President Biden wants to reopen schools across the country within his first 100 days in office and has already signed executive actions to free up funding and increase personal protective equipment and testing for school districts.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release new guidelines about how schools can reopen safely. And on Wednesday, Chicago's teachers' union agreed to restart in-person classes in a deal that includes COVID-19 vaccine priority to teachers and staff who are returning to school buildings.
Across the country, teachers are beginning to face the reality of returning to their classrooms in person and all that comes with it — whether it's excitement over seeing students again, anxiety over whether classrooms will be safe from the virus or the challenges that come with teaching in a radically new environment.
Maxie Hollingsworth just returned to in-person teaching at her elementary school in Houston, where she has been working remotely since last spring.
"God, it was good to see the kids," Hollingsworth, 48, says. "But it's not the same, because I'm constantly telling pre-K, [kindergarten] and first grade and second grade, you know, pull up your mask, sweet pea."
Mike Reinholdt teaches special education at an elementary school in Davenport, Iowa. He is physically in the classroom, but the 32-year-old teacher's students cycle through virtual, in-person and a hybrid of the two.
"Relearning how to gauge understanding through a virtual format is a new challenge. Learning how to motivate students to make sure that they're completing work is a very big challenge as well," he says. "We're changing the mindset on how teaching works."
Pam Gaddy is still teaching her students at a Baltimore high school remotely for now, so she and her colleagues have had to improvise.
"There are teachers who are meeting with kids in cars with their parents, one parking space away, talking to the kids through car windows to try to help the kids," the 47-year-old educator says.
All three are thinking about vaccine availability and their safety and the safety of their students and their families.
Here are highlights from their conversation with All Things Considered.
On Feb. 3, the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in a White House press briefing that "vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools."
Maxie Hollingsworth: I was livid when I saw that. I was livid. I mean, how dare she? Everyone is saying that schools must reopen, but teachers are not a priority for vaccines. That is insane. ...
The reality is this. We still have cases. My entire fifth grade was out last week. Half of the fourth-grade students were out last week. Half of the third-grade students were out last week. And one full kindergarten class was out last week. So you can't tell me that teachers don't need to be vaccinated. ...
So if we're shutting down half the school for cases like that, you can't tell me that it doesn't make sense for us to be priority. And we're not, here in Texas. I live in Texas where teachers are not a priority. But the governor has been demanding that schools fully reopen. ...
Mike Reinholdt: Jumping off your last point here is I can almost understand where the CDC director is coming from, but we cannot — with 100% in-person learning — we cannot guarantee 6-foot distancing. We cannot guarantee the masks. I mean, if you've ever been in a kindergarten classroom, they don't know where to throw tissues, you know, to throw them in the trash can, much less keep a mask on their face 100% of the time.
Pam, can I hear from you? Because you teach older kids.
Pam Gaddy: I mean, I wish the kids would just follow instructions. We have so many, you know, young adults who believe they're adults. So they're going to do what they want to do, regardless.
But my school has over 1,400 students. So how do we navigate even just transitioning into hallways? Teachers have to stand in hallways to monitor behavior. Well, we can't be 6 feet apart in the hallways in that manner.
And in my state, the governor has even had the audacity to say, well, if teachers don't want to go back, we'll figure out a way to penalize them, like take some of their pay or something of that nature. You're threatening me now. You're not vaccinating me — because that would help just, you know, ease my mind just a little. But then you threaten my pay or my certification. How do you justify that?
In a speech on the Senate floor on Feb. 3, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, said, "Federal money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is lack of willpower. Not among students. Not among parents. Just among the rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities." Do you see the conversation starting to come down to unions and teachers versus everyone else? ... He's basically arguing that unions are getting in the way of school reopenings.
Gaddy: Well, so are politicians. You're getting in the way of school opening, too, because, one, this rollout could have been a lot easier. The rollout should have been earlier. We should have done things differently in the very beginning of this that may have alleviated the return to school in the fall. So everyone is getting in the way of everyone, and we just want to blame everyone. And the union — how else are teachers getting their voices heard?
What's your response to Sen. McConnell saying that this is about willpower and this is about unions exerting power?
Hollingsworth: There's no lack of willpower. I haven't heard anyone say we don't want to teach. That's not the issue. We want to teach, and we want to teach in a safe environment. And the thing is we've shown up. We've shown up virtually. We've shown up in person. And we've changed the way we teach with no foundation in this.
People don't criticize inventors when they fail and fail and fail and fail and struggle, you know, when it takes them five, 10 years to get something right.
But the teaching profession has been beat up in the last 11 months for the way that we have served our students. And we've served it with a tremendous amount of sacrifice, so it's offensive to me that people would say that this is a lack of willpower.
The other side of this is this ongoing conversation where experts are seeing learning gaps widened for low-income students and people who have the least resources to succeed in online school. How do you balance those things as you're thinking about this, that there's a learning and mental health emergency for kids?
Gaddy: Those have been issues we've stressed well before COVID. Those things didn't just pop up because of COVID. ...
Reinholdt: We've always known that there's a gap. And it's very challenging to see students struggle, to see students have these mental health emergencies. Just to see students on a safety perspective, not being able to see them on a daily basis, is a very scary circumstance for, I think, any teacher. So yeah, we definitely recognize the challenge here. But ultimately, we won't be able to make up those learning gaps if people don't come out of this pandemic.