed. When are we ever going to get to have a normal school year?” A few hours into remote and worry had already taken hold. And this was from the students that were actually present today. There were so many I didn’t even see. I’m concerned even more for them.

As for me? How did I hold up? My morning classes — which I teach alone — were a nightmare. Feeding off last night’s energy, I had little motivation. I was fully present, but empty. My students sensed my dreariness and this made things worse. It was evident to them and me that my light — which radiated during the last four months — dimed and went out today. Behind a turned-off camera, I teared up during 3rd period. I was afraid.

As the day progressed, I tried to fully own and understand the shadowy figure that remote learning turned me into this morning by finding myself in the stories my students shared during class. My co-teacher in 5th period helped as she joked and lifted up silly moments that I failed to notice because I was trapped by my own feelings. In my other classes, I worked to show appreciation for the students who unmuted themselves. One student in 7th period had her camera on for the entire period and another in 9th showed her baby sister on camera, whom we talk about often. I showered both with public gratitude.

A year ago today I wrote, “My crusade for student engagement resulted in many minutes of silence today in both 1st and 9th periods. I get frustrated as hell, but, right now, who can blame them for wanting to hide…” The symmetry between then and now is absolute.

In my students’ reflections in class today, I was reminded several times that remote learning is temporary this time around. Ten days, that’s it. We’re scheduled to be back January 3. This is supposed to console me, to give me solace, but hasn’t. When I see cases spiking, nothing communicates that remote learning is going anywhere. Ten days can easily turn into 20 which can quickly turn into 30. This concerns me because, well, like all teachers, I’ve felt the grip of remote learning. It’s strong, unrelenting, and unsustainable. Last year it broke me. What will happen this time?


bp



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