teacher taking student temperature

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How teacher TikTok is making sense of school reopenings

The #schoolreopening tag on TikTok illustrates the chaos.

Jul 23, 2020, 9:30 pm*

Internet Culture

Audra Schroeder 

Audra Schroeder

The news is grim, so you might have passed right by stories about teachers spending their summers writing or updating their wills in response to school reopenings. The country is in the middle of a wildly unconfined pandemic, and now teachers are being nudged into the abyss.

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A Florida teachers union sued Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Department of Education this week, asking that the state “develop and implement an online instruction plan.” DeSantis previously suggested we can’t let “fear” keep schools from reopening. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson parroted the party line, stating on a radio show that students will get COVID but will “get over it,” apparently forgetting the adults that populate and run schools. Mike Pence said “CDC guidance” shouldn’t keep us from reopening schools. It’s wicked stuff.

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If you want a fuller picture of what teachers and educators are facing, the #schoolreopening hashtag on TikTok is a vivid rendering: Frustrated, underpaid teachers (and exhausted parents) trying to prepare for a worst-case scenario, or struggling with loosely implemented safety protocols, or just wondering what the plan is. In extreme cases, teachers used the music of Hamilton to channel their frustration.

One Texas teacher, bulk_n_beaucoup, posted a July 11 tweet from the Houston Independent School District benefits office about getting your will or trust prepared before the new school year, astounded at how plainly this major life event was framed. She cited the number of new positive cases on March 16, the day her school closed (seven), compared to now (as of July 22, Houston has more than 59,000 cases) and wondered how anyone could think that was safe.

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“TEA [Texas Education Agency] is treating us like babysitting martyrs for the economy,” she wrote in the video.

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A Colorado teacher, chrisphillipsjeter, parodied confusing emails from his school district: “Dear teachers, please be prepared to teach online. Or in person. Or both, simultaneously, while on a moving train, juggling, in a burning building under the sea, during a wrestling match with a T-Rex while riding a unicorn.” Other teachers used audio from creator austin_maguire satirizing states’ reopening plans in May to illustrate the lack of “plans to make plans” for schools just two months later. One Texas music educator, mrskennellhaschoir, used Jonathan Groff’s “What Comes Next?” from Hamilton to drive home the message: “You’re on your own.”

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Daniel Wall-DeSousa, a teacher at Heritage High School in Palm Bay, Florida, documented the futility of keeping 2,000 teenagers socially distanced, and the “bottleneck” of foot traffic schools see in the morning and afternoon. If distancing is only enforced inside the classroom, Wall-DeSousa points out, “We really haven’t done anything, have we?”

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Florida dad Luis Rivera pointed out the irony of school board members in his district having Zoom meetings to decide whether his kids should be back in classrooms. He tells the Daily Dot parents are being given the option of in-person or virtual schooling, and his kids will be doing the latter.

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Imagine spending spring and summer taking proper precautions, only to be pushed back into classrooms where the likelihood of transmission (even during a “normal” school year) is near certain. Jenn Ice, a special education teacher in Henderson, Nevada, recently wrote an open letter to the superintendent, voicing that concern: “I do not want to die from being forced into a situation that is preventable.” 

Elsewhere on TikTok, teachers measured their strengths—logic, patience, preparedness—against this administration’s severe lack.

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One Texas teacher, who goes by the_mrskelly on TikTok, said she’s “nervous” about going back as cases and deaths continue to surge across the state, though her district is also letting students decide on in-person or virtual classes.

“I believe that there is not a high number of COVID-19 cases for kids because kids are not in school right now,” she tells the Daily Dot. “We closed schools for a reason in March and with Texas being so high in cases, I don’t understand how returning is beneficial right now considering the potential health threat to students and teachers.”

Universities are also fumbling. The University of Texas-Austin already had one staff member die from COVID, but is proceeding with reopening—and football games!—while a nearby field hospital to treat COVID patients is delayed. According to the Texas Tribune, a student death from the virus would prompt a campus closure. Of course, by that time, it will have already spread into communities.

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College students also illustrated the muddled messaging they’re getting from schools. Rachel Dean spoofed the casual tone in a “live reenactment” of recent emails: “We want to bring you back to school but at the same time you could all die. But at the same time, we would make no money if you didn’t come back.” James Karsten used audio of Cardi B’s early pandemic speech imploring someone at the Pentagon to tell her what was going on.

@the.dean.dome

#pov you’re reading update emails from your college #LaughPause LegendaryChallenge #ChocolateRecipe #college #foryou #foryoupage #fyp

♬ original sound – the.dean.dome
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As the Atlantic details, blame is already being shifted to students for off-campus behavior during the summer, instead of governors who reopened their states too early and didn’t mandate masks until too late. Many teachers have resigned. There will likely be strikes. Dave Grohl recently penned a defense of teachers, drawn from his mother’s experience as a public school teacher, that gets at just how far removed from classrooms this administration is: “America’s teachers are caught in a trap, set by indecisive and conflicting sectors of failed leadership that have never been in their position and can’t possibly relate to the unique challenges they face.”

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While teachers are using TikTok to address their anxiety in humorous or creative ways, that shouldn’t take away their anger. Teachers are already expected to do their jobs with few to no resources. One video, from kindergarten teacher Amy Perry, shows how she’s already trying to come up with a plan for the inevitable: broken masks, fidgety kids. It’s just a TikTok, but it also reiterates how those insisting they go back couldn’t possibly relate.

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*First Published: Jul 24, 2020, 8:00 am