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For six months, The New York Times’s audio team has documented the return of students to classes at a Texas high school. Today, in a special edition of the Education Briefing, hear from one of the teachers the team followed.
Welcome to Odessa
Odessa, Texas, is a city known for two things: oil and football.
Once home to the most productive oil field in the world, the town’s animating industry has waned. But its fervor for football has remained steady, as documented in the book that inspired the television series “Friday Night Lights.”
Now Odessa is emblematic of something else: the complicated and painful challenges that schools have confronted as they reopened their doors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike many schools across the country, Odessa High School has offered the option for in-person instruction since the beginning of the fall semester. From afar, The Times has chronicled students’ return to classes at Odessa High for a four-part audio documentary.
In the series, you will meet Naomi Fuentes, a college preparatory and career readiness teacher working at her alma mater. Throughout the pandemic, Naomi has tried to maximize classroom safety while also ensuring that her students graduate — and succeed once they leave.
Below, Naomi writes about what it has been like to feel that she is failing her students, unable to get them to engage remotely and watching them fade further into depression.
‘Wellness Check,’ by Naomi Fuentes
“On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you describe yourself today?”
I asked this question on my first “wellness check” to my high school students last fall. For a couple of months, some of them had been calling into my college prep and career readiness class from their beds, kitchen tables or jobs — listening through a single earbud while taking food orders, stocking shelves or babysitting their younger siblings. I knew they weren’t doing well, and I was worried about them. Still, I wasn’t prepared for their responses.
The Google Sheet I created for their answers was soon sprinkled with hopelessness; responses like “I’m depressed; I can’t get out of bed; I can’t focus; I’m stressed and overwhelmed; I don’t know what’s wrong with me” filled the cells.
This was when I realized that giving my all, in this pandemic, would still most likely not be enough — that my best efforts could not offset the angst bearing down on my classroom.
In the past year, I, like teachers everywhere, have adapted to near-weekly changes in my workplace. I’ve done remote teaching, in-person teaching and blended teaching, trying my best in every case to develop strong connections with my students. And though I’ve leaned in close to my computer, trying to learn my students’ names and pixelated faces, I still didn’t recognize many of them when they stepped into my classroom this semester for the first time.
The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.
In the process, I’ve tried to keep myself and my students safe — trying different masks and shields, spraying sanitizer across my classroom and stringing a clear shower curtain around my desk. While I do feel my sanitization and vigilance kept Covid-19 out of my classroom, the virus still found a way into my home during Christmas break, most likely through a family member. And though I consider myself healthy, I was astonished at how the virus slowly took my family and me down, both physically and mentally.
If I had to fill out my own “wellness check” a year into this crisis, I would write that I too feel overwhelmed, stressed and afraid. Just as the virus seems to exacerbate pre-existing conditions, teaching in the pandemic has exacerbated my pre-existing fears, amplifying my impostor syndrome and sense of self-doubt. Every day feels as if it’s my first day of teaching all over again. And while I’m always willing to learn and improve, I’m overwhelmed by how much is out of my control.
As I prepare my lessons, I worry about these questions: What about the kids who don’t have reliable internet? What about the kids who are having to work off their phones because they don’t have a computer? What if they don’t have the digital storage space available to run the platforms we’re using? These are hard times for everyone, but they are, more important, unfair times — with the weight of this pandemic unevenly distributed. I see my students bearing that burden every day.
I’ve read posts on social media that we are all in the same boat during this pandemic, but we most certainly are not. We are all weathering the same storm, but some people don’t even have a raft. Through this pandemic, teachers have just had to figure things out, and we’ll keep trying to figure things out. In the meantime, I’m just doing my best to keep myself and my students afloat.
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