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Radio Diaries: Teachers document their hopes and fears during the pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It has been a back-to-school season like no other, with some students and teachers returning to the classroom for the first time in over a year. With debates over in-person school, mask and vaccine mandates, educators have been given an especially hard assignment this fall.

ARIAM ABRAHAM: I actually asked my classes to raise their hand if they lost anyone to COVID. One of my classes was more than half of the room. It was just a sea of hands.

PENELOPE QUESADA: I don't want to carry the guilt of knowing that one of my students is very sick. That is my biggest fear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Ariam Abraham in Chicago and Penelope Quesada in Louisville. We asked teachers across the country to document the beginning of their school year. And NPR's Clare Lombardo asked them to share their hopes and fears during this historic time.

SARAH CASWELL: Our first day is tomorrow. I'm pretty much expecting chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASWELL: My name is Sarah Caswell. I am a special education and science teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in Philadelphia - a lot of anxiety, I mean, just a lot of anxiety about keeping kids safe, like with no social distancing, no capacity really to social distance. But I don't have wipes. I don't have cleaning supplies. I don't have - like, nothing. We've had two teachers who have literally just quit.

SEAN BUI: My name is Sean Bui. I'm a proud teacher at Cupertino High School. It's 7:21. Kids are about to roll in in about 40 minutes. They're going to walk in. And I'm going to say good morning in my loud voice that kind of echoes through the halls. They're not going to be awake enough to say good morning. They're going to be shy. I'm going to say, come on. Like, we haven't seen each other. I understand you're coming from a place that maybe this is a little hard. You're going (unintelligible). But let's - it's so exciting you're here.

QUESADA: Welcome to Semple. You had a good summer?

All right. Today's Day 1 of going back to school.

Good morning. How are you? Hello. This is Penelope Quesada from Semple Elementary. I teach music K through fifth grade.

My biggest worry is that I don't want any of my students to get sick. A lot of them - they don't eat well. They don't sleep well. They don't have the best living conditions, so I really think if they get sick, it's probably going to be bad.

KATY WRIGHT: Hi, this is Katy Wright. I am at Smith Elementary School in Helena, Mont. It's the first day of school. Oh, my gosh, I was so excited to see them this morning. They were so excited to see each other.

So it's our lunchtime. And we have the Wow In The World podcast on. And students are spread out around the room in their desks, eating.

Landon (ph), when you're all cleaned up, just stay at your desk and sit and listen.

The kids just have no trouble wearing masks. You know, I'm kind of like huffing and puffing a little bit. And the kids are just totally fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABRAHAM: Week one is officially done. And it is - it's so nice being in person and being back with the kids. I have sophomores who haven't been in school since they were eighth-graders. They are sophomores in high school talking about their sweet 16s. And they have not been in school since they were eighth-graders.

In terms of COVID, none of this makes sense. Every second, I'm having to ask students to put their masks on. I have two boys in particular, and they just cannot seem to keep their masks on. I don't know. It's only been a week, and I'm seeing how unprepared we are for this.

BRYCELL WILLIAMS: My name is Brycell Williams (ph), and I am a reading interventionist at Wayne Primary School (ph). Day 2 and 3 were a little bit better. The kids are adjusting. You know, we've got several teachers out who are quarantining. A lot of teachers also feel overwhelmed with just - we are moving too fast. You know, these babies that are in school now, they have been experiencing the pandemic. And it has brought a lot of trauma, a lot of social - you know, it's affecting them drastically.

BRANDON MORRISON: This is Brandon Morrison (ph), fifth-grade teacher in Guilford County, N.C. Today is Monday of Week 2, so I made it through a week of school. It was an interesting week. I will say it might have been one of the most difficult I've had in my career. I could see a mix of a lot of students who - for a lot of them, it's really become difficult to sustain focus. But I'm going to stay positive. Week 2 is here - new week, fresh start as I tell my students. We're going to make it work.

QUESADA: And we're doing our best, our best, our best to be safe. And that's why we are teachers because we care about them.

WRIGHT: To see how the self-confidence of these 6- to 9-year-olds, when they are doing work and work that feels meaningful to them, it's just - it's so - it's just so nice to be back in the classroom with the kids. I'm very happy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Sara Caswell, Sean Bui, Penelope Quesada, Katy Wright, Ariam Abraham, Brycell Williams and Brandon Morrison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.