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Teachers Reflect On Another Pandemic School Year

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the pandemic lockdowns began more than a year ago, parents and teachers wondered, what about the children? How are they going to get an education if they can't go to school? And if they do go to school in person, is it possible to keep everyone safe? Well, we know a lot more now about how it can work - video conferencing, hand sanitizer, a mask. But as we enter yet another pandemic school year, there are a lot of questions still. This week, we thought we'd check in with some folks we've talked to throughout this pandemic, teachers and parents who have navigated an academic year like no other. We'll hear from parents tomorrow, but today - teachers.

MAXIE HOLLINGSWORTH: Hi. Maxie Hollingsworth from Houston, Texas. I am now actually a teacher specialist, so I'll be supporting teachers improving their practice throughout the school year. So that's from pre-K through fifth grade.

SUZEN POLK-HOFFSES: I am Suzen Polk-Hoffses. I'm a pre-k teacher at Milbridge Elementary School, which is in Milbridge, Maine.

DAVID FINKLE: My name is David Finkle. I teach at DeLand High School in DeLand, Fla. I teach ninth grade English and one class of creative writing.

CORNISH: When we spoke earlier this week, David Finkle had already begun his school year, in person, and his class size wasn't small - 30 to 35 kids. That's a big change from last year.

FINKLE: My impression is that a lot of parents found out that online is not all it's cracked up to be. A lot of people tout it as the wave of the future, and I think a lot of parents were not fond of it. But I'm seeing Suzen shake - like, nod in agreement like a lot of parents did not like it in the end.

CORNISH: Yeah, Suzen, you want to jump in? How is the start of your year, this year, different from how the spring ended the school year?

POLK-HOFFSES: My school year will start September 1. A year ago, when I spoke to you guys, I was in terror fear for my life because there was no vaccine. Right now, I feel fine. I feel confident. The fear, the terror that I have are for my young 4-year-olds that are not vaccinated because of their ages. I think maybe my fear is now turning into anger of, why aren't we getting vaccinated? What is the deal? Why can't we wear masks?

CORNISH: Maxie, you're in Texas. Obviously, the governor there has had a lot of thoughts about how the school year should go. So how are things different for you heading into the fall?

HOLLINGSWORTH: The governor of the state has banned mask mandates. Luckily, though, several of the largest school districts around the state have decided to defy that order. So there's a lot of legal battles going on right now. All of our students are returning. There is no virtual option. So I am very proud and appreciative of our new superintendent who said, we're going to have a mask mandate. I think parents feel relieved about that. As long as I can comfortably say, you know what? If you're not wearing a mask, you're going to have to go home for the day - I feel a lot better about that.

CORNISH: David, can I come back to you as well? Again, Florida, another state where the governor has been aggressive about what he thinks should happen or should not happen when it comes to social distancing measures. How are people, how are staff and parents taking that where you are?

FINKLE: Masks are a big controversy in our district. There's disagreements even on our school board.

CORNISH: Who's fighting the masks - kids or parents?

FINKLE: I think kids reflect their parents' views, generally. I know that there is a lot of very vociferous anti-mask parents in our district, and I also know that there is a lot of very strong pro-mask parents. So I think it just depends. I'm very conflicted because I think they're an added measure of safety, but I'm also very tired of wearing a mask in front of my class. I use my face a lot, and so it's hard to not be conflicted about it. I mean, I would be - I'd probably be wearing it anyway, and I may keep wearing it depending on what our numbers are doing. I mean, it's the second day, and I think we're already getting numbers on who's in quarantine.

I'm not sure how to feel this year. I'm just so tired. But I'm just so happy to be in front of a class, teaching the way I usually do. And when we were coming home today, even with my numbers of kids in class, I said to my wife - we teach at the same school - I like teaching. And so I'm very conflicted.

CORNISH: I'm wondering if either you, Maxie Hollingsworth, or you, Suzen Polk-Hoffses, if you have this also kind of combination of emotion right now.

POLK-HOFFSES: This is Suzen. I do have emotions. I worry about the young children in our schools who might feel that peer pressure because they might be the only one wearing a mask in their classroom. I worry about the pressure of their peers. Why do you wear a mask? What does that mean? Don't you feel safe about us?

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is Maxie. Fortunately, I'm in a school where, culturally, the communities that we serve are comfortable wearing masks. So I'm less concerned about pushback from parents and kids. My primary concern is people sort of being lax about mask-wearing. We just came back - some of the staff came back last week, and one of my co-workers is in the hospital right now.

CORNISH: One thing that each of you said when we spoke at various points last year is you talked about being exhausted. David, I know you talked about this. The remote learning was just tough in a lot of ways that were even unexpected. I don't know who wants to jump in on this first, but what did you take away from last year, that experience, that you're bringing into the fall?

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is Maxie. I'd like to address that because if you'd asked me in January if I would come back to education, period, I would have given a resounding no. It was a resounding no.

CORNISH: Right. Originally, you were a math teacher, right?

HOLLINGSWORTH: Yes, yes.

CORNISH: And now I heard you use a different title.

HOLLINGSWORTH: I'm in such a different head space now. I think teaching summer school was good for me. It was all face-to-face. It was the toughest kids in terms of getting them where they need to be. But it was almost like the universe said, we're going to keep you here, and you need to be here, because I was actively looking for jobs outside of education. But I am actually quite thrilled about the school year, and I'm excited about what I know that we can accomplish. You know, we can only go up.

CORNISH: Suzen, if I understand this, you're in Maine.

POLK-HOFFSES: Yeah.

CORNISH: Did you ever reconsider your line of work?

POLK-HOFFSES: Absolutely not.

CORNISH: We heard Maxie talk about having those doubts.

POLK-HOFFSES: The pandemic terrified me in the respect that young people aren't going to be educators. We have wonderful people look at - Maxie just shared - my gosh, she has Ph.D. And she was really actively thinking of leaving the teaching profession. We have to inspire young people. We have to let them know that being an educator is the greatest thing in the world. And if we could survive this pandemic this past year, you know, then we can do anything.

CORNISH: I hear the urgency in your voice because I also think it sounds like a tough sell.

POLK-HOFFSES: Yes, you're right. This is a hard sell. But we're talking about educating our future. And, you know, it's unfortunate. It comes down to - are we going to wear masks, or are we not going to wear a mask? I'm wearing a mask because I want my children and my classroom to be alive. Just like what's happening with our frontline workers, people aren't going into the medical field because they're getting burnt out. It's the same thing with educators.

CORNISH: Maxie, can you jump in here? You have some thoughts.

HOLLINGSWORTH: It's funny where Suzen is because, you know, I was actively trying to tell people, don't go into education; it's going to kill you. That's where I was. But Suzen's enthusiasm and excitement, they get me excited. We do have a real issue right now. I don't know a school in our district that doesn't have multiple vacancies. Education is a tough sell. Before COVID, it was a tough sell. It's really, really difficult now. I mean, it's - every day is going to be give-a-teacher-a-hug day for the next 40 years.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you. Thank you.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

FINKLE: I thought - I'd never had this before. I had a beginning-of-the-year gift today from a student. I got a cookie and a Target gift card.

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is what I'm saying.

(LAUGHTER)

FINKLE: I got gifts at the end of the year - never the start of the year. This was awesome.

CORNISH: We've been speaking with teachers. Maxie Hollingsworth in Houston, thank you for speaking with us.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Thank you. Very glad to do it.

CORNISH: And David Finkle in DeLand, Fla., thank you.

FINKLE: Thank you as well.

CORNISH: And Suzen Polk-Hoffses in Milbridge, Maine, thank you for speaking with us.

POLK-HOFFSES: Thank you. It's been an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.