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Keeping Classrooms Safe Amid Delta: Three Ways to Cope

Anybody up for a complicated, anxiety-ridden school year? Here we go again! Just a few months ago, things really seemed to be looking up. Vaccines were going into arms at a quick clip, Covid rates were falling, and we appeared to be headed for what people jokingly called “Hot Vax Summer.” For those of us who work in schools, we were giddy to start seeing kids in person again without feeling like teaching was a dangerous career choice. And then: Delta. The new variant, said to be about 1,000 times more infectious than the Alpha strain (a.k.a. the “U.K. variant”), is a total game-changer. For those of us who are lucky enough to be vaccinated, the disease is not likely to be catastrophic. However, we work with children who are not yet eligible for any vaccine. How can we protect the students whose very livelihood we hold so dear? There are no easy answers, and I am certainly not an epidemiologist. However, in the spirit of managing what we can control and letting go of what we cannot, here are three ideas for getting through the Delta surge this fall as we return to our classrooms.

Do Everything You Can           

There is so much about pandemic life that we cannot control, which in turn causes endless angst. Nobody has written a manual for how to manage all kinds of challenges, from parenting to grocery store trips. However, there are two obvious safeguards that all of us can employ to help not only ourselves, but also our students and their families. We have two weapons against Covid in our arsenal: vaccines and masks. Not vaccinated yet? Unless there is a medical condition that makes a vaccine dangerous or impossible, rolling up our sleeves and getting the shot (or the booster, now advised eight months after receiving a two-dose protocol of Pfizer or Moderna) is the best way to protect ourselves and the people around us. And without getting into the bizarrely politicized mask debate, masks help vulnerable people feel a lot safer, and that should be reason enough to put one on.

Being vigilant about vaccines and masks will be helpful not just from a health perspective, but also from a public relations lens. Last year, teachers got a lot of undeserved flak for not going into school buildings during virtual instruction. While we rarely merit the criticism we receive for the decisions officials way above our pay grades make, doing everything we can to help students in a very visible way demonstrates that we want to be present with students. Whether we realize it or not, teachers hold enormous influence. With that comes the responsibility of setting a good example for those who interact with us, be they adults or children. By acting as clear advocates for vaccines and protective measures, we clearly communicate our commitment not just to safety, but also to remaining in school buildings.

Stay Calm and Positive           

The other day, I was mildly annoyed by something. That is not unusual, but I surprised myself by slamming a door, something that rarely happens. My fuse has been a lot shorter since Delta began to loom on the horizon. We are only just beginning to uncover layer upon layer of trauma not just for ourselves, but also for students. Even if we do not feel so fantastic about adulting right now, faking a calm demeanor and positive outlook for kids is important. Aside from keeping ourselves in check, we can also teach students to engage in mindfulness practices. Starting class with simple breathing exercises is an effective strategy for centering ourselves and students before embarking upon the learning ahead. Another great way to practice positivity is to engage in a practice known as “Flip It.” When students make negative or deficit mindset comments, ask them to find one benefit of what is bothering them and sit with that feeling for a moment. That does not mean we should disregard student concerns. We can create specific times and spaces for meeting challenges strategically with our classes. However, resisting a pervasive sense of negativity and finding ways to foster a more empowering perspective is mutually beneficial for everyone in the class.

Be Ready to Pivot           

How many trips have we cancelled? How many parties or life events have we postponed? The fatigue from constantly changing the plan is getting worse, and still, hanging in there is the best option. The first month of school is always stressful, but the Before Times were a different kind of stress. This fall is going to be a wild ride. If we expect the unexpected, that will make all the difference. When designing lesson plans, for example, think purposely about a design that can work from any location. That might mean increasing technology options, sending home materials with students that we might typically save for a later time or keep only in the classroom, or planning for a blended learning model that increases student choice. The more we think ahead about what instruction can look like whether students are near or far, the readier we will be when things change  ̶  and they almost certainly will.            

Is this year going to be the return to the normality that everyone craved? Unfortunately, no. This pandemic is an ultra-marathon, and we are all beyond tired. While we cannot do anything about most of what happens in the world around us, we can exercise some control over how we react to ever-changing and difficult conditions. Rudyard Kipling expresses it best in his poem “If” when he tells readers to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” Keeping it together is getting increasingly challenging, but our students deserve to have our best selves, even if we must work hard to provide a stable learning environment. If we keep our students and ourselves as safe as possible amid all this insanity by doing the absolute best we can, we will feel a little bit better about the looming uncertainty of this coming year.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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