Saturday, August 21, 2021

Meeting Students During COVID, or "Don't I know (part of) you?"

School started this week. We are back in the building, full-time, for the first time since COVID bit us in the butt in March of 2020. Seventeen months, almost to the day. Which makes this the third school year that has been butchered by the pandemic. 

I'm not going to go into the horrors of teaching via Zoom. That topic has been beaten to death, and even I can't handle another freaking article about 384 WAYS TO ENGAGE STUDENTS ONLINE or TEACHERS NEED TO PRACTICE SELF-CARE, EVEN THOUGH TEACHING ONLINE TAKES UP 30 HOURS EACH DAY, with a bunch of completely unrealistic, even infuriating, "tips" that really only give you even more to do between crying jags.

Just this graphic is enough to send me over the edge, even without the Comic Sans.

Neither am I going to broach the topic of teaching in Covidland, with the landmines of distancing and mask-policing, the differences between Delta symptoms and allergies, the uselessness of taking temperatures at the building entrance and of not sharing pencils.

So... I got vaccinated as soon as I could find an appointment, March 7, 2021. This turned out to be about a month before we returned to school.

One and done, baybee!

We returned to the building in April of 2021, just over a full year after we left. We'd spent August 2020 through March 2021 online. (Actually, some of us spent June through March online, offering fun and/or useful summer "classes" via Zoom, because we were trying to keep the kids in touch with other humans.) When we came back to the building, of course, school did not vaguely resemble normalcy. Some students did not, for various reasons, join us in the building, and we spent the rest of the school year navigating "synchronous" learning (some students in person and some online, at the same time), which was even more difficult than completely virtual.

Some students are in the room, some are Zooming in,
and teachers are holding fistfuls of their own hair while screaming into the void.

When Coterie Theatre classes moved online in 2020, with everyone else's,  I had already been teaching online for months. It was exhausting, emotionally and mentally, so I told my beloved Education Director, Amanda, that I simply couldn't face doing more of it. She was sympathetic, and I ended up taking the summer off, for the first time ever. Of course, we had no idea that online teaching would become the norm, into the fall and so far, far beyond. 

But this year, I'd been vaccinated, and so I agreed to teach in person this summer. Maybe I had some idea, when I first accepted the class offers, months before they were to start, that we would be able to go sans masks. I'll chalk it up to being optimistic, I guess. Maybe na├»ve is closer to the truth. 

I'm not saying that elephants are the only ones, or that no elephants pay heed to scientists,
but there does seem to be a pattern.

Every week, a new class started, at a different satellite location, with different students, who were every age between 5 and 18. All of them, masked.

And this is the point of this post: I didn't know what my students looked like. When they took off their masks for a brief snack break, I was always a little surprised. I realized that I'd mentally filled in their appearance, above their necks and below their eyes, and they didn't actually look like what I'd imagined.

Oh, the lower half of your face is that of a wolf?
Well, that will help me when I run into you at the store, post-COVID

As I pondered this, I thought back to last fall, when we had new students at school, and I'd met them on Zoom. I only knew their faces. It didn't occur to me that this would pose any kind of problem, but then we had an outdoor, masked social gathering for the whole school. Suddenly, I knew no one, because the only thing I'd known them by, their faces, were the only things that I could no longer rely on for identification. What made it worse, of course, was that so many students were adverse to turning their cameras on during class, so they could identify me, but I could not reciprocate. It became a joke as we parted: "Nice seeing how tall you are!"

Other staff and faculty members were experiencing the same thing, and we were all asking each other who that student, over there, was. I had to rely on things like their taste in jewelry and their hair color - which, if you know anyone of this age, you know the likelihood of their hair remaining the same color for more than a week is pretty slim.

But you have to be Marnie, your hair is pink!

And now, here we are, at the beginning of the third COVID-smashed school year. We have many new students at school, and they are all masked. On Day One, I already had a hard time in one class, differentiating between three girls with straight, blonde hair.

This time, at least, I'll be able to use their height and mode of dress as identifiers. If we are ever able to be safe from COVID without masks - a possibility that seems more remote with each passing day - that will be helpful.

Are you sure you live here? Can you show me some identifying birthmarks or scars?