As a veteran teacher of nearly 29 years, I thought I had seen it all. I have taught the children of the poor and working classes in some of the most disadvantaged and even violent neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Too many of my students have been eyewitnesses to such violence, victims of neglect or abuse, deprived of an innocence that they should have by virtue of their status as children. They deserve my best.
None of my experiences prior to Friday, March 13, 2020, could have prepared me for what has been happening for the past two years. It was on this day, sometime after lunch, that we all heard the announcement over the school’s PA system: Our school would be closing and we would likely return in two weeks. The Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) said so. As we all know, two weeks turned into months. During that time, a committee was organized to prepare for a return to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year. All for naught. We began “distance learning” in August of that year and finished the instructional year online. The results were catastrophic.
It is difficult to discuss the irreparable harm that the school closures, and now, the good-for-nothing mask mandate, have had on the children of my school. We all—staff and students—must remain masked inside and out. The children may remove their masks during lunch, but only while socially distancing, and only for a limited time—15 minutes seems to be the magic number. I have heard stories of some students who choose not to eat at school at all for fear of catching COVID. Even at play and during physical education, our students must remain masked—while exercising, playing a game, running. Their masks must cover their mouths and noses. All day. Every day. From August to the present day. Without exception.
I want to shout when I see the high school students from next door walking to and from school in masks. If only they were so compliant when asked to do homework!
Let me give you just a small glimpse into what it’s been like for us over the past two years. To celebrate Valentine’s Day I picked up several dozen Krispy Kreme donuts . . . the cute ones they bake this time of year. My co-teacher and I took our 6th graders outside so the children could sit at the outdoor lunch tables and remove their masks to enjoy the donuts. I blinked back tears as I saw many of these children’s faces for the very first time!
They were adorable! They have noses, cheeks, chins, mouths—more than that, they have identities and personalities that have been hidden by these masks all this time. Believe me when I say it has been exceptionally challenging to even learn their names this year, not to mention how difficult it has been to figure out who’s saying what in the classroom. The masks have allowed them to remain anonymous, just as they were last year as they sat at home—often to avoid being seen, called on, or held accountable.
After the students took their seats, we passed out napkins, and then the donuts. What a hit! My students are sweethearts and appreciative of the smallest gesture. Sadly, several of the children would pull down their masks only to take a bite and then quickly pull it back up . . . even when I encouraged them to keep it down and assured them that they were safe. I’ve seen the same behavior in passing during lunch.
This is my 29th year in public education. I have probably shed more work-related tears this year than during all my previous years combined. I’m tired. Angry. Frustrated. Discouraged. If what I’ve read is accurate, even after mask mandates are lifted for the general public, I don’t see an end in sight for public schools.
All this, despite the fact that children are not vulnerable to COVID. I turn 58 on the 13th of this month so I’m three years away from retirement from a profession that I love, working with children and families who have blessed me in ways I can neither measure nor repay. But I’m ready.