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Closed means closed, but student learning will not stop

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Megan Helberg

Nebraska 2020 Teacher of the Year

Burwell, Nebraska Public School Teacher

Last Tuesday, the decision was made to temporarily close my school. When I shut the lid on my laptop and packed my bag to go home, a wave of emotions washed over me. It caught me off guard, to be honest. The tears flowed as I sat in my empty classroom and walked into the eerily quiet hallway. It was in that moment I realized that while I am passionate about teaching, I love my students and colleagues more.

As teachers, we desperately want to teach. It’s our jam. It’s our thing. But COVID-19 is here and it is serious. Our number one priority right now must be to keep each other safe and alive. Plain and simple. I want to see all my students and colleagues when our school opens its doors again, and that means we need to be proactive.

Once our students and staff are home in a secluded environment, teachers can get back to teaching: online, through phone calls, take-home packets, etc. Most teachers are already neck-deep in that process; doing what is best for our students. We want to teach. It is what we love. It is what we crave. It is in our hearts and souls to help our students.

Unfortunately, several teachers in rural Nebraska are being required by their school superintendents and school boards to report to their “closed” school buildings “to put in the hours.” Believe me, we are putting in our hours – and more. We always do. It’s just the nature of teaching. If your school has shut its doors for the health and safety of its students and greater community, we need to extend the same consideration to teachers. School administration must trust and assist their staff as they continue teaching and make it work from home.  I’ve heard from several teachers across the state and, while they are not panicked, they are very concerned about continuing to risk their health by reporting to their classroom.

I am reassured that many school administrators have stepped up to the plate: they understand that if we are going to seriously combat this pandemic, we need to allow teachers to work from the safety of their own homes. It makes sense – and we will make it work. School administrators, more than anyone, should know the teachers they hire are passionate and professional.

For those superintendents and school boards who have chosen to require their employees to report each day, I respectfully ask: What is your intent with this? Have you considered the impact of those decisions on the families of your employees, who now have children at home? What messages are you sending to teachers when you don’t seem to trust them to love and connect with students without your direct, physical supervision? What compromises can be made? And most importantly: Have you considered how you will respond if one of your employees tests positive, and you had been requiring that person to report to work – to touch door handles, use restrooms, push copy machine buttons? I believe in teachable moments, and COVID-19 has been providing them hand-over-fist to educators across this country. Teachers are learning new and creative ways to stay in touch and connect with our students. Districts need to recognize the effort teachers have been putting into this new reality, and protect their employees, as they have done for their students.

As teachers, we model our educational lessons for our students. Right now, people are being told to stay home. I hope school administrators are listening and will allow and trust their teachers to model this behavior during this surreal time.

 Once we have peace of mind that our students and staff are home and safe, then watch out world, it’s on! You bet your bottom dollar we are ready to roll out those engaging, meaningful, and practical lessons to educate our students.