‘Is this worth it?’: Southern Utah teachers reflect on teaching through a pandemic

ST. GEORGE —From schools shutting down to mask-wearing and remote learning, education has been anything but normal in 2020. With teachers being at the forefront of these swift changes, are they still wanting to stay?

Stephanie Player, a third grade teacher for Gateway Preparatory Academy, facilitates remote instruction, Cedar City, Utah, circa March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Stephanie Player, St. George News

According to a recent national poll, released by the National Education Association, nearly one in three teachers said COVID-19 has made them more likely to resign or retire early. In Utah, data compiled by Beyond the Books has also shown a mass exodus of teachers from schools where students returned to the classroom.

In Southern Utah, keeping schools open has been the primary goal, and despite some spikes in coronavirus cases and an added strain of quarantined students, so far Washington County and Iron County schools have been successful in keeping kids in the classroom.

But how do the teachers feel? Aside from regular duties, teachers have been working extensive hours as they face the double-duty of teaching both in-person classes as well as providing remote instruction for those students who tested positive or were exposed to COVID. So how has this affected the numbers of early retirements or resignations?

Looking at the period from March 1 to Oct. 20 in both 2019 and 2020, Steven Dunham, district communications director for the Washington County School District, told St. George News in 2019 that they had 42 employees in total retire, which includes both staff and teachers.

“In 2020, we had 68,” he said, an increase in 26 people from 2019. “There’s different reasons they can retire. They can choose family issues. They can choose not to tell us anything. Or they can just retire or resign.”

Under these three options (family issues, choose not to say or retire), Dunham said 43 of the 68 are listed as retire, 22 left for family issues, and three were unknown.

In 2019, he said, 25 were listed as retiring, and 17 left for family issues.

Whitney Garrett, a second-grade teacher at Heritage Elementary, told St. George News that the question of continuing teaching is common for teachers beyond the pandemic.

“I think many teachers ask, ‘Is this worth it?'” she said. “Like, ‘This is so much work. Why are we doing it?’ But we just work our tails off because we love the kids so much.”

She said for those who are approaching retirement, she could understand how the question would come more to the forefront, but she didn’t know anyone personally who decided to retire early because of the pandemic.

Teaching through the pandemic has been “extra hectic,” Garrett said.

Unsplash, St. George News

In addition to creating plans for a substitute in the case of having to quarantine, she said there has also been a lot of student absences, which makes the day-to-day teaching routines challenging.

“You’re always trying to catch kids up and keep track of who was absent and who needs what is an extra thing this year more than usual.”

Garrett said she’s been lucky because she hasn’t had students quarantined. But she has had co-teachers who have had many students who have been absent for quarantine, mostly due to exposures.

The main challenge has been in ensuring they are still maintaining a high level of learning and growth, especially when students returned to school with “significant” academic gaps caused by the March shutdown.

While it’s hard to gauge exactly how far behind the kids are, she said it’s probably about a “two- to three-month lag,” though this varies depending on the kid and his or her home setting.

“Children who had supportive parents, parents who provide good education for their home regardless of what they were provided for online instruction during shutdown, they still grew or at least maintained.”

But the students who didn’t have as much parental support, they “really digressed.”

Photo illustration. First day of school. | Photo by kevajefimija/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Another element of the challenge specific to teaching kids to read has been having to wear masks. However, as a reading teacher, Garrett is permitted to wear a face shield most of the time, but there are still other barriers.

“It is very difficult hearing, and it’s made me realize how much we really do watch each other’s mouths, especially when I’m teaching these beginning and struggling readers, it makes it really difficult to hear and understand what they’re saying.”

This becomes even more challenging in a large group setting, where the children are wearing masks. But, even still, she said it still beats teaching online.

“If we were having to teach online now, it would really be difficult. It would be very difficult teaching a child how to read, specifically children who are struggling readers.”

Overall, Garrett said despite the craziness, she feels hope that school “will return back to normal and there’s good things that have come out of COVID.”

Iron County 

In an email to St. George News, Shannon Dulaney, superintendent for the Iron County School District, said they have not had any teacher resignations due to the pandemic and that the number of retirements are “comparable to other years.”

“We do have a few teachers who are teaching remotely because of health concerns,” she said.

Torrie Rice, a third-grade teacher at Three Peaks Elementary, has been teaching for three years. Her second year ended with schools shutting down, and this year, well, has been “a wild ride,” she told St. George News.

Whether this experience has made her change her mind about being a teacher, Rice mentioned the “sad statistic” about teachers resigning early in their careers. According to a 2019 Forbes article, one in three teachers leave within the first five years.

“It’s really challenging to be a teacher regardless of COVID, regardless of the pandemic,” she said.

Just before schools reopened, she said there was an “ominous vibe” because no one knew what was going to happen, and up until the kids showed up it was pretty discouraging. She said she found herself questioning whether teaching was what she really wanted to do.

“I’ve doubted being a teacher … I’ve doubted whether I had the actual capability to handle everything that’s being thrown at us,” she said. “I’ve questioned: is there something that maybe allows me to go home at 5 o’clock and not think about work until the next day?”

Students at Diamond Valley Elementary space themselves out before school, Diamond Valley, Utah, Aug. 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Annette Graf, St. George News

On the brink of schools reopening, Rice said while she felt confident that the kids health and safety would be OK, she was nervous in terms of the unknown and didn’t want to have to go through another shutdown in a matter of a day.

But when the first day of school came, her questions of whether she wanted to stay teaching melted away.

“Those kids walked in and it was like, ‘OK, yeah, this is what I want to do.'”

Back in the classroom, she said she can feel the students’ appreciation to be in school more than ever before.

“They hang on every word I say, and they are just so happy to be back,” she said, so happy that some students were “devastated” to go on break for Thanksgiving for fear of not coming back.

The main change at school has been in terms of proximity. In the past, when the kids entered the room, they could choose whether to get a hug, a high-five, a wave or a handshake from her. Now instead of getting in close proximity, they have to stay at a distance. She also has to set aside extra time before and after lunch for the students to wash their hands, which takes about 15 minutes each time.

Having to split her time in teaching both in-person and for students in quarantine has been a learning curve, but she said she’s been pretty lucky because her students have a solid grasp on using technology.

But even still, “it’s definitely a different experience thinking about keeping them caught up at home and doing class in-session,” she said.

Washington County School District students pose for a first day of school photo in their masks, Santa Clara, Utah, Aug. 13, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

One of the most surprising realizations for Rice has been gaining a better understanding that the social-emotional need lies central to education. She said she has also been impressed with the adaptability and resiliency of kids, especially with things like mask-wearing.

“At first, it was an adjustment and we had quite a few mask breaks so we would go outside and take our masks off and get some fresh air. But now that we’ve had them on for so long, they’ll go to recess with their masks on and completely forget that they’re wearing them,” and with a laugh added, “kids are always more resilient than adults.”

Dallas Lowry, a math teacher at Canyon View High School, has been a teacher for 12 years. He told St. George News that despite having just had COVID-19 and being quarantined for 10 days, he considers this time as beneficial.

For one thing, this experience has helped him refine his skills for virtual learning.

“As kids have been sick or out of town or not here, it’s taught me to do things like DeltaMath, like Zoom, make videos … I’ve learned so much about a computer that I never knew before,” he said.

During the time when schools were shut down, he said he collaborated with parents and teachers in ways he never had before.

With class back in session, he said students are going above and beyond to comply and help out where needed, such as keeping the chairs at a proper distance and sanitizing surfaces.

“The kids these days are amazing. They are so much better than we were when we were growing up,” he said. “The future’s in good hands.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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