(This might be a long one. As Austria is one of the earliest experimenters in reopening schools, I thought it might be of interest to people in places who haven’t reached this point yet. So, I’ve decided to go into pretty much detail about our experiences, even if our school is a quirky little private and alternative one (where the parents have far too much say!) and therefore, not exactly representative. One thing I can say for sure is that the situation in the husband’s high school is running far more smoothly and that he or his teachers don’t have to put up with a fraction of the crap we do . . . )
As I wrote in my last post, my teaching team and I worked all last week to prepare the school for reopening on Monday. We rearranged all the classrooms and tried to meet every requirement set by the government to minimize risk and maximize social distancing. We prepared the kids for the changes and the strangeness that would confront them on their first day back. We informed the parents about every change, every measure we had to take, and we asked them for their support. We encouraged them to contact us directly if they had any questions or concerns. Then came the final weekend before the reopening.
In evening, 36 hours before the first child would arrive at the school, we get this email – addressed to everyone, meaning all the teachers and all the parents(!):
I felt an urgent need to reply and immediately composed an email that I knew I would never send. Once again, my fingers at the keyboard were sputtering and stammering. Here is what they came up with:
Of course, I didn’t send it. But getting the words out calmed me down enough to get a good night’s sleep.
I wake up and the first thing I see is a response to the email above from the speaker of the parents’ organization. Her main point is that we have had bad experiences in the past with email discussions and that this mother can always – and should have – contacted the teaching team first. Her words thankfully ward off any further explosion of “Reply all” responses.
Later in the day, my boss forwards an email from a second family announcing that their two children would not be returning to the school. They wanted their kids to remember the place in a positive way and not be confronted with the fear and hysteria that apparently reign now.
That email is followed by another one saying two more kids would be leaving the school at the end of the year. This family – like the one above – had stopped paying the fees way back in March and would continue not doing so. But the kids were going to be there for the reopening the next day. “How can this be?” I wondered. (I have since found out that there at least three other families doing the same, i.e. not paying, yet still sending their kids or expecting distance instruction to continue.) My nervousness about the coming day increased. If the kids behaved anything like their parents, it was going to be a tense and tough one.
Then a third email arrived. A mother wanted to give me a little joy and sent a picture of her son in front of the computer at home. There on the screen was me, with a goofy expression and gesticulating weirdly. It made me smile.
Monday (– Reopening Day)
7:30 am. My job was to stand outside and greet the kids as they got off the buses or out of their parents’ cars and to make sure they knew the drill. (Go through the right entrance, shoes off, hands washed, on to the classroom – and there you can take off the mask.) It turned out to be easy. The bus kids all had masks on already and the car kids put them on unprompted as they neared the school. All I had to say after “Good morning!” was “Everything clear? Do you know what to do?” and they all said yes. They were so cool! Not one of them seemed embarrassed, fearful or resistant. They just took it in stride. You could tell how happy they were to be back and to see one another again. These were the older kids in the school (the younger ones would start on Wednesday) and apparently, they did not share all of their parents’ views. Or at least that was how it seemed at the start. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
Halfway through these arrivals, a mother walked up to a foot away from me, mask-less, and handed me a box of disinfectant and masks. She was a doctor, too. I asked for the bill to reimburse her and she said, no, she was donating the stuff. Then she turned to me and said nervously: “You aren’t really going along with all this nonsense, are you?” She went off on a tirade about how dangerous mask wearing was and pulled out a form to show me. When signed by a doctor, it freed her son from having to wear one. She began filling it out. Meanwhile, I saw her son pull a mask out of his back pocket and put it on just before entering the school. I asked the mother to wait a sec and called for reinforcements. A second teacher and I together made it clear to Dr. Mom that we were indeed following the required guidelines but added that the amount of time her son would be wearing a mask could be measured in minutes. She changed her tune and said that the school part was okay, it was the bus ride she was worried about. Luckily, we don’t have any influence over those policies and could dodge this particular bullet.
After this one jag, the rest of the day jigged remarkably well. We had great talks with the kids and then began the lessons. I’ve never seen them so attentive, receptive and, simply put, happy to be taught. Some of them handed in reams of worksheets, posters and essays; others sheepishly confessed to having done almost nothing in the 9 weeks of the closing. In each case, it was entirely predictable. We had already gotten a good idea about which parents were on top of things and which were helpless when it came to home-schooling. We had been supplying the kids with a steady flow of inputs and assignments, but mostly through their parents’ email. I estimate that in about a third of the households, the information or materials never reached the child. And in a few cases, I assume this was intentional. In order to keep up the pretense that the teaching team was not providing a service and therefore school fees did not have to be paid, all of these efforts on our part to reach out to and help their children had to be ignored.
As far as the hygiene measures were concerned, the kids cooperated with aplomb the whole day. Once or twice we hit a snag and had to pull out the one-meter stick to refresh their memories about what that distance is. In general, though, they kept each other in line. Near the end of the day, I asked one group how they felt about it, how it went. I got this reply:
“I didn’t expect at all that this day would be so much fun!”
As the last school bus departed and we teachers were alone again, we all agreed that the day could hardly have gone any better. Despite all the trouble from some parents, the kids were totally cool and impressive. Then the phone rang. It was a notoriously nervous mother complaining that, from what her son told her, we weren’t enforcing the social distancing enough. Another boy had touched his face . . .
Tuesday – Day Two
I could tell in the morning that some kids were already getting a bit too relaxed about the new policies and we had to go through some of them again. But otherwise it was a day of successful teaching and absorbing. During recess, two of my oldest girls actually started asking me questions about English tenses and then requested extra homework in them. This is my ninth year in the school and that has never happened before! All four of my groups seemed almost excited to get their homework assignments. They all would go home with a clear plan about their work not only for the rest of the week, but for the remainder of the year (each group will only have five more lessons). And finally, the one girl being kept home by her parents sent me a (secret) message through one of her classmates. I returned it with an invitation for her to show up at our English chat over the internet on Friday.
There was only one jag.
I was sitting with my First Year group – just three kids all about 10 years old – on a carpet and talking about their assignment for next week. Right now we are learning to use “doesn’t” and “don’t” so I showed them a poster I made years back with a different group and asked them to do the same. They should find pictures in old newspapers, magazines or ads of things they like or don’t like, cut them out, paste them and then write the English words. One of them pointed to the picture of Barack Obama and asked about it. I said he was the former president, which they didn’t really understand, and yet they started talking excitedly all at the same time. It was when one of them said, “That’s all not true!” that I started listening more carefully. The child went on. “The media are paid to say bad things about him . . . the whole thing was started by Bill Gates . . . He’s not a bad man or a racist – he built the wall to protect Mexican children from human organ traffickers . . .”
There was no way I was going to get into a political discussion with a student, and especially not a 10-year-old one. I wouldn’t have been able to in any case because I was so dumbfounded. Where does such a young kid get ideas like that??!! Please god, let it not be his parents!
(This story is not over, and I will surely be returning to it in a future post. But first, I need to consult my team to figure out what, if anything, I should do about this.)
So, that was our start in the new normal.
I’ve spent all day rethinking these past events – not just the reopening, but everything all the way back to that first rushed and panicky teleconference about closing the school down completely and immediately. The idea was to fire the entire teaching team, stop school fees, and yet, somehow, magically, keep all the kids enrolled and say they completed the school year. We managed to stave that off, but at a pretty hefty psychological and financial cost to the teaching team.
My own feelings toward the school and my future there have been changed too. In the past I had always kept a distance between me and the parents, but Corona and home-schooling made that impossible. I got dragged into the middle of the organization’s multiple crises and then had a crash course in history behind all of the parents’ idiosyncrasies. I began to mentally sort them into groups: the Seriously Supportives, the Hysterical Hyperventilators, the Squawkers, the Stay out of the Frays, the Hopelessly Helpless, and the Silent But Deadlies. After Day Two (and the revelation of a Ten-Year-Old Twumpist), I added a new group: the Conspiracy Theorists.
As might be obvious by this uncharacteristically cynical description, with some notable exceptions, I no longer trust the parents. After years of listening to yapping about solidarity and the bonds that hold us together and commitment and obligation and collective responsibility, the crisis made it crystal clear for which people this was just blah blah all along. When the road of solidarity hit the rubber of their pocketbooks, they quickly switched to personal agendas. A lot of these people are either going or gone now. But not all of them.
The question is if I should go too. Technically, I am still unemployed and could walk away, especially if the crisis management team reneges on their promise to fully reinstate the entire teaching team 10 days from now. On the “Stay” side of the equation is the team itself. We have stuck together in a truly remarkable way and we have gotten closer through this whole ordeal. I think they are fabulous people and, past conflicts aside, working with them has been a great enrichment of my life.
And then, of course, most of all, there are the kids.