Back to school

Jo Burnside is gearing up to begin her 17th year as a teacher in the Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Wayne Township. In a typical summer, she prepares for the nearly 30 children who will fill her classroom and stocks the room with supplies. 

This isn’t a typical summer.

Due to COVID-19, Burnside is preparing to teach her third graders through a face shield, figuring out a way to maintain social distancing and teaching her students how to use the appropriate technology if the township is forced to return to e-learning. Not only that, she’s been discussing her plans and wishes with her family in case she gets sick. 

Wayne Township teachers return to school on Aug. 6, and Burnside said they will undergo training to help students deal with the pandemic and all the changes it has caused. However, Burnside isn’t convinced it will be enough. 

“It takes a certain type of teacher to be able to navigate that,” Burnside said. “If this teacher has possibly been dealing with the effects of COVID or financial problems because of it, that puts an educator in a very tough space to be able to nurture students the way they may want to.

“I hope everyone is ready, but if I’m speaking realistically,” Burnside continued, “I think it’s going to be difficult.”

This year, Burnside said she’ll have roughly 24 students in her classroom, but that number could drop due to parents opting to have their child continue e-learning. 

In Washington Township, families don’t have a choice to send their children back to school — it’s all e-learning. Tammy Mann, whose son Mylan will be a senior at North Central High School, isn’t happy about that. 

Mylan struggled with e-learning last semester, and Mann disliked that he was assigned what seemed to be busy work. While MSD of Washington Township officials said e-learning will be more structured this time around, Mann is concerned assistance won’t be readily available. 

“I just hope they’ll provide some kind of help,” Mann said. “He doesn’t do well in math, and it looks like Russian to me, I just hope they take stuff like that into consideration,” she added with a laugh.

Despite her issues with e-learning, Mann also wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sending her son back to school without a vaccine available. 

“No, I couldn’t have done it,” Mann said. “I was torn, because it’s his senior year, and he kept saying ‘I’m going back.’ I could understand where he was coming from, but I wasn’t comfortable with it.”

Mann isn’t alone. In townships where families have the option, including in Wayne Township, schools are seeing a significant number of students opt for e-learning.

Burnside said roughly 100 families in Rhoades Elementary have opted to continue learning from home. While she’s nervous about returning to the classroom, she said e-learning last quarter hindered her ability to foster the relationships she had built with her students. 

“Because of the relationships I had made prior [to COVID-19], though, I was successful,” Burnside said. “That’s not the case for everyone.”

Burnside isn’t worried about her students struggling to wear masks; she’s seen children wearing masks with no problem when they came to pick up items left behind in classrooms. She is, however, concerned about what children are exposed to at home, and what they’ll bring into the school. 

“I’m doing everything on my end to make sure I’m as healthy as I can be mentally and physically, but it feels like going into a battleground,” Burnside said. “ … Just not knowing who the kids are around before they come to me is scary. … They’re only with us seven hours out of the day. What are they being exposed to at home?”

Nothing was left unchanged by COVID-19, including curriculum.

Burnside and other teachers will have to incorporate what students should have learned throughout the e-learning period into the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, just in case students had difficulty accessing or understanding the material. 

“I think it’s going to be very difficult,” Burnside said. “Wayne [Township] is going full steam ahead, and I’ll still be teaching five days a week in class. It’s definitely going to be a no-second wasted three months of work on top of what I should be doing.”

One issue Burnside is worried will be left out of the conversation when students return to the classroom is trauma. 

Not just trauma stemming from the ongoing pandemic, but from heightened racial tensions as well. 

“I know that because of where I work, I’m sure some kids have probably been affected because of the racial tensions that they may feel in their homes … or from being out there with their parents marching,” Burnside said. 

As one of two Black teachers in her building, Burnside feels responsible for leading conversations about race, but it’s not something she’s comfortable doing. 

“I feel like a spokesperson, which I don’t like,” Burnside said. “I do it because I know it needs to be done, but I have to lead with, ‘I don’t speak for the Black collective. I speak for me and the things I have faced.’ I have to hope that my colleagues are going to be allies, and you don’t always know that because you’re not in the classroom with them. I don’t know what’s being done to make their students of color feel comfortable, for them to feel safe.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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