At the Helm

I speak for the teachers … who are also parents. 

I remember how mornings used to be pre-COVID as a parent and teacher. They would consist of making strong coffee and hearty oatmeal. But for many months now, I wake up and start answering surveys for each of my daughters’ four separate schools, tapping at COVID-related questions on my iPhone until I receive a green barcode, “ENTRANCE PERMITTED.”

Once this task is done, I throw my hair up into a high bun and get dressed for the day. I know this hair-style “out” … I live with four daughters so I ALWAYS know what is out, but it’s fast and I need to be able to throw a load of laundry in while I mentally prepare for a teaching day ahead.  

“Ding!” In the 4.5 minutes it takes me to drive to my school with my youngest in tote, I receive an important teacher email from my school which reads, “As of last night, the district has asked that students no longer have carpet time or collaborative seating arrangements.  Please make sure your students’ desks are oriented towards the front of the room by today; start of day.” 

So, I hustle to place all my 4th grade students’ desks facing straight forward as my own fourth grader, Kalia, assists. The HEPA air filter is running at it’s highest capacity, both doors are open and my room has quickly become an icy wind tunnel.  

It doesn’t make sense. We all are still in the same room, breathing the same air, but the task of desk orientation is done and though I get parochial flashbacks looking at my room in this old-school layout, I move on. 

“Ding!” Another school email beckons for my immediate attention from my teaching desk. “There is 59.9% chance of rain today. So, we will be moving to a rainy day schedule as of morning recess.” 

I bubble wrap my type A side right away by saying out loud, “It’s just food inside the classroom and messes happen.” 

The bell rings and my students arrive. “Good morning and don’t forget to wash your hands or use the hand sanitizer.  Let’s get into our Reader’s Workshop when your hands are clean!” 

“Hands”, “Masks”, “Sanitized” – if I had a popsicle stick for every time I said these three words- eek!!

A few minutes into Reader’s Workshop, I realize I am late logging into the school-wide health Zoom about new COVID protocols. We review these as a whole-class after the Zoom and finish with our Reader’s Workshop lesson for the day. I am amazed at how much my students have improved in their ability to be analytical and evaluative readers and thinkers, especially amidst constant disruption and change, and for this I am so proud of each of them.  

Recess has come and I remind myself, ants and lice used to be classroom teachers’ nemeses. If both arrive anytime soon, I am more than able to handle these like a ninja warrior. 

During recess, a rotating aid enters my room while I dart to the restroom, consume a concha and call my own kids in the corridor; two of whom are still home as they are COVID positive. 

Recess is over and my students return. We wash hands, dispose of leftover food and jump into Math. We are 1/8 of the way into our Math lesson when a different rotating aid enters to say it’s my class’ turn for… you guessed it, “Random COVID testing!” 

So, my students line up, single-file into what was once an auditorium; a place of classroom plays, rainy-day lunches, Student-of-the-Month assemblies and school-wide enrichment activities.  A previously full of life elementary auditorium, is now a COVID testing epicenter.  

Upon our return to the classroom, we make a valiant effort to remember where we left off in Math. But not a lot is adding up in my head around how this all is playing out in the schools.  No amount of skip-jumping or mathematical reasoning can help support my analysis of how this COVID puzzle is still going.  

Maybe during random COVID testing, my Q-tip was placed too high in my nose, but in my mind, navigating year two of this pandemic should be getting easier.  

Math is done for the day. And lunch is approaching. But it’s a rainy day so my lunch is fifteen minutes shorter than usual.  Trays of food enter my room and goldfish and carrot sticks begin flying from lunch boxes onto the clean, blue, iconically-elementary carpet. I gulp and turn my head, as I jump into my car for a few minutes of reprieve and protein. 

My own daughters ask me questions at my lunch break:

“When should I test again?”

“What day am I allowed to go back?” 

“Can I get COVID again?”

I do my best to answer each of these, one at a time but the truth is, as a parent and an educator, I don’t know the best way to answer their questions.  Everything is constantly in flux.  

Before you know it, my whopping 20-min lunch is over and right on time, “DING!” another school email jumps to the front of my inbox. This one is about Independent Study Packets. Considering I have 1/3 of my class out, I better read this email with diligence. 

“Ok,” I say out loud. “Print these tomorrow. Email the families. Sign the contracts on Aeries.” 




SCIENCE TIME! Thank goodness!  

“Today, for Science, we are going to be working with mealworms,” I exclaim after silent reading has ended and the instrumental music has been turned off.  

That’s right. We are going to be watching these things squirm around in a petri dish and we will do our best to observe all their features with tiny, plastic magnifying glasses. Then, we will see how they change over time.   We will see how they change over time…

These words catch me off-guard.  

The mealworms were delivered ahead of schedule, much like this last COVID variant and because their shelf-life is much shorter than Omicron, we get to “explore” them today. 

By movement break in the afternoon another one of my students is picked up by her parents. 

I am not told why. But I have a hunch. 

And one of my own daughters has texted sharing that she received her test results back from the showgrounds testing site for the district and they read, “inconclusive”. 

So it’s 2:45 pm and I am doing my best to bring the conclusion to a day spent in earnest effort towards enriching learning and parenting. 

But I’m not sure what happened at all.

I head home and check-in on each of the girls. Snacks, a little homework, and I’m off to walk my dog. 

Open beaches. Dynamic clouds. Salty air. All the juicy favorites. Pure heaven and I am fully embracing every bit of simple joy on my walk.  I take in deep breaths at the pier, and spend time looking through all the angles of an old ship’s helm.  

I think about the mealworms that inevitably didn’t make it back into their perforated plastic cups, stock full of wooden shavings for nibbling. 

“DING!” a voice-recorded message from the district, “Sports are back on for all schools beginning Monday and masks are no longer required outside, but are highly encouraged as of tomorrow.”  I listen to it three times over. It still isn’t adding up.  

Dinner time. All I can handle at this point is a good episode of “Cheer” and dinner on the couch. I just want to watch other people pull off their stunts for the day.    

“Mom, can I have a sleepover for my bday?”

“Mom, when is my teacher coming back?”

“Mom, what if I can’t be back by my final because I don’t get a negative COVID test in time?” 

I don’t know any of these questions. So I settle into some cozy time with my daughters on the couch and sink into the acceptance of not-knowing. “Well, sports are on next week! This we know.”  Their faces seem less-than-impressed.  

I miss being worried about lice. And I miss being disgruntled about ants. 

I miss assemblies. I miss chaperoning field trips and supporting a back-to-school picnic. I miss move-a-thons, whole-school events, parents on campus helping with class parties.  I miss parent lunches at the junior high. I miss meeting my daughters’ teachers; in-person. 

To be really honest, I try not to think about any of these things often. It makes me heart-sad in so many ways and at the same time, so deeply grateful that I had those experiences with my daughters. 

“DING,” another ParentSquare email which reads, “School community notification of a positive case…”  Another one. 

I’ll be back at school tomorrow. 

Tomorrow, we don’t have to wear masks outside.  “But it’s possible that that’s just tomorrow,” I gently remind myself. 

I build my pillow nest, falling into my bed with my hair still tied up high on my head.  I think about how my classroom looks.  I think about how much my classroom has evolved and how all of us, students and teachers alike work at maintaining as much normalcy as possible.  Like taffy heated by a summer day, we have stretched to new limits to try, over and over again to make this happen.  

I think about carpet-time and how I deeply miss it.  There is something really special about all your students gathering on a carpet with their inquisitive eyes waiting for you to read, demo a math problem or share a funny story about your weekend.  

I close my eyes and think about my classroom’s blue carpet: The one that will hold a remembrance of a year stock-full of left turns, new ways of sustaining forward progress and likely, a mealworm that’s found a new delight in one of the students’ discarded goldfish. 

I think about all the small things I can do tomorrow to bring delight, joy, engagement and compassion to all of my students.  Then, I imagine that blue carpet taking me to some COVID-free place; a magic carpet ride to a COVID-free island.  I imagine many of us parents and educators alike have had this dream.  Honestly, who hasn’t had this dream in the past two years?!  

You don’t need to have a classroom or a blue carpet to picture this.  

Then, I acknowledge that we are all navigating this pandemic together.  One day at a time, one hour at a time, with perspectives as open and enduring as possible.  My eyes are already closed now.  I can hear the waves crashing from my bedroom window.  

I think about each view I caught from peering through that old ship’s helm on my walk earlier today. I think about all that is well-beyond what my eye can see and well-beyond what I think is possible.  I drift to sleep, letting the many vistas seen through the helm fill me with possibility. 

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