Teachers Enter a Year of Uncertainty

Educators return to a job that looks nothing like years past, with a slate of new demands, safety protocols and simmering anxieties, but also with the student interaction they cherish

By Andy Viano
Junior Eli Mildren is pictured at Glacier High School in Kalispell on August 20, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

There was a general consensus about the unprecedented and unwelcome COVID-19 school shutdown of 2020, the two-plus months over spring when parents working from home attempted to wrangle children learning from home, while teachers were forced to set up makeshift classrooms in their own houses.

The consensus was, in short, that this couldn’t happen again.

And at first, it seemed it wouldn’t. March and April’s statewide lockdown flattened Montana’s coronavirus curve and there was some belief, at least back then, that the difficult weeks of COVID-related personal sacrifice were enough to get life back to normal, at least by the time the 2020-21 school year rolled around.

That time has come and, of course, things are not back to normal. Coronavirus is far more widespread today than it was when schools first closed, and the virus has become hotly debated, with everything from mask mandates to school reopening highly politicized.

So when school administrators and school boards waded into the water to come up with a plan for the start of this semester, they faced an almost impossible task. No one wanted to close schools again. But no one was quite sure how to safely open them either. And no matter what they chose, a chorus of criticism was certain to follow.

As the dust continues to clear and school reopening plans have won approval from local boards, almost all students in Northwest Montana at least have the option of returning to in-person learning and, from data collected by the schools, it appears a vast majority will. Administrators have expressed confidence that schools can open without spreading the virus, and plenty of parents have breathed sighs of relief at the thought of their kids leaving the house once again.

Yet one group of important stakeholders — the teachers and staff who make schools run — have been awaiting direction without final say on reopening plans, largely deferring to their administrations as they weighed their own experiences from five months earlier: the chaos and at-times ineffectiveness of last year’s version of remote teaching, the lack of vital human connection with their students, and in some cases their own struggles to work with kids of their own at home.

Now, with students days away from crowding through the doors of schools throughout the Flathead Valley, the reality of pairing a still-simmering pandemic with hundreds of students and teachers tasked with monitoring their own health, maintaining distance and wearing proper protective equipment, the enormity of the task is weighing heavy. With most students returning to in-person learning and many buildings already at or near capacity, rooms and hallways still figure to be mostly full, and getting 100% compliance from children on anything, let alone something as divisive and uncomfortable as wearing a face mask, is nearly impossible to imagine.

Publicly and privately, teachers and staff are preparing for when, not if, schools are forced to lock their doors again following an outbreak or outbreaks of COVID-19, and hoping that, when they do, their districts have a plan for how to more effectively execute remote learning than they did a year ago.

To be sure, though, there is a sense of anticipation. August, even in the middle of pandemic, stokes educators’ passion for their students and their work, and even those who fear there is no safe way to reopen schools will acknowledge there is no substitute for teaching face-to-face.

And of course there is the desire to be normal, even when everything is not.

Chairs are spaced apart for a staff meeting at Kalispell Middle School on August 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gene Marcille taught English in Columbia Falls for 35 years before abruptly retiring on Tuesday, Aug. 18, just six days before he was to report to work for year 36. The longtime high school coach and teacher pulled no punches when explaining a decision he would not have made were he more confident in the plan Columbia Falls High School has in place to keep him and his now-former co-workers safe.

“I’m 63 years old and I’m in decent shape,” he said. “But this is scary.”

Marcille knew a part-time teacher would be able to slide into his job to keep his retirement from causing too much of a disruption, and for that reason he is fortunate, he said, because through his former role as the president of the local teachers’ union and a regional representative to the statewide Montana Federation of Public Employees he knows he was not alone in feeling scared.

“I’m hearing from a lot of teachers that they’re really, really worried,” Marcille said.

Marcille, though, has seen the other side as well. While he believes a majority of the union members have some concerns about the district’s reopening plan, a not insignificant minority is itching to return to the building even with the risk of contracting COVID-19 or spreading the virus beyond school walls. And there are plenty of important reasons to bring teachers and students back into the building. Last spring showed the crucial role schools play in maintaining a functioning society, and every educator understands how vital the personal connections they build with students are to their jobs, arguably as important as any of the material they teach.

Weighing that, School District 6 adopted a plan similar to the rest of Flathead County’s districts, all of which collaborated over the summer. In Columbia Falls, students who choose to do so are attending five days a week. Families were given the option to have kids learn remotely but most, like in other districts, have indicated they will attend in-person.

In Kalispell, veteran teacher Marceline Maroney returned to work this week but not to her classroom at Glacier High School. Maroney will be one of a cadre of remote teachers who will operate the Remote Education Center (REC), a virtual school for the approximately 15 percent of Glacier and Flathead high school students who have chosen to learn remotely this fall.

“The joy of being in the classroom is what I’m going to miss desperately,” she said. “That camaraderie, I just love it, and I’m giving it up for a year.”

“(It was) a really hard decision and it actually wasn’t a decision made by me,” she continued, her voice cracking. “It was my grown children who were absolutely adamant when they found out there was a chance I could not be at school … How do you say no to your kids when they tell you that?”

Seaghan Herron will join Maroney as an English teacher at the REC and, like Maroney, asked to teach remotely. Unlike Maroney, though, Herron said the decision was not a difficult one, and not just because he has a medical condition that led his doctors to advise against a return to school. Herron and his wife have a son in elementary school, and regardless of Herron’s condition, he said his son would have stayed home, even if it meant his wife quitting her job.

“If you’re asking me to weigh taking a year out of my son’s social life to ensuring he stays healthy, there’s not really a competition there — it’s a no-brainer,” Herron said. “The virus is still temporary. He’ll get back to being social. He’ll get back to playing on the playground and back in class with his friends and his peers. Missing one semester of that is not going to damage a person their whole life, and having a respiratory illness can.”

Fifth-grade teacher Kylee Buck stands in her classroom at Rankin Elementary School in Kalispell on August 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With their positions set, the next challenge for Maroney and Herron is figuring out what remote teaching is going to look like. Last spring’s sudden switch forced teachers and students to adjust on the fly, and most districts dialed back their expectations of students in the midst of what Maroney called “crisis teaching.” At Glacier, for example, Herron said teachers were not allowed to give students a grade of lower than 59 percent on any assignment. In practice, it meant no students failed the fourth quarter last school year, all of which was online.

This year, Herron said, won’t be the same.

“A lot of kids just exploited it (last year),” he said. “Those are the things that the district has agreed to fix. The students are expected to show their faces and be in communication with their teachers. They’re expected to do a fair amount of work every week.”

The precise details of remote teaching, however, were still a work in progress as of Aug. 24. Remote high school students in Kalispell will not begin school until Sept. 8, and the two weeks between then and now will be used to refine a remote teaching plan, a plan that might be even more important if, but likely when, an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs in a school building.

“Hopefully, if we figure something out, we can help the rest of the district with what I assume is the eventuality that we’re done until cases in the county go down,” Herron said. “I think it’s a probability we close down and we’re going to have to go all remote, and (at that point) we will be able to affect some policy.”

Anthony Lapke, like Herron, is the father of school-aged children. The math and engineering teacher at Glacier has two sons who will be attending the school this year, and all three will be in the building. Lapke, who is also the vice president of the Kalispell teachers’ union and the coordinator of the summer school program, said his decision wasn’t made lightly, but in the end the desire for face-to-face interaction won out.

“Having experienced (last spring) from the parent point of view and the teacher point of view, seeing my students and my sons being back in school was very important,” Lapke said. “It was something that (my sons) missed. It just wasn’t the same. And the same thing goes for myself as a teacher.”

Returning to work, however, does not mean Lapke is unbothered by the prospect of the virus spreading. Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate went into effect midway through summer school, at which point Lapke mandated masks for students and took a firm stance on enforcement, telling the parents of a small number of uncooperative students, “we’re not going to debate it.” Lapke said the same will be true in his classroom this year.

“The more people buck against this, the more likelihood that there’s going to be test results going up and that’s going to send everybody home, and I don’t think anybody wants that,” he said. “If you want us to stay open, put (a mask) on. There’s no arguing it.”

As for what his classes will look like this fall, Lapke acknowledged much will have to change. Group work necessarily eliminates social distancing, and teachers like Lapke who enjoy meandering throughout their rooms and delivering one-on-one attention to students will have to think twice about the practice. Some curriculum adjustments will need to be made, too, especially if it involves a subject that should have been covered during the fourth quarter of last year. To adjust, Lapke is trying to shift more group-focused projects to the second semester when, potentially, the virus will be under greater control.

In the end, though, Lapke is most cognizant of the unknown. The district and the union, he said, are still working on a plan for what happens to teachers and classrooms forced to quarantine in the event of an outbreak, and at what point the risk of exposure becomes too high for schools to bear. He only hopes, for as long as is possible, that a return to normalcy lasts as long as it can.

“We want it to feel normal so bad but we don’t want to overdo it and put ourselves in a bad spot,” Lapke said. “I’m nervous about that, but I’m excited to see kids again and get all of that going, and I’m excited to work with my co-workers.”

“We all know how important the schools are to the community in so many ways,” he added. “Doing this right is absolutely paramount because of the ramifications if it doesn’t go right.”

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