Halfway into a challenging school year of teaching second graders in-person with coronavirus safety protocols, a Massachusetts teacher fell ill with Covid-19.
When Amie Gilbert got sick in mid-January, vaccines were unavailable to most teachers in the state. A few of her students at Stony Brook Elementary School in Brewster also got sick, according to the school’s principal.
Flu-like symptoms kept her out of school for two weeks. But the long-term effects of Covid-19 continue to plague her almost eight months later, Gilbert said.
“There’s no hazard pay [for] being in person with kids, but this is a hazardous situation. This is not the norm,” she said, referring to the pandemic. “I made that choice to be in person with my students. I’m glad I did.”
Gilbert, 50, who comes from a long line of teachers in her family, loves what she does.
“I want to be there for these children. I’m going back in again,” she said. “But I am putting myself at risk because I love my students and there’s a consequence to it. I want people to see how much teachers really do care about their kids and how hard we really work.”
The good news is that Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. More than 64% of the state is fully vaccinated, second only to Vermont, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data published Thursday.
Half of the population of the United States is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, White House Data Director Dr. Cyrus Shahpar said Friday.
Gilbert looks forward to seeing students in person when school starts in September, and she credits her district for the lengths it went through to get children back in the classroom. She only had 14 students in her class the past school year because that’s all that could fit in a room with Covid protocols, she said. This year, her roster has 17 students.
Gilbert got some reprieve from her long-Covid symptoms after she received her second shot of the vaccine in the spring, but other effects persist. “I don’t feel like the same person,” she said.
Fatigue, joint pain and trouble with her sense of smell continue to affect Gilbert’s daily life. The mother of four adult children used to work out five or six times a week, she said, but now she’s struggling to keep up with regular life.
“It’s hard because of the fatigue … you don’t want to be considered lazy,” she said. “I don’t have the stamina that I had.”
Keeping up with elementary school kids is a challenge for any teacher. Gilbert says she uses most of her daily energy at school and by the time she gets home, she doesn’t have the energy to cook dinner or to work out on weekdays.
She worries more about her students than herself
As a new school year approaches, Gilbert is more concerned with her students and meeting their needs than worrying about her health.
“I kind of feel like I’ve been through it already,” she said. “I don’t feel personally scared for my own safety at this point, but it’s a lot of responsibility being in charge of the children’s safety.”
Gilbert, who has taught for 10 years, said “it’s just exhausting to try to teach on a regular basis” and teaching during Covid times is even harder.
“I’ve honed my craft to create joy and fun around learning,” she said. “Just so many of those things are taken away when the kids can’t interact with each other.”
The spread of the Delta variant is throwing more uncertainty into the mix, with school districts scrambling after months of planning. The variant accounts for more than 93% of all Covid-19 cases in the US, according to figures published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The country started reopening at the end of the past school year, but as a new year dawns, the Delta variant has Stony Brook Elementary assessing safety precautions, said the school’s principal, Keith Gauley.
The school of normally 240 students only had about 160 students in the building last school year, Gauley said. Some parents homeschooled their children, preschool wasn’t in person and some children were absent because of Covid-19, he said.
This year, the students that were learning remotely and some of the homeschoolers will be back, he said.
There’s a lot up in the air
One of the biggest challenges teachers at the school had last year was how to teach students effectively and safely, Gauley said. The school teaches preschool through second grade.
“I think that was probably Amie’s biggest challenge is how do I differentiate for kids when they’re all at individual desks or sitting on yoga mats on the floor, and you’ve got the spacing requirements, the masking requirements,” he said.
How the school intends to keep children safe for the next school year is still to be determined, Gauley said. School starts September 7 with in-person learning.
The commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is strongly recommending that all students in kindergarten through sixth grade wear masks indoors, except when eating or unless they can’t do so because of medical and behavioral reasons.
On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker said school districts should decide what’s best for their students and staff. He strongly recommended that students in kindergarten through sixth grade wear masks because there are no vaccines available for them.
Gilbert said the pressure to keep her students safe is immense and it weighs on her. Teachers already have to worry about catching up students who lost learning during the pandemic.
“We’re also responsible for keeping them safe and their families safe from this horrible illness, which is a lot of pressure in addition to just teaching them what we’re supposed to teach them,” she said.
The school is getting creative with socially distanced learning
In a typical classroom of elementary school students, you’d see students sitting at tables together, sharing materials and playing games with each other.
Students of this age tend to learn better in these collaborative environments, but with the pandemic, most of that was not possible, Gilbert said.
In Gilbert’s classroom last year, students sat facing front in rows of desks spaced 6 feet apart. Gilbert would spend time with students one-on-one, trying to maintain some distance, she said. Doing all of this while wearing masks was challenging.
“We think about a discussion in a class of young children, first of all, wearing masks, spaced 6 feet apart at desks and rows, and they can’t have those kinds of rich conversations,” she said. “They can’t hear each other, just little things like that that make it just so difficult.”
Sometimes, children would think the teacher was angry with them, but really Gilbert just needed the student to speak up with their mask on, she said.
Recess looked a lot different, too. “It looked like a prison,” Gilbert said.
The gym teacher painted boxes in the grass 10 feet apart so the students could remove their masks at a distance outside.
“Imagine, just picture it in your mind,” Gilbert said of the recess scene. “I’d have to say to them, ‘Stay in your box.’ It was a little heartbreaking.”
Teachers are keeping a positive attitude
If there were any silver linings to teaching in the pandemic, Gilbert said it’d be realizing just how resilient kids are.
She described watching her students come up with all sorts of ways to learn, despite the pandemic. Students came with socially distanced games to play during gym class. Another time, two of her students sat distanced on a downed tree and read each other “Charlotte’s Web.”
Gilbert says she and her coworkers have been talking a lot about how they are preparing mentally for this next school year.
“We’re trying to go into the school year with a very positive attitude,” she said. “Of course, it’s very stressful for every person in the country. So we just want to head in this year really positive and happy and try to keep that atmosphere going for ourselves and for the children.”
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