CORRECTION: A previous version of this article used the incorrect political party affiliation for North Carolina Senator Deanna Ballard. The article has been updated to reflect the appropriate political party for Ballard. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
This article was originally published as a part of the UNC Media Hub program in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and has been republished by The Daily Tar Heel.
Each morning, Evan Davis’ classroom is his guest bedroom, which looks out at his backyard. A poster of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hangs over his shoulder and a bed sits just out of view of his laptop’s camera. Sometimes, Davis has to move a pile of clothes off the bed, ensuring a clean background for his students.
His wife, Liz, is also a teacher. She sits in her classroom at Pollard Middle School in Chatham County. A sea of empty desks sits in front of her with green masking tape marking where students should sit to maintain social distancing. Posters of historical figures hang from the walls. She has the challenge of teaching about 65 children in each of her classes. Some are classified as academically gifted, some have individualized education programs, some won’t be in her class the next day — a difficult group to plan lessons for.
Evan and Liz's experiences are emblematic of the unpredictability teachers face during the pandemic — from remote teaching to erratic attendance and keeping students engaged one year in. These issues are even more striking for those entering the workforce as student teachers, trying to establish their footing and style.
“I just hate the unknown,” Liz said. “And there was so much unknown.”
There still is. N.C. Sen. Deanna Ballard (R–Alleghany), co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, introduced a bill that would require all school districts to offer in-person instruction before the end of the school year. Gov. Roy Cooper is urging districts to offer in-person learning opportunities but vetoed the bill due to concerns about following NCHHS guidance.
The North Carolina Association of Educators says individual school boards should decide when to reopen, not the state.
There are many reasons why some school districts have elected to return to in-person instruction and why others are remaining virtual, including political climate, economics, population density and positive COVID-19 testing rates. The latter, however, can become an issue when testing is not required for teachers to work in-person, as is the case at Liz ’s school. Tests are available to Liz and her colleagues through the county’s health department.
Student teachers preparing to find full-time jobs could face similar issues amid economic instability.
UNC graduate student Natalie Daumen is a student teacher in Durham County, where schools are set to remain closed for the remainder of the year. Unlike some of her peers, Daumen has no in-person teaching experience — a fact she’s not too worried about before her job search.
"I think that a lot of the things that I have gotten to do — while on the surface, they don't really seem like they would adequately prepare me — if you dive deeper and look at it, you can see similarities," Daumen said. "I definitely know that it's going to be a wild ride when I do get my classroom to myself."
Unlike the Davises and Daumen, Savannah Lewis, a choir teacher at Randleman High School, is teaching in a hybrid format, meaning some of her students are in the classroom working with her. But it remains their choice. In one of her classes last semester, only one student elected to enter the classroom.
The rest of her students are learning asynchronously from home with the option to join class sessions virtually — a dual format that is taking a toll on her.
“It's definitely exhausting, physically and mentally,” Lewis said. “I would be up until 11, 12, 1 a.m. trying to create online material for the next day. It would just be a constant process of going to teach all day and then coming back and saying, ‘Right, now, let’s address the remote kids. Now, let me create stuff for tomorrow.’ It was just really exhausting.”
Lewis’ school is now closed because of a spike in COVID-19 cases on the day she was interviewed for this story.
In many schools that are open, students are unable to move throughout the building or interact with each other, instead sitting at a desk and completing much of their work online. They get 15 minutes for lunch, during which they can’t talk in the hopes of reducing the amount of droplets in the air.
Liz referred to the experience as sad.
“We feel like glorified babysitters — the people that are in the building because kids can't move,” she said. “They're doing online learning, just in a classroom now.”
For those who are trying to start a career and a family, like the Davises, the pandemic presents a different set of issues. With Evan set to return to his classroom in March and his students arriving in April, the chances of bringing home the virus increases. It’s the reason Liz wanted to continue teaching virtually, even if she had to do it in a classroom.
“I felt weird being advocating for myself as, like, the youngest person on my team,” she said. “I felt like people didn't take it quite as seriously if I was like, ‘Hey, I know I'm not at a high risk of being exposed, but I still don't want to bring this home to my husband.'”
For new teachers who have spent thousands on graduate school but don’t feel safe being in a school building, there’s a tough choice between safety and stability.
“I have a lot of colleagues, and Liz does too, that were considering just not going back and not having that job anymore,” Evan said. “As first year teachers, that wasn't really an option for us financially. We couldn't just not have a job. We were kind of at the mercy of the school system in terms of them making the decision.”
While new teachers might struggle both in and out of the classroom during this pandemic, being new to the field can be a positive.
“I think in a lot of ways though, being a new teacher has been an advantage,” he said. “I think it's a lot easier teaching-wise to come in without a lot of experience, because everything is new anyway, right? I have a blank playbook.”
For others, a different reality has set in.
“I feel like I just lost a chunk of my teaching career, like time stood still for a minute,” Lewis said. “I feel like I'm not growing as a teacher. I'm just idling by and waiting for this to be over and trying to do my best.”
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