Coronavirus Diary #31: Back to School Edition

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

My phone rang while I was watching TV last Sunday night. It was the director of HR from my school. I’d been in back-to-school professional development meetings the previous week, and she was informing me that I had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. I’d need to get a negative test before I reported for more meetings the next morning.

The students weren’t even back yet. Certainly this didn’t bode well.

Monday morning I got up and drove to a nearby CVS where I purchased two self-administered tests. I climbed back in my vehicle, cracked open a swab, and did what we’ve all learned to do over the last many months. I prepped my sample, set a timer on my phone, and started driving in the general direction of my school. If it was positive, I’d return home; if it was negative, I’d continue on to school.

I was slightly worried, because although I’m vaccinated, so was the person who tested positive. If I had Covid-19, I’d have to stay home for 10 days, and I would miss the first day of school. I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

Our students haven’t been in school since March of 2020. The last thing I want them to find on the first day of school is a substitute teacher because I’m out due to Covid.

As I waited for the fifteen minutes to tick away, I consoled myself. Kristin, you weren’t within 3 feet of anyone for over 15 minutes, but then I remembered that I had been in a coaching meeting with my mentor where we had sat desk-to-desk, masked of course, for thirty minutes. It was possible, if she was the positive case, that I had truly been exposed.

But surely since we were both wearing masks and both of us are vaccinated, our risk is very low. And that is what I held onto until the timer went off and I saw that I was indeed negative.

Phew! Thank you, God!

I have a feeling this won’t be the last time this year that I will have to swab and sit. My classroom is set up with 27 desks, and for most of the day, every desk will be full. Each 100 minute period, around 27 seniors will roll into my room, find their assigned seats, and hopefully engage in learning until the dismissal bell rings.

Typically during such a long class (we’re on a block schedule), I would move students into groups, have them working at the board or somehow getting out of their seats to break up that long time period and move around the room.

My classroom

Things have to look a little different in the times of Covid. Each room must have assigned seats and a seating chart printed out and kept in a plastic pocket near the door. If a student or a teacher tests positive for Covid, all students who have been within 3 feet of that student for fifteen minutes or longer will be considered ‘close contacts’. If those within close contact are not vaccinated, they will then quarantine for 10 days, receiving their lessons asynchronously via Google classroom. For this reason, we want to limit the number of close contacts each student has.

Can my students move around the room? Yes, but I need to keep that movement to a minimum. Can they work in small groups? Yes, if I keep those small groups within their already-established close contacts or if the small groups last less than 15 minutes. Can I rearrange my seating chart? Yes, but only at the start of the week because for Covid we trace close contacts two days prior to the onset of symptoms or the positive test, so re-sets need to happen over the weekend.

Are you confused yet? Exactly.

And we’re only, so far, talking about the seating chart!

All students and teachers must wear masks at all times inside the building, except for when they are eating. Breakfast will be served in first hour classrooms, fifteen minutes before class starts. Lunch is served in the lunch room, half of the 300-member student body at a time.

Windows will be open as much as possible, and rooms will be equipped with air filtration systems. All rooms are well-stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and will be treated each night with a Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer. Custodians will routinely and endlessly disinfect doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas.

But guys, Covid or not, we are going back to school!

Thursday, all staff started work a little later than usual because we were hosting our Back to School night from 3:30-6:30. As I was driving in to work, I wondered how many of our students would show up to get their schedules, to pick up their school-issued Chromebooks, and to sign up for their bus routes. After 18 months at home, how many would opt in to an in-person learning experience? We had no way of knowing.

However, when I arrived at school at 10am, the place was already buzzing with activity. Teachers were arriving to participate in active shooter training, the trainers were setting up in a classroom, a couple of new teachers were being oriented to their new surroundings, and….and we had parents and students touring the building, filling out registration forms, and preparing to be at school!

After a very weird year — arriving to a silent building each morning, walking to my classroom, and signing into my zoom room — this felt very back-to-school normal. Could it be?

I dared not hope that this buzz could sustain itself throughout the day and into the Back-to-School night. So, I leaned in to our training — active shooter, fire drill, and round three of Covid protocols. I put finishing touches on my classroom, and I printed and copied day one paperwork for my students — boldly making enough copies for everyone on my roster. If I print them, they will come.

As it got closer to 3:00, I ate the lunch I packed, cracked open a can of green tea to re-caffeinate, and started heading to the gym with my colleague to get our assigned roles before the students started showing up. We peeked in the principal’s office on our way. She said, “Please get all the teachers to the gym right now; parents are already arriving!” What? It was only 3:00. We weren’t supposed to start until 3:30!

My colleague and I split up and went down separate hallways to round up teachers, and when we got to the gym, we found clusters of people moving about, trying to get what they needed. We scrambled to each take a station and begin assisting parents.

Our principal directed families to please step back outside the gym, form a line, and wait their turn — we would get to everyone. And for the next three hours, families stood in lines, shuffled forward, got what they came for, and chatted with teachers and administrators.

Yes, everyone wore a mask. Yes, it was difficult to hear one another. Yes, it was a struggle to identify students who claimed they had been in my class last year, but guys, that gym stayed buzzing until after 6pm.

Is it going to be a challenging year? Of course! Are we going to have students and teachers who test positive for Covid or have to quarantine due to exposure? Undoubtedly! Will we be exhausted by protocols on top of instruction on top of adapting to ever-changing circumstances? Without question.

However, the activity in that crowded gym told me that we — teachers, students, and parents — are ready to give in-person instruction a try. So take that, Covid. We are going back to school!

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Coronavirus Diary 17: Of Zoom Rooms, and Cameras, and the SAT

For six weeks, I’ve been driving 35 miles from my house to the school where I teach.

Each of the 28 instructional days we’ve had has been broken into 3 blocks of 87 minutes. I sit alone in my classroom, peering into a computer screen. I take attendance, provide instruction, assign some classwork, insist on a screen break, then return for questions and one-on-one assistance.

Then I do it again.

I have 126 students. Not all come every day. Some have jobs. Some are sick. Some are helping the family. At least one has lost her mother since school started. At least one is expecting to become a mother before Christmas. Several have insufficient wifi or are experiencing other technical difficulties. Some join the Zoom room while they are still under the covers of their bed, then fall back asleep before I’ve even finished attendance. I’m supposed to insist that they put their cameras on, and I try. “I know this is hard,” I say, “doing school from home, but it’s what we’ve got, and it will be much easier for you to opt in and get what you need if you turn on your camera, sit up, put your face on the screen, unmute to ask questions, and do your best.”

But they chat me privately, “I’m not at home,” or “Other people are here with me,” or “I’m sick today,” and even, “I’m at the hospital right now, but I’m hoping to home by tomorrow,” and their cameras stay off.

“When you turn your cameras on,” I explain, “I’ll get familiar with your face. When you come to school, I’ll call you by name. I will know who you are.”

A couple cameras come on. A few put their face in the screen, give me a flash — a few seconds to see that they are there — and then they turn off their cameras again.

But last week, we had a day with no cameras.

Wednesday, October 14, was the mandatory SAT test for students in the state of Michigan. And, since the SAT must be completed in-person and because it’s a requirement for a Michigan-endorsed diploma, our students made their way to school by 7:45 am where they received a rather unimpressive state-funded breakfast and then filed into socially distanced classrooms, clad in masks.

Eleven of them entered my room. Eleven whole living breathing humans. They spoke. They smiled. They complained about the food, the temperature of the room, the length of the test, and the fact that they have to learn from home.

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

At 8:30, I started reading the scripted instructions, and they started bubbling in the circles to indicate their name, address, date of birth, and such. I walked up and down rows, checking to see that their answers were in the correct spot, answering their questions, sharing their space.

They were in my classroom!

At 9:30 they began the first section of the test. I wrote the time on the board and let them know they had 65 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. Then I announced when they had 30 minutes left. Five minutes left.

They were allowed a 10-minute break which they used to walk down the hall to see their friends, to stand in a clump, to “be at school”.

And then we were back in my room. They sat in their desks from 8:30 until 2:00 taking test after test after test.

They were stressed, of course. They’d been away from this building since March, these seniors, and they know that their performance on this test — the one that they should have taken last Spring — will help determine where they go next year, if they go anywhere at all. Although I have dragged them through Khan Academy’s SAT prep, insisting they do practice sets, discussing test strategies, and reminding them of rules, they feel ill-prepared. The reading passages are difficult, especially when you are reading with your head on a pillow trying to drown out the noises of the other family members in your house. The Writing and Language passages are tricky — why should they care about the most effective placement of sentence 5? Who even knows where the comma should go?

They didn’t get to finish Algebra II last spring, and they can’t really remember how to use the functions on the graphing calculator, so during the 55 allocated minutes for calculator math, many closed their books, put their heads down, and fell asleep.

I’m talking deep-breathing REM sleep. My room, with all its fluorescent lighting, sounded like the cabin of an international flight.

I woke them, of course, when they had 5 minutes remaining in the math portion of the test. Then, I collected their test booklets and told them to get up and stretch because we would start the essay, according to SAT directions, “in two minutes” after they’d already been testing for four straight hours.

And, they sat up, asked for sharpened pencils, and did what they could. They wrote and wrote, read their writing, and wrote some more.

And then their heads went down again.

And they slept until I told them they had 5 minutes remaining.

When I had gathered their materials, they began to chat with one another and my room started sounding like a classroom. I stood in the front of the room, overlooking minor expletives, simply glad to hear the voices.

They had to stay in the desks until all the test booklets and answer booklets, every last College Board printed material, was taken from my room, and then they were dismissed to the cafeteria to get their state-funded bologna sandwiches.

Suddenly my room was silent, so after a quick dash to the bathroom, I followed them. They couldn’t leave so soon! I had to see their faces, to hear their voices, to discover that this one was taller than I imagined, that one shorter.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

I made my way through the clumps of students, asking again and again, “What is your name? Have I seen you in my Zoom room?” I had no judgment for anyone, just sheer joy at finally, six weeks after the first day of school, getting to meet my students. I then went to grab the lunch provided for me — corn ships, guacamole, seasoned chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. I filled a plate and walked to my room.

The teacher from across the hall stood at my door, plate in hand. Would I mind if he joined me for lunch? Neither of us were ready to go back to our solitary confinement. “Please, come in, let’s chat.” And as we chatted, students trickled in. Two or three would walk past my room, peeking in, looking for permission to enter. I practically begged them to come in, to hover over my desk as I ate, to tell me who they were, how they were doing, how they felt about the test.

One young man came in and stood near my desk, “Hi, Mrs. Rathje!” I looked him over head to toe, trying to fill in the facial details that had been covered by the mask.

“Hello! Now help me out, what is your name?”

“You know who I am.”

“I do? Have I seen your face on the screen?”

“Yes, you have.”

“Hmmm….I am thinking that you are LaRon Davis*…but let me think…”

“I always have a background on.”

“You do? Then, that’s my answer — you are LaRon Davis*.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hooray! Thank you for coming to my classroom! Would you like to pick one of the prizes that I’ve been collecting for today?” I showed him a table covered in lanyards, bottles of hand sanitizer, pens, face masks, wrist bands, and the like. He moved forward and made his selection.


“I can have this?”

“Yes! That’s your reward for taking the time to come see me.”

And my reward, I thought to myself, is having you in my classroom.

These are not small things. Before Covid-19, when I taught in the classroom, students often stopped by to get help with an assignment, to borrow a pen, to ask for a snack, to find a safe space. I was always glad they felt like they could, but I also often hoped they wouldn’t stay long — I had papers to grade, lessons to plan — I needed time to work.

But now? I can’t imagine a time when I will be ready for students to leave.

Our leadership announced last week that we will be continuing 100% virtually through the rest of the semester — through mid-January. And I do believe it’s best. But I sure will be happy when my classroom is full and loud again.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

For the past two weeks, I’ve been chronicling my decision to leave the position I’ve held for the past two and a half years to go back to the classroom — a move I thought I wouldn’t be able to make again. For the back story, you can read the following posts: Prepared for What’s Next, But Wait There’s More, Ready, and Getting Here.

Let’s see, where did we leave off — oh yes, the decision.

How do you make a decision that will potentially alter the course of your life? When presented with one option that is familiar, safe, and consistent, and two others that, while being exactly what you’ve been asking for, represent the unknown.

First, you pray. And for me, that means writing. I’ve filled a spiral notebook during this process that started sometime after Memorial Day with that conversation with my husband in the kitchen, which prompted applications, which turned into phone calls, which turned into interviews, which turned into offers. As I page through my notebook, I see lists of questions for interviewers (would you describe the culture of the school? what curriculum do you use?), I see brainstorming for how education might be restructured post-Covid (what if we shifted the schedule entirely? more broadly utilized technology? forever adjusted class size?), I see feelings about diving into something new (it’ll be amazing, I’m terrified, what if I can’t manage? what if I thrive?), and I see my processing of everything else I was managing throughout that process — my current students and their needs, a temporary health issue that flared up (of course) in the midst of the added stress, and plans to connect with family and friends. Within all the lines I wrote is a groaning, a pleading: Lord, I lift it up to you. What would you have me do? Will you guide my steps? Will you keep me from taking on too much? Will you show me the right fit? Will you provide for my current students if/when I choose to leave? Will you show me how to balance my love for my family and friends with my love for teaching? Will you show me how to give my best without giving my all?

And as I wrote and prayed, I continued through the process.

The first phone call came quickly — perhaps a day or two after I submitted the first round of applications. I had plugged in my headphones and headed out on my lunchtime walk when my phone began to ring. I looked — it was a Detroit area code. My heart sped up. The questions came — did I know this was an inner city, low income school? Did I feel comfortable teaching in such an environment? What were my salary requirements? In other words, was I sure I wanted an interview? Yes, I was sure.

In the next day or two, I had a preliminary video chat with that school, let’s call it School #1, and an informational session with another agency, let’s call it Agency #1, that places teachers in low income schools in several locations across the country. This non-profit organization obtains grants to fund training on equity, inclusion, and classroom management strategies, which they provide to teachers who are then placed in these schools. I was interested in both School #1 and Agency #1 and signaled my desire to move forward with both.

Soon after, I had a second video interview with School #1, this time with the head of instruction, who was similar to me in age and experience, and who articulated the philosophy of the school and some of the initiatives they were working on. She didn’t mince words, and neither did I. That’s the beauty of being 50-something; I feel the freedom to clearly articulate who I am from the start, because I want to make sure I get a good fit. So when she told me that they are working on rebuilding school culture, I asked what does that look like? how are you setting school climate? do you utilize police or safety officers? what are your priorities in terms of curriculum? how do you view your role in racial justice work?

Maybe that same day, or the day after, I had a preliminary video interview with Agency #1. This was a little different. I was given five minutes to introduce myself, share my journey in education, and communicate why I was interested in this particular agency’s work.

As you can imagine, simply being in this process was clarifying and invigorating. Having to articulate my ideas about education and equity, often with interviewers who were themselves most often people of color, was challenging and affirming. I feel strongly about providing high quality education to all students, but most specifically students who have historically been denied access, and the more I talk about it, the more passionate I feel.

Within a week, School #1 offered me a position teaching freshman English. I was elated! I immediately drafted a list of questions I wanted answered before I accepted the offer and sent them off in an email.

That same day, I got an email from Agency #2, which was hiring for School #2; would I be available for a 15-20 minute interview in the next few days. Of course! The next day on my lunch hour, my phone rang. It was a typical call, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do,” followed by “tell me a little about your journey.” The more we talked, the more kinship I felt. This school follows a “do no harm” model and values “restorative justice”. Its current initiatives are to 1) increase academic achievement, 2) decrease suspensions, and 3) increase attendance. While, as with School #1, 99% of School #2’s students are Black and qualify for free and reduced lunch, and though only 25% of graduating seniors go on to college, this interview was upbeat and full of hope.

I hung up thinking, “I sure hope they hurry up and give me an offer before I have to respond to School #1,” and then my lunch hour was over, and I went back to work.

Over the next few days, I checked my email for responses to the questions I’d sent to School #1 but saw nothing. Then, I got a phone call from School #2, asking me if I could do an in-person interview at the school, socially distanced, of course.

Then, I got a call from School #3, asking if I could do a virtual interview. And, I had an follow-up video interview with Agency #1.

Yes, it was moving very quickly — and it was affirming. Imagine that — not only might I have an opportunity to go back to the classroom, I might even be able to be selective. This privilege was not lost on me.

I did all the interviews, including the in-person interview at School #2, where I met with the hiring agent I had spoken with on the phone and with the principal, who I immediately saw as a champion of kids. Within a week of that interview, at the end of a holiday weekend, I received an offer.

As it turns out, although both offers (from School #1 and School #2) were for freshman English and both offered the exact same salary, the communication I received from School #2, Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), was far more timely and thorough than what I received from School #1. Not only that, when I toured both schools, I saw evidence at DLA of intentionality that I did not see at School #1. I saw a plan in place to support students in their ownership of their education and their future, and evidence of DLA’s commitment to not only the students but their community as well. In fact, DLA is the school I mentioned in an earlier post that has been providing food not only to their students but to any community member throughout this Covid-19 season.

In the end, the choice was not difficult, even though I interviewed with Agency #3 on the day I accepted DLA’s offer. That same day, I put in my notice at Lindamood-Bell, and the goodbyes began.

Although those goodbyes were tear-filled, I am very excited about this coming school year at DLA, even with all the questions that Covid brings. I’m taking some time right now to rest up, but I’m also gathering supplies and dreaming big dreams of how this choice will change my life in this next chapter.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

Ephesians 4:20-21