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My Fears as a Special Education Teacher Facing Back to School During COVID-19

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I have started limiting the news I follow and turning off the TV. As a person with an anxiety disorder, these times are the toughest of the tough.

One of the ways I cope on anxious days is through finding enjoyment and gratitude in my career as a teacher.

When I feel overwhelmed with angst, I think of the students I teach, and focus on the small things I can do to help them. Serving others helps me to bring my focus outwards, and the constant, self-based, fearful thoughts I can experience feel less intense, and even less important.

Unfortunately, as the days pass, and it becomes more evident that the coronavirus is here for the long run, I find my career is provoking anxiety of its own. As I hear people who have never stepped foot in a public school classroom demand that I return to my students in-person, my stomach twists in knots. Here is what I wish I could share with them, as a public school teacher of students with disabilities in a self-contained classroom:

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Dear Important Leaders and Decision Makers,

My heart aches for my students every day. I miss helping them shape their alphabet letters from play-doh. I miss helping them as they learn to greet me in morning circle time.

I miss helping my students with little things many of us take for granted. I tie their shoelaces. I post pictures in the restroom to help them remember how to turn on the light and flush the toilet. I give my students hugs and reassurance when the air conditioner kicks on and it is just too loud.

Dear leaders, I love my job. It brings me purpose.

I ask you though, how can you know we will be safe coming back?

How do I socially distance from my students who need their hands held on the way to the bus?

How do I teach my sweet student whose sense of touch is so sensitive that wearing a face mask would feel like sandpaper on their skin?

How do I keep my student’s hands clean when their self-soothing habit is near-constant thumb-sucking and body rocking?

How can I shield my medically fragile student from the risk of a life-threatening virus in a global pandemic?

We need help. We need support. In the year 2020, I feel that my job has shifted from educator to first-responder. I am grappling with the idea of teaching in a pandemic, identifying symptoms and the age of face shields and social distancing.

I am teaching in the new normal of “Code Red” drills, where we teach our students to hide and barricade in the classroom. I think about how I could defend my class in the event a mass shooter may enter. As a staff member, we learn what verbal signal over the PA system means “it really is a fire drill,” not a stranger sounding the alarm with malicious intent.

These are the questions I toss and turn with at night. Can I return to the classroom feeling this unprepared? How and when will school be a safe place again? How can I teach when we don’t feel safe?

The career I once turned to for moments of joy and gratitude has morphed into something different. As a person who manages my own mental health daily, how can I take this on? How can I teach my students to take this on? We need help.


A public school special education teacher who cares

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Halfpoint.

Originally published: July 15, 2020
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