Educator's Guide for Returning to School During COVID-19

When the pandemic first hit, there were numerous discussions on how to best educate students while following CDC guidelines. Now, over a year later, many educators have become used to teaching online. As schools begin reopening, you may find yourself wondering how you or your students are going to adjust to an in-person learning environment. In this guide, we’ll aim to address some of your concerns about heading back to school during COVID-19 and help you negotiate this transition with your students.

Challenges to Going Back to School

Returning to in-person learning after a pandemic won’t be the same as in-person learning before the pandemic. Both educators and students have unique challenges and worries that didn’t exist before coronavirus. Understanding these unique challenges can help you develop strategies that can make the transition easier for both you and your students.

Educator Challenges

As an educator, you may not have had a choice about when and how to return to in-person education. Your administrators likely made the decision to return without your input. This means that you and other educators may be returning to the classroom despite personal reservations regarding vaccine efficiency and COVID-19 safety measures.

You may have a family at home that you need to take care of. This can be especially challenging for areas where universities have opened but elementary schools have not. If you have young children who are still distance learning, it may be difficult to return to working in person at your job.

Another major challenge you may have is that some of your students may not be ready or to return to the classroom. You will have to choose if and how to accommodate those students while providing the best possible education, regardless of where students are on the comfort spectrum.

Student Challenges

It’s important to understand that COVID-19 didn’t just impact you as an educator. Your students were also affected, and you may have more students with mental health concerns than in years prior. In fact, 20% of college students say their mental health has gotten worse as a result of COVID-19.

Returning to in-person learning may worsen some of these student anxieties. They may wonder which of their classmates have received the vaccine, or they may have at-risk family members they’re concerned for. Students who attend school far from their homes may worry that, if the pandemic worsens and lockdowns ensue, they won’t be able to return home to see their families.

For educators of college students, another thing to remember is that approximately half of your students may have never attended in-person classes before. Because distance learning dominated last year, both your freshman and sophomore students may be coming to school not knowing what to expect from an in-person classroom.

Maintaining Classroom Safety

One of the most important things you can do when returning to in-person teaching is to decide how you’re going to keep your classroom a safe, comfortable learning environment for everyone. Getting the COVID vaccine is a good step to protecting yourself. But whether or not you’re vaccinated, you may want to put some steps into place to help you and your students feel safe and limit the spread of germs.

One option is to lay your classroom out differently, providing more space between desks than you have in previous years. You may also want to limit how often students are sharing supplies, which may mean requiring students to bring certain items to class each week. It may also be a good idea to open windows in your classroom when possible to improve airflow.

Addressing Anxieties

For the benefit of both you and your students, one of the most important jobs you have this year is to address anxieties about returning to in-person learning. A few simple steps can mean the difference between a successful academic year and a year of frustration and potential drop-outs.

Opening the Channels of Communication

First, you want to establish communication between you and your students. Start by addressing the many feelings your students may be having about returning to classroom learning.

Be careful not to impose your own feelings on your students. Statements like, “Isn’t it nice to be back?” can seem harmless but may serve to alienate students who are struggling with returning to the classroom. Instead, be open about the fact that it’s a big transition for everyone. Emphasize that you’re all going to work together to learn how to operate within new guidelines and restrictions.

Consider spending some time just listening to concerns your students have about returning to the classroom. Knowing their concerns, in their words, may inspire you to help in ways you wouldn’t have thought of before.

Even if you can’t help with their anxieties, giving them a space to voice those anxieties can be powerful and may help you establish trust with your students, which can make the rest of the year easier.

Creating Gradual Transitions

For students who are especially anxious about returning to the classroom, you may want to create gradual transitions to help them face their anxieties without feeling overwhelmed.

For example, you may offer certain assignments online and have them return to the classroom a little at a time. Or you might meet with them one-on-one before school starts, give them a tour of your classroom, or help them get to know the campus before it’s filled with students.

Establishing Routines

Routines help you and your students know what to expect and have a sense of control. This isn’t the year to push your students outside their comfort zone by having them switch seats with a classmate or by taking impromptu field trips. Instead, set clear expectations for your students and give them a space that they can depend on to be the same week after week.

You can also work safety protocols into your routines. For example, you could always end class five minutes early so that students can wipe their desks down with sanitizer before they leave.

Prioritize Self Care

This year is likely to be challenging to you as an educator in new and interesting ways. One of the best things you can do for a successful school year is to prioritize your own self-care and mental health. Take extra breaks if you need them, go to bed at a reasonable time, drink plenty of water, and eat good foods. These small steps can mean a world of difference when it comes to feeling like your best self and tackling the challenges of going back to school in a post-coronavirus environment.

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