Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Trials of Teaching: Overcoming Back-to-School Challenges in a Changed World

Covid-19 classroom anxiety hasn’t been all about the fear of getting sick. As the 2021 calendar turns, there is less cause for some types of anxiety. Others, though, are very much part of the back-to-school picture.

Covid-19 made classroom management more crucial than ever even as it upended how teachers manage their classrooms. Classrooms had varying levels of restriction in the 2020 – 2021 school year, with some going as far as no water bottles in the classroom.

Going into the 2021 – 2022 school year, the classroom safety issue hasn’t gone away. States and school districts have changed their requirements. In some, they are far from “business as usual”. Washington State has issued guidance that all individuals be masked indoors and that students sit three feet apart to the extent possible in most settings; ideally, they should be six feet apart in some settings (such as lunch rooms or classes where a high level of exhalation is likely to occur. Foot traffic is to be one way). Policy makers recognized that students would sometimes come within a set distance for brief periods of time.

Teaching Challenges

For some, the situation is pretty scary. Partly it’s because they feel a high level of responsibility for others.

A group of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut teachers told CBS their big issues going into the 2020 – 2021 school year. Among their big concerns was the risk of messing up. One mentioned the fear that a student would spread the disease and be “messed up” emotionally. (One, notably, worked at a school where there had been a death.)

With most older Americans vaccinated, there is less of a fear of a student spreading the disease to a vulnerable person. However, the fears haven’t completely gone away. Children in grades K-6 will be returning in 2021 unvaccinated. Many in the older grades will be, too -- by family choice. They will be returning at a time when there will likely concerns about new variants that spread more easily among children.

Some children are returning for the first time in more than a year. Some children are eating at school for the first time, having been on a split morning/ afternoon schedule.

One thing that may make it more difficult in the 2021 - 2022 school year: larger class sizes. Scheduling and social distancing issues sometimes led to very small classes during the spring of 2021. This meant that teachers could be responsive while restricting movement. They might have a chance to be a little more lax about some things, like talking.

Small Children in a World of Sanitation and Social Distancing

In early 2021, stakeholders were debating whether children should be spaced three feet apart or six. What sometimes got missed: Kindergartners and primary grade students are not objects that can be set three feet apart and left there; their ability to move still outpaces the ability to control those movements.

Classes for young children are often both social and physical: partner reading, rotating to math stations, playing together in afternoon center time, sitting at the rug with a partner, turning to talk before raising hands and sharing out. In some classes, partners raise their hands together, fingers interlocked. Yes, there can be unintended moments of contact.

Some teachers have relied on these activities as a form of classroom management, a way of keeping little ones productively engaged – and out of conflict. Contrast that with classrooms today. This is a challenging climate, and one that can foster burnout.

Sanitation has presented a challenge when some little ones don't know how to zip their own clothing, when many need help with lunch items: opening containers, unzipping bananas, inserting straws in drink containers.

Lines can be a challenge. Some young children are competitive about their place in line. It is a challenge for children to maintain distance in line even when they're diligently trying to keep their own space. Starting out three or six feet apart when they make their lines doesn't mean they know how to maintain that distance as they walk.

Many don’t know what three feet means.

The rules may be difficult to follow. But the alternative is more frightening yet.

Responding to the Situation

How can teachers respond?

They can taking advantage of those ‘honeymoon’ early days back in the classroom to teach routines. explicit has some tips for teaching of routines, including step by step modeling and multimodal practice ( ). The Responsive Classroom has long been a resource for teaching beginning of school routines in a positive manner (

Teachers can use short educational videos and tech to break up the monotony and keep kids moving – while staying near their desks. (Kindergarten teachers who haven’t met musician Jack Hartmann yet might want to meet him.) Teachers can show story books on the document camera so children can see them from their seats; they can even use books from online collections. They can seek help from their peers. Kindergarten and primary grade teachers share on blogs and social media how to keep children engaged in difficult times (

Teachers can elicit parent support. Parents may be encouraged to send their little ones to school in clothes that they can manage themselves with their lunches and snacks in containers that they can open themselves. It’s not just about social distancing. It’s about needing to maintain a calm attitude while looking in all directions -- and how it gets harder when one is tying laces, opening Thermoses, and trying to maneuver hands into mittens.

Parents can make it easier for their kids to follow the spirit of mask mandates and not just the letter. (Young children are not universally good at adjusting their masks, and many come to school wearing masks that are too large.)

Some districts will provide quite a bit of training and quite a few resources for creating community in challenging times. But there’s quite a bit of prepping to be done!