When Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered the closure of all schools in Illinois on March 13, 2020, no one imagined what was to come. It would be over a year before I would return to my classroom. For some, it would be almost two years. Despite what many believed, educators were in a panic. Our world was turned upside down. We were forced to learn how to do school all over again. There was new technology to be learned. There were new schedules to create, new lessons to plan, and new ways of communication. We had to adapt quickly.
It is hard enough to hold students’ attention in person, and now I had to figure out how to do it over a screen. But as panicked as I was, I did it. I did it in the name of education. I did it despite how the media portrayed us. The narrative was that we wanted to put the responsibility of education on the parents. We were skirting our duties as educators in exchange for an all-expenses-paid vacation. But the truth was we desperately wanted to return to our classrooms. We missed our students. We missed our co-workers. We knew nothing could replace in-person learning. We wanted to return, but we wanted it to be safe. COVID-19 was still alive and well and we had concerns.
Then in January 2021, preschool and cluster programs staff was ordered to return to the classroom. Students had the option of returning in person or remaining remote. As a preschool teacher, I have to admit it was shocking. Choosing the youngest and most vulnerable students to return first felt like an experiment. Were we some kind of COVID-19 scapegoats? But we did it. We did it in the name of education. And it was not easy. The first day my students who opted for in-person learning returned to school they were shocked to see how things had changed. I greeted them with a wave instead of a hug. My colorful clothing was now covered up by a paper gown. I wore gloves, a face mask, and a face shield.
All the furniture except the tables and chairs were against one wall to make room for social distancing. They had to sit at a table, with their mask on, behind a partition all day. And despite being in the same room with me I still taught them from behind a screen. It was so different it made them nervous. Some were even scared and started to cry. The worst part was not being able to hug and comfort them. But I did it. I did it in the name of education.
Soon that school year ended and a new one has begun. CPS is back to all in-person learning. The safety measures that were in place last school year are gone. Temperature and health checks are not required. Social distancing is only expected when space allows, and most times it does not. Masks are required but many students show up without them, and contact tracing is difficult at best. Friends and family ask how I do it. I tell them I do it because I love what I do. I love the children I teach. I love knowing that I can make a difference. I do it in the name of education.
Contributing Writer, Paula J. Shelton is an educator and journalist based in Chicago. Find her on social @beboldshineon.