Minnesota elementary teachers are nervous, excited, terrified, and hopeful to return to the classroom–sometimes at the same time. Credit: Photo collage Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

For teachers, putting their students first is second nature. But as Minnesota elementary schools begin to reopen almost a year into the pandemic, teachers find themselves in an uncomfortable position: What’s best for students’ education may not be best for teachers’ health.

After many months of federal government inaction, states, districts, and individual teachers were largely left on their own to interpret the confusing and evolving science about the risks of reopening schools. A highly politicized debate and a steady stream of lies from the Trump administration deepened distrust. A rocky vaccine rollout didn’t help. 

So when Minnesota governor Tim Walz announced elementary schools could reopen, a reversal of his previous position that tied school openings to COVID-19 case rates, teachers met his announcement with a range of emotions: skepticism, anxiety, terror, hope. 

For teachers from immigrant backgrounds who work with large numbers of English language learners, those emotions were even more complex. While these students are more likely to struggle with distance learning, their family members are more likely to become ill or die from COVID-19. And teachers are worried about their own families, too.

As school openings become a political lightning rod, some pundits have taken to blaming teachers and their unions for the long school closures. This has led to the impression that teachers don’t want to return under any circumstances. But when you talk to individual teachers, you’ll hear a broader range of perspectives. They want to make sure that children are getting the best education possible and they want to return to the classroom safely, with vaccines. 

They’re worried about kids’ social skills and emotional wellbeing. They miss hearing children’s giggles. But they are also preparing their wills.

Last week, we spoke with four Minnesota teachers from immigrant communities—all mothers with school-age children of their own—about how they’re really feeling about going back to school. (Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Veronica Castellanos Vasquez, kindergarten teacher, Minneapolis Public Schools

“The distance learning model was in some ways a failure. Not because of the teachers, but because of the district’s expectations.” More

Andrea Cortes, fourth grade teacher, Robbinsdale Area Schools

“I am not going to be giving my 100 percent to my students because I am giving 100 percent of my attention to freaking out if the kids are not following the safety protocols.” More

Nancy Jimenez-Wheeler, English language teacher, St. Paul Public Schools

“The health situation in the country is the same or worse than it was in September. And I wonder why the magic time was now.” More

Mariam Adam, English language teacher, Minneapolis Public Schools

“It’s good to see that educators and schools are really looking at it from a family perspective, thinking of what it would mean to have your own personal child go back to school.” More

Veronica Castellanos Vasquez

Kindergarten teacher, Emerson Spanish Learning Immersion Center
Minneapolis Public Schools

Veronica Castellanos Vasquez, a kindergarten teacher in Minneapolis, has found her young students losing focus since winter break. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

It’s been kind of a roller coaster. Chasing parents to fill out that form to let us know if they’re choosing distance learning or in person. A lot of questions from parents that we as teachers don’t have the answer for. I just feel that whatever parents choose, there’s no good option. There’s no good option for anything. 

Honestly, I wish things would have been different. Maybe giving teachers the option to give us the vaccine first, and then let’s start to open up. But I feel like everything has been out of order. Now with the vaccines, we got the email and the call that we needed to click on that link and see if we can get the appointment. Everything is just a circus. 

When I hit that link, the website was telling you how many people were in front of you and how long you needed to wait. I waited an hour and a half, because there were thousands of people in front of me. I was lucky enough to get an appointment. But I know so many colleagues that didn’t. 

I don’t get it. Why do it this way? It just seems to me very strange and very odd that we live in a country, the United States, where you expect more organization on this subject. I’m from Colombia, and I would expect this type of craziness in my country. But not here.

I will be teaching in person starting on February 8, kindergarten. I’m a healthy person. So I couldn’t ask for any accommodations. 

Part of me is happy to go back because I have seen my students after winter break losing their motivation, doing distance learning. They’re tired. I get more messages and communication from parents: Oh teacher, I’m so sorry, my kid is not wanting to do homework. More behavior issues from students. They’re tired, and I see it. 

So it’s hard. It’s hard to teach when kids are not engaged. And we’re running out of ideas because at this point, what else can you do? They just need to go back. 

Part of me, I’m excited to go back, because I saw it with my own daughter. She went back this week after doing distance learning all these months. She was very excited, very happy. And for her, and in her world, it doesn’t matter that it’s not the same as before. She just wanted to see people. 

The distance learning model was in some ways a failure. Not because of the teachers, but because of the district’s expectations. They put a lot of pressure on teachers to do that model of education, doing it like it was the same as in-person. And it wasn’t. 

I’m not saying to lower the academic expectations. Just be more empathetic. 

It’s amazing that we are one week and a half from getting our students back in school, and we are still deciding how that will look. Parents ask me, who’s going to be the distance learning teacher? I don’t know. I’m getting the vaccine, and I would rather give the opportunity to someone who really needs to stay home because of health problems or because that person didn’t get the vaccine. 

So I said to my team, I’ll go back. But I don’t know if I’m getting all my students, or if we’re splitting our classrooms and we’re getting different students. I don’t know.

I had 19 kids, because I’ve been losing students since September. Four of those are staying in distance learning and 15 are going back. They’re going back because they gave up with the distance learning model and they’re tired. Others are paying for childcare five days a week and I know that they need their kids to go back to school so they don’t pay childcare anymore. Others because they’re done, they’re tired of having their kids at home.

There’s a lot of reasons in this society why people are choosing in-person. And of course, parents are keeping their kids home because they don’t feel safe, or they live with someone that is at risk. Every family is a different world. Every family has their own reasons.

Some of them, they’re counting the days. The little ones, I’m counting the days! I’m going back! And others share with me during our Google meets, No I’m staying home. I’m sad because I’m not seeing you. 

It’s hard as a kindergarten teacher to keep them engaged. They need to socialize. They need to play. And sometimes I give them a little bit of time just for them to chat with each other in the Google meets. And it’s like they forgot how to socialize. I’m like, OK I’m going to turn off my camera and microphone, you can talk whatever you want. I see them, and they just don’t know how to start a conversation with their friends. It’s sad. 

The way that I’ve been doing all my kindergarten years as a teacher is focusing more on social skills than academics. That’s the way I see it. I’m hoping to have some happiness in our lives. I’m hoping to see the giggles, to see–well I will not be able to see their smiles. But the giggles. And for them to have happy days at school. 

I know most of our students, they’ve been locked in these little apartments or little houses, and with so many people. And to give them some space, that will be their space. It’s finally their life. I feel like they need to own it. This is my classroom, this is my teacher, these are my friends. 

I’m really hoping for happiness, love, and–I don’t know–a little bit of joy. I need that. As a teacher, as a person, I really need that. There’s been a lot of tragedy lately in this world. So we’ll work with whatever we’ve got–with the safety guidelines, with all the changes. 

We’ll adapt. Kids can adapt. I’m flexible. I will adapt. And we just need to think that everything will be okay.

Andrea Cortes

Fourth grade teacher, Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School

Robbinsdale Area Schools

Andrea Cortes, a fourth grade teacher in Robbinsdale, recently went to the hospital with a condition aggravated by stress. She’s a recent widow, and terrified for her teenage daughters if she gets COVID-19. Credit: Courtesy Andrea Cortes

I feel terrible about going back to school. I am going back to school on Monday. Thirty students and I cannot even give them the social distance. And now I am sick, so going back is going to be a challenge. I am fearful for myself. 

I got a vaccination. But the second vaccination isn’t for a month. I won’t get the immunity until maybe a week later. So yeah, putting myself at risk in the last month of the pandemic. That’s very discouraging.

I’m in the hospital. I have diverticulitis. It’s very painful. It’s like having little appendixes bursting.  I think that part of my visit here is stress-related. 

I am a recent widow. The father of my daughters died in August. He had a heart attack. So if anything happens to me, my two children are going to be in the air. I already have a will and things like that. It is very hard to talk to a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old about it. On Saturday when I got sick and I had to come to the hospital, they were both very stressed. I’m getting released today. Today they’re okay. They thought I was going to die. 

I can’t believe that we didn’t go back to hybrid. We could have done that. I believe that the kids need to go back to school, yes, if we can manage it. Following the COVID restrictions that have been given since the beginning. 

I wrote to the state because hybrid is what should happen. The school in my district is the biggest one. We usually are on the limits of the fire codes. So if the kids cannot eat in the cafeteria they have to eat in the classroom. The passing in the hallways and things like that, I’m not sure that that is going to be enough. 

If I go back, my mind is not going to be on teaching. My mind is going to be on taking care of myself. So I am not going to be giving my 100 percent to my students because I am giving 100 percent of my attention to freaking out if the kids are not following the safety protocols.

I am a person that believes in cooperative learning: kids talking between themselves and then talking to me. I cannot do small groups because of the table that I have. I cannot have the three kids or the two kids sitting at a proper distance. It just doesn’t work. So my decision last week when I was seeing the space? Well, then, I’m not going to do small groups. 

I’m going to try to figure out calling one kid at a time like it was 1950. Probably I will try to have them do things online anyway because I don’t want to touch their papers. 

Nancy Jimenez-Wheeler

English language learning teacher, kindergarten, Battle Creek Elementary School

St. Paul Public Schools

Nancy Jimenez-Wheeler, an English language teacher for kindergarteners in St. Paul Public Schools, is grateful she will continue teaching online, but nervous about a potential outbreak in the school system. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

As a teacher, you always want what is the best for the kids. And you know that the best thing is to have in-person because you have established the relationship with the kids. Everything is easier. I think the best thing for the kids is to be at school. But is it safe to go back? 

When you are in this profession, you don’t do it for the money. You do it because you have your vocation. And as a mom, you’re also thinking, What is the best for my kid. The best thing is to be in the school. 

It is nerve-wracking. When they told us we are going to go back, as a human being you are like, Oh my God. It’s a little scary if everything is not done properly.

I work in kindergarten. I’m going to still work online. Most of my kids—28 out of 48 kids—were staying at home. So I decided to do that. But my other co-workers are going to go in, in person. It was the luck of the draw. We decided to follow the kids: A majority of my kids were staying at home. We as a team decided it would be best for the kids just to have the continuation so they don’t have another transition in this crazy year. I was relieved when they gave me the chance, because I don’t qualify for anything. I am not in those high-risk groups.

Some of the kids are staying with grandparents who don’t speak English. Even if the parents are English speakers, they still need to go work. So there’s little support at home. And it is super hard, because usually, especially in kindergarten, kids are learning school: how school works. When you’re learning the language, the social part is very important. The kids learn more English not with the teachers, but on the playground, by the social interactions. 

We have had to pare down the curriculum a lot and just go really slow. Because it is hard. It is really hard. Especially for the kids who come with no English. Sometimes they don’t even know how to get into the meetings. Then we have to do phone calls, trying to do tutoring with the parents: how to join in, how to do a lot of things. It has been challenging to say the least.

My numbers are growing because we have to divide all the kids from ELL. Now I need to work with first and second grade, too. The saving grace is that I know the kids, because they were in kindergarten with me. But it adds more to the stress. I have been working in kindergarten for so long that you do things second nature. But you need to learn a little more now. I have to work with different grade levels.

I hope the vaccine works wonders and we get herd immunity. And at least the people who are in person are successful. I know we are going to keep on struggling. This is one of these jobs where even though it’s hard, you need to just plow through.

I am worried about having an outbreak in the school district. If a school has an outbreak, where are they going to find subs to come? That scares me, that the district might make the decision to send everyone back again. That makes me anxious. As a teacher, I know that kids need structure. That’s where they thrive because they know what’s expected. But when they change one thing to another to another to another, that is messing up with the minds of everyone. 

I’m not sure if they did the transition at the right moment. But I think it was due to happen. I don’t know if we were ready. But I think many things are out of our control. And many people from different stakeholders pressed to do this. I think it’s a decision that doesn’t have anything to do with the teachers, but just kind of makes people happy in other sectors.

The health situation in the country is the same or worse than it was in September. And I wonder why the magic time was now. I don’t know. It makes me think maybe it was political reasons. They could have waited until the end of February when we were getting to herd immunity by the percentages and stuff. I want to know. 

Mariam Adam

English language learning teacher, third grade, Anne Sullivan Communication Center

Minneapolis Public Schools

Mariam Adam, an English language teacher in Minneapolis, has been communicating with parents to make sure they understand what going back to school in a pandemic will look like. Credit: Courtesy Mariam Adam

It was a very emotional feeling, because as educators we know our students missed a lot of the face-to-face interaction learning and the hands-on. And at the same time, working closely with families—specifically immigrant families—my heart went out to them even more. Because I know the pandemic hit them even more than other communities. 

So yes, we’re going to go back. Our kids need to see and work closely with other educators and build that community again. But then how do we do this safely so that families who are hit the most through the pandemic do not suffer further? In many of our immigrant communities, they have extended family living with them or they’re taking care of them. Cross-contamination is really the biggest impact with COVID.

It’s as though we’re all meeting for the first time. Now going back with masks and all this PPE on, it’s really hard I think for the young ones. Especially for the kindergarten ones who really have not even seen school. 

As educators we’ve all been meeting, saying we have to be extra careful about how we welcome our kids so that they know that it’s us. Even if it’s having little pictures on our shoulders showing who we are, our faces. It’s hard to tell when all you see are just two eyes looking at you from an adult. How will a student know if you’re smiling, if you’re laughing? We’re just reminding each other that social-emotional piece is huge. 

With the language learners, a large number of them are coming in. In many cases, the families were really struggling with the distance learning platform. And many of the parents I speak with regularly did keep their kids home. 

Parents, specifically our immigrant parents and East African parents, are wary of the virus and the new variants. Many families were wary of that. We were very lucky we had a parent meeting in our building where we invited all parents to explain to them, We’re going back to school, this is how it’s going to look like. So the parents are aware. 

I don’t think many schools did that. We said, let’s let parents be aware of what going back to school would look like, that it wouldn’t look like what they thought it was before the COVID virus. It’s going to be different. Your students who are used to a particular teacher might not see that teacher. 

Many of them are very wary living in close proximity with other family members or extended family. Some of them said we won’t be sending our kids because grandma lives in our apartment. Some of them are choosing to stay home. We’re worried about our parents, we’re worried about ourselves. Some of them are aware they have compromising ailments that they have to be aware of. I’m really happy that parents are advocating for themselves and their families.

Students are super excited. Oh my goodness, yes. They just want to come back. They want to see their friends. As educators, we’re aware that some students do function well in distance learning and many didn’t. We all have different forms of learning style. Some of the kids who were not able to learn or academically improve through the distance learning were excited to come back face-to-face, seeing an educator, working in a school, coming back to their classroom. That was the exciting part for all the kids.

I’m very grateful that our school, Anne Sullivan, has been really careful in putting family in the loop. That has given me a sense of calmness as parents ask critical questions: Will my child be safe? What is expected of them? It’s good to see that educators and schools are really looking at it from a family perspective, thinking of what it would mean to have your own personal child go back to school. 

I’m very grateful that Minneapolis is using that lens: Let us be critically aware of how this coming-back-to-school is impacting those most marginalized students the most. I just hope it all works out well. It’s still a pandemic, regardless of how many precautions we put out there.

I think the pandemic has created a family-centered relationship that’s really authentic. We’re looking at education from a family and student perspective. 

I personally think that schools have become more aware of the huge benefit of having families on board to support the education of their kids. That’s my best part of the pandemic, the awareness that has instilled in all of us.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...