• Kathy Coudle-King

Back to School?

While others mourn the end of summer, I’ve always looked forward to it. The first day of school has always felt like New Year’s Day. A clean slate. (No one uses slates anymore, Kathy). A fresh page. (Most people use computer screens for writing). Okay – fine, a fresh start! That’s still a thing, right?

It’s my 47th year of school. I was a student for almost 21 years (I took the scenic route), and I’ve taught for 26. I have a 1st day of school outfit. (It’s cute.) I’ve got new, colorful pens, fresh highlighters, and my plastic folders – a different one for each of my classes. I even bought a very special pencil case that has glitter inside. I’m set. Except . . . I was told months ago that I should expect to do some form of "remote" education classes: Either entirely via the internet, or some combination of on campus and live internet delivery, the "hybrid" class. I chose hybrid. At least I'd be in the class with everyone once a week. Oh, and there would be no paper in my writing classes. Everything would be turned in and turned back online. Wait, what about journaling? I was going to do so much more with journaling. They can take a picture and upload a jpg. O -kay. Jpgs. Fine. Let’s do this!


There will be no paper books. Everything will be digital. No books? In an English class? Isn’t that kind of like, I don’t know, heresy? They’ll get a code. Okay, fine. No books. We will still be reading and discussing ideas. Yeah!


Then on Friday, I found out that while I could wear my 1st day of school outfit, pants were optional. Wait – what?


DO NOT PASS GO – GO DIRECTLY TO ZOOM. My program, probably like yours, is going on-line. Since Covid-19 numbers have spiked within the campus community, some programs will scrap the “hybrid” plans – at least for a few weeks. (Then "we'll see where we are.") We are going directly to Zoom.


I really hoped we could get a couple weeks of face-to-face (F2F) classes before we went to the zoomaroom and not just so I could wear my 1st day of school outfit. I wanted to meet my writing students F2F, get a sense of who they are in person, give them a sense of who I am. Look, I’m no Pollyanna. After producing The Shelter Plays two weeks ago, when we had to quarantine three actors/directors while they awaited their results, I knew that my time in the classroom with students would be limited. (All tested negative, but it took a week to get results.) Still, I’d hoped I could get a few classes in before Covid reared its ugly head on campus. DO NOT PASS GO – GO DIRECTLY TO ZOOM.

I wasn’t the only one who tried to proceed with cautious optimism. All summer, support staff measured the distance between desks, installed plexiglass onto podiums, stickered floors and doors to help control traffic flow. Maintenance staff installed hand sanitizing stations. The cleaning crews disinfected every surface they could find. Masks were ordered for staff & faculty with the school logo/mascot on them. Committees wrote and disseminated classroom protocols and required instructors and staff to review safety videos. The tech department installed web cams and microphones in classrooms. The dining hall staff figured out how best to serve staff and students on campus. Housing offered one-student/one-room dorm spaces. In the event of illness – and we know there will be illness – quarantine spaces were set up. So much energy was expended while the naysayers all shook their heads and argued we should just stay home.


But university admins all around the country held out hope we could make this work. There is so much at stake. Economically? Yes, and instead of sneering when you say the word, consider how a “college town” contributes to the town’s economy. Consider how already suffering small businesses, hanging on by a thread, will fare when the students don’t return to campus. Consider how higher ed has been under attack and pressured to cut budgets for decades. (Anyone remember when we were asked us to do it in the ‘90s? Then again in the 2000s?) Consider how tenured faculty positions are no longer valued. (“Why do ‘they’ get job security when no one else does?”) Consider how higher ed is often portrayed as an institution of liberal brainwashing. Consider how students bemoan taking general ed classes that “don’t relate to their major.” Consider that students are weighing whether a college degree is worth taking on student debt. Speaking of those students: Consider the students who worked hard to attend college. Some have dreamed of the college experience since they were young children. They studied when they could have partied. They worked when they could have played. Their parents saved and grandparents contributed. Consider all of the above – and so much more I have NOT considered -- and you will understand why so much energy was put into trying to create a safe return to campus this fall even when Covid deaths continue to rise. Our schools wanted to provide something hopeful to look forward to after the strangest summer since WW II.


DO NOT PASS GO – GO DIRECTLY TO ZOOM. Then came last week. We watched as the news reported one school after another going remote after they saw spikes in Covid cases. In Grand Forks, our own spike came. Then came the email: “It is strongly suggested . . . “

Who can argue with the numbers? I’m an optimist, but I’m not a masochist. I don’t want to get sick, nor do I want staff, students, or family to get sick. In Donald Trump’s oh, so inspiring words “It is what it is.”

So, Wednesday morning I will fire up my laptop, turn on my camera, make sure my microphone is on, and do my best to engage people who feel forced to take a college writing class because it’s a general ed class – or as we call it “Essential Studies.” (Reading, writing, critical thinking, and basic research skills are essential to the health of our nation and civilization – more than ever before.) I will wear my 1st day of school outfit. (Bra, too.)

*I will try to create a community of writers in 22 little boxes on a computer screen.

*I will try to get to know them as people so that I can help them grow as writers.

*I will find ways to make them feel like they are a part of a class.

*I will figure out ways for them to discuss their writing and give feedback to other students on their writing.

*I will try to remain upbeat.

I can do this. I got this. I am a teacher and teachers are made of tough stuff.

You got this,too. Parents of school-aged children -- you're going to get through. Day by day. Grandparents pinch hitting for parents who must continue to go to work. Thank you.

Teachers, we're going to do this.

You know why? Because education isn't optional. Education is Essential. We will do what we need to do. We'll zoom if we have to for right now but not forever. Just for now.

Let’s wear our masks. Let’s continue to social distance. Let’s follow the protocols. Until there are speedy test results, a treatment, a vaccine, let’s keep each other safe. Let’s act like our lives depend upon it --because they do. They really, really do.

Writing challenge: What do you remember about your first day of school? What did you wear? Do you remember your school bag? Lunch box? Were you excited? Frightened? Can you recall your teacher's name?

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Frances Perkins

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