How Metro Detroit Teachers Are Handling Returning To School During the Pandemic

For both veteran and rookie teachers, COVID-19 means a fall fraught with difficult decisions

teachers teaching in a pandemic

At summer’s start, Sarah Brooks thought she was nearing the end of a decade-long journey to becoming a teacher. Brooks, born and raised in Lafayette Park, was so eager to get into the classroom that she completed her education master’s degree in a grueling one-year accelerated program at the University of Michigan this spring and had a job offer from a Detroit charter school for this fall.

But at first, COVID-19 left the invite uncertain and possibly unsafe. She understood her employment to be conditional on the resumption of in-person learning, and Brooks’ type 1 diabetes made her wary of turning schoolhouses into super-spreader sites.

“While I was gung-ho about just pushing through, the more I heard from schools and the more I heard from the government, the less certain I felt that this would be the safest decision for me — and really anybody, for that matter, but probably especially for a first-year teacher who is a type 1 diabetic,” the 27-year-old says.

After Brooks declined the offer, school administrators changed course and decided the James and Grace Lee Boggs School would begin the year with remote classes after all. Brooks then accepted the job and is expected to begin her career by teaching first-graders online. “It’s not quite what I had in mind,” Brooks says with a laugh. “I knew the landscape of education would be hard. I didn’t quite expect this.”

Nor did thousands of teachers across metro Detroit and the nation as a new school year dawns under the clouds of a still-raging COVID-19 outbreak, alarm over the well-being of students who took unevenly to this spring’s sudden shift to remote learning, and a toxic partisan tug-of-war over whether and how to resume in-person classes.

“I am hearing about retirements, I am hearing about medical opt-outs, I am hearing about sabbaticals and things like that,” says Kevin Ozar, 45, a Detroit native who teaches eighth-graders at Farmington STEAM Academy. “Most of what I hear, however, are teachers who want to do right by their learners and at the same time want to be valued and respected. And we haven’t felt terribly valued and respected in this country as educators for a long time.”

A June survey of Michigan Education Association members found 87 percent were “very concerned” about coronavirus health risks associated with reopening schools, and one-third were seriously considering retiring early or leaving the profession, MEA spokesman David Crim says.

“If teachers don’t feel safe, how will they move to the high level of thinking and processing that they need to meet 35 kids’ needs all at the same time?” Ozar asks.

Fall plans were expected to vary by district and were works in progress well into the summer. Various districts and education associations declined to comment on their intentions, and many teachers said they were in the dark about whether to plan for learning in person or on-screen.

“Schools may be face-to-face or, if they’re face-to-face, they’ll probably be on modified schedules of some sort,” says Gail Richmond, the director of teacher preparation programs at Michigan State University’s College of Education. “They could be hybrids. They could be fully online. No matter what, it will be a challenge.”

To minimize COVID-19 risks that grow with proximity and age, some experts recommend in-person learning with as much social distancing as possible. That can mean desks 6 feet apart, lunches eaten in solitary fashion, or students rotating attendance days. Many educators want to teach in person but worry that political decisions  and a lack of resources could put them in harm’s way. “No matter what decisions are made, teachers will need the kind of professional support that will allow them to successfully meet these new challenges on behalf of their students,” Richmond says.

Michael MacLeod, 41, who teaches honors English and AP European history at Adlai Stevenson High School in Utica, worries about confrontations with students and parents over adhering to safety rules.

“How do you require a kid to wear a mask in school if mom or dad don’t want them to?” asks MacLeod, a 19-year veteran of Stevenson High. “You’re dealing with teenagers, elementary school kids. They’re not going to always take it as seriously as they should.”

Kathryn Bauss, 60, a kindergarten teacher at Roberts Elementary School in Shelby Township, is determined to make the unworkable work. She’s proud of how she innovated in the spring to boost her remote learning plan. “I put three chairs in my vehicle and my sanitizing equipment, gloves and masks, and all my assessment tools and balloons,” she says. Then she drove to the homes of each of her 20 students and met with them outside.

Bauss, who is entering her 30th year as a teacher, wants to keep innovating this fall, but her son, a Sterling Heights firefighter paramedic, isn’t so sure that’s a great idea. “He says, ‘Mom, I’m concerned for you,’” she says. “But that’s one of the commitments we make as teachers. You’re working with people.”

While veteran educators braced for change, rookie teachers readied themselves to enter a socially distanced learning world that would look nothing like the one for which they had prepared.

“I’ve heard that when you get your first teaching job it’s exciting and overwhelming — but then you add COVID and all this, [and] it’s a new set of uncertainty,” says Jessica Gardiner, 23, a recent U-M master’s program graduate who took a job for the fall at a Lansing elementary school. “It’s hard to get to know somebody over Zoom because you miss out on all those in-person nonverbal signals.”

On the other hand, in-person teaching may require her to wear masks all day. “I can barely breathe when I go into Whole Foods for 30 minutes. I can’t imagine trying to teach and show my emotions to the students” behind a mask, she says.

Gardiner and Brooks, like thousands of newly minted teachers around the country, lost important field training to the spring’s COVID-19 lockdown. That could make the start of their careers bumpier than usual, says Richard Ingersoll, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “With COVID, a lot of the new batch of teaching candidates probably curtailed or skipped entirely the practice teaching,” he says. “It turns out, that is the most important part: time with real, live kids.”

Ozar, like many, insists he will soldier on one way or the other: “I can’t picture in my head how we can safely do what we’ve done in the schools this fall. I just don’t see it. I just don’t know how all that’s going to work. But I will partake. I will support my students and I will try and teach.”