Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Illustrations by Florencia Capella.

The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped everyone’s lives. For teachers, that has meant a new school year full of unknowns and readjustments: As some schools remain 100 percent remote, others are conducting classes in-person or doing a hybrid of both. That’s the case for Nikkina McKnight, who is a teacher of technology career education at Andrew Jackson High School, a public school in Kershaw, S.C.

We asked McKnight, 41, to keep a 30-day diary of what the first month of the school year has been like for her. This is McKnight’s 14th year teaching — but it’s like none other, as she manages partly online and partly in-person teaching. McKnight is also the president of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, as well as the mother of a 5-year-old son, Grayson, and a 10-month-old daughter, Logan.

We also asked readers from around the world to share their experiences teaching this year. You can read those responses at the end of the diary.

Day 1

Aug. 22

Well, today is my last Saturday before returning to school on Monday. We have been out since March 13 (what a day that was). I still haven’t wrapped my mind around going back into a school building with students. I will have a week to get myself together. My kids come back on Aug. 31, and I have no idea how many will be attending classes online, in-person or hybrid.

Anyway, today was a pretty good day. I spent the day with Grayson and Logan. We went to Earth Fare, a grocery store, to pick up some items. An older lady stopped us to tell Grayson thank you for being so brave and wearing his mask, and he replied, “You’re welcome, and thank you for wearing yours.”

Grayson playing with Logan. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
Grayson playing with Logan. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 2

Aug. 23

Logan slept all night! Me, not so much. I just had a lot on my mind. I watched church, which was much needed. After getting everyone settled in bed, I took some time to reflect, meditate and pray. I really am not looking forward to the beginning of this school year. Anxiety is really setting in.

Day 3

Aug. 24

Today was the first day of in-service work. Where do I begin? I dropped Logan off first at my mom’s house, and then G-Pop met me to get Grayson, and I headed to work. I got there around 8:30. I had a little pep talk along the way and took a mental pause. I pulled up to our campus, and it just felt different. I took another pause after I parked, put my mask on and headed to the check-in point. Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Copper, our principal and one of our assistant principals, were waiting for us, all smiles. I did the covid-19 questionnaire check-in and got my temperature taken. Every day, anyone who enters the buildings will be required to get their temperatures taken. When school officially starts, employees will be required to fill out the questionnaire online before leaving home from work each day, too.

They had sausage biscuits, bottled water and candy bags for us. But this is so not like Andrew Jackson High School. We usually have a spread on the first day of school. Mama Pardue, our administrative everything, usually has sweet tea waiting for us. I live for this sweet tea and anything else she brings for us. But today no sweet tea, and no spread!

We have some pretty heavy rules in place, so I headed off to my room. I was able to unmask there. We started our Google Meet faculty meeting shortly after, which was strange and funny at the same time. Here we are in a school together and meeting virtually. It feels like this can’t be life, but it is.

A welcome back sign at Andrew Jackson High School. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
A welcome back sign at Andrew Jackson High School. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 4

Aug. 25

OMG, what a day it has been. I should have known after I drove to two Taco Bells in two different towns for Cinnabon Delights (I love these things) and couldn’t get any.

On a much heavier note, there was another senseless shooting of an unarmed Black man by the police — Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. And there was a possible case of covid-19 in our extended family; another loved one found out some devastating news as well. I wish that I could just put my arms around everyone and keep them safe in a bubble.

Day 5

Aug. 26

Today was a lot better than yesterday. Still busy and a tad stressful, but better. I worked on transferring tests and quizzes to Google so that they can be uploaded to Google Classroom. Let’s just say it took me two hours to work on one test, only to learn that I couldn’t add more than maybe 30 questions. I could have thrown that laptop across the room. It’s so much to do. I also picked my safety items from the office: a big jug of hand sanitizer, two packs of alcohol wipes and five cloth masks. I can’t believe that this is what education and safety have come down to.

Day 6

Aug. 27

I’m always good until I have to attend some sort of virtual meeting. I am so overwhelmed, I feel like a hamster running in a wheel. An extra week just to get everything together would have been definitely appreciated, but kids are coming Monday and there’s no changing that. My friends will tell you I’m the optimistic one, but that optimism about this school year is slowly dwindling.

Day 7

Aug. 28

I don’t even want to talk about how I’m not ready for work on Monday. I have never been so unprepared for returning to my classroom since I started teaching in 2006. And I just learned that Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa in “Black Panther,” died. We lost our hero! Every little Black boy wanted to be the Black Panther, and every Black person really wanted our own Wakanda.

I just feel like 2020 is giving us all kinds of devastating blows.

Day 8

Aug. 29

Not much happened today, but South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) decided to fly the flags half-staff in honor of Chadwick Boseman, who was from our state.

Day 9

Aug. 30

Well, it’s the day before the first day of school. I’ve been trying not to think about it all day. I ventured out to Target to get a few things. I needed to go grocery shopping as well, but I have the little people with me, and taking them outside is definitely not an option, as hot as it is right now in South Carolina. Mac, my husband, should be home from a trip soon. We have definitely missed him.

Day 10

Aug. 31

Today was the big day, and what a long, busy day it was. Before my students arrived, I sprayed each table with the cleaning solution and wiped each one clean. I prayed for each student. My family and friends have been texting me throughout the day to check on me. Mrs. Miller, our principal, came around with a special little surprise: lemon-shaped cookies. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade! That made me smile. She’s the best.

Honestly, the in-person teaching was not the hard part. The kids wore their masks and followed the rules. But the building just seemed so melancholy.

The hardest part of the day was virtual teaching. You may have six in-person students in class, but 10 virtually, and you have to cater to everyone’s needs at the same time. Making sure everyone was logged in and that they could see and hear me was something else, too. Some students didn’t make it to the virtual classes, some students logged on for the right class but during the wrong period. Some virtual students showed up at school not realizing they were virtual (don’t ask me why, but they did). I did a lot of muting in between conversations with in-person students and virtual students. I definitely have to find a way to do them both flawlessly. I will figure it out soon. I have to — it’s the new normal.

I left work around 4:45 p.m. We went from getting out at 3:15 to getting out at 4:30. That makes for a very long day, especially because I have to drive for more than an hour to get home. After I picked up Gray and Logie, we got home around 6:30. I changed clothes, cooked dinner and took care of other mother mommy stuff.

A selfie on the first day of school. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
A selfie on the first day of school. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 11

Sept. 1

Today was a little better than yesterday. Somehow I managed to teach virtually and show the PowerPoint at the same time so my kids on Google Meet could see it. Winning! Now, if you asked me to show you how I did it, it ain’t happening. But give me another few days and I’ll figure it out ... at least that’s my wish.

One of the most difficult parts of the day is watching our kids at lunch. It is the worst. They can’t sit with their friends, there’s only one or two people (depending on the size) at a table, and they basically have to all sit facing the same direction. What’s even harder is seeing our special needs kids alone. It’s already tough enough for them; to see them in extra isolation is heartbreaking.

Mac fixed dinner tonight, thank you Jesus! Grilled hot dogs and french fries. I loved that gesture. All is well in my world if only for a little while.

Day 12

Sept. 2

Today was a slow day at school. Our students don’t come in on Wednesdays. I actually enjoyed that little break, and being able to get some work done was an added bonus. I could really get used to a four-day workweek.

Day 13

Sept. 3

Today the B (in-person) and D (virtual) students had their first day. I really can’t complain about my class sizes. They are really small, and I feel a little more comfortable with that. I’m still trying to get used to this double teaching though. Today just felt like the first day of school all over again.

I have asked permission of the school to take my kids outside for a few minutes halfway through class for a mask break. The students seem to appreciate that, and it really does help. Mental breaks are key for survival, and that’s exactly how school feels right now: like an episode of “Survivor.”

At one point, this classroom held 28-plus students. With new school rules in place, teachers can only have seven students inside at a time. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
At one point, this classroom held 28-plus students. With new school rules in place, teachers can only have seven students inside at a time. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 14

Sept. 4

Thank God I made it to Friday! This has been one of the longest first weeks back to school ever. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I am definitely ready for this long weekend. I’m sure the lakes and beaches will be packed. Unfortunately, I’m just worried they’ll have to put schools back under quarantine again after this long Labor Day weekend.

Day 15

Sept. 5

Today was an “OMG, it’s been a long week” type of Saturday. I only crossed one thing done off my to-do list, and I didn’t care one bit.

Day 16

Sept. 6

Today was another low-key day. I ventured out this morning to get my brows done. It’s always therapeutic to sit in Serena’s chair. Her salon is so quiet, peaceful, healthy and bright. I needed that moment in that chair.

I’m so glad I get an extra day off tomorrow. I made sure I turned my alarm off. I mean, I still have a 5-year-old and 10-month-old alarm clock, but that extra digital one can be silent.

Day 17

Sept. 7

We slept in, and I couldn’t have been more happy. Happy Labor Day to me! I’m a wife and a mommy, so I still labored today, but just a little. I got my hair done, too. That always makes me feel good and boosts my self-esteem.

Grayson starts kindergarten tomorrow. I can’t believe it! Time is really moving. I spent some time getting things ready for him. His teacher sent over a video of her reading them a book for the first day.

(Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
(Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 18

Sept. 8

Grayson’s big day was today! We got him up and ready for his first day of virtual kindergarten. I went in a little later today. I just wanted to be there for his first-day-of-school log-in moment. I even cried a little.

In other heartbreaking news, I learned of a young Black teacher in Columbia, S.C., who was diagnosed with covid-19 and died within days. She was only 28. That’s always a hard pill to swallow. Teachers are really being hit hard right now, and it just seems like the work keeps getting piled on, the criticism keeps coming and the pay … that’s another story. Prayers to her family and friends, and her school family.

Grayson told me he had a great day at school and “so did Daddy.” That made me smile and laugh. Daddy might have a different story. I appreciate Mac for taking on the role of dad/learning coach and working from home himself.

Day 19

Sept. 9

Another day to get some work done. These are so needed with all the work that is required of us now.

Day 20

Sept. 10

If there was one thing I can say I missed about not being with my students at school, it was the social interaction.

High-schoolers are hilarious. I got some really good laughs today. I needed that.

But then reality set back in, and extra work added on to an already long day is beyond exhausting. We had a virtual open house today. I was able to virtually meet with two parents and then lost connection. So frustrating. I’ll email everyone tomorrow and try to make some arrangements to speak with them.

That moment that I’ve been waiting for finally happened, that breakdown that has been churning since school started. I called my friend Tasha on my way home tonight. I don’t even think I let her say “hey” before the tears came. There is so much going on, and I just needed to get it out before I got home … and I did.

Melancholy hallways at Andrew Jackson High School. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
Melancholy hallways at Andrew Jackson High School. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 21

Sept. 11

Nineteen years ago today, I stood in my dorm room in Phelps Hall at Winthrop University and watched the twin towers fall to the ground. I will never forget that day. Now, some of the same people that stood side by side and cried together as one unified front have turned a blind eye to the newer terrorist attack on America: systemic racism. I will never understand.

Kathy, the executive director of our teachers’ association, called me today. It’s like she senses my teacher tiredness. We chatted for a little while about some of the things going on within the association. We have been fighting hard lately for teachers across the state.

Day 22

Sept. 12

I took the kids home to Camden, S.C. I needed the fresh country air and just some time away to clear my mind from the long workweek and from personal matters. Grayson and I rode the 4-wheelers at my dad’s house.

We went to grandma’s for the rest of the afternoon. She made my favorites: fried pork chop and skillet potatoes with sautéed onions and an ice cold Pepsi. Plus, she gave me the best gift ever: She took care of Grayson and Logan, so I could get a little break. I had the best nap ever.

My body is so tired. “Overwhelming” is just an understatement these days.

Day 23

Sept. 13

Tomorrow starts a new workweek. I’m trying to get mentally prepared. We have testing this week, and I’m curious to see how it’s going to work. I always attempt to go into the week optimistic, and this one won’t be any different. They did announce that all students in South Carolina will receive free lunch and breakfast. This is huge for our students, especially for those in need.

Day 24

Sept. 14

Today we “attempted” to give MAP testing, a series of tests that assess students’ growth and performance in certain areas. We were attempting to test English and math growth, and it was a disaster. I’m not sure if it was because schools across the state were all trying to test at the same time and that caused the server to go down, but whatever it was, it was a hot mess. Today wore me out.

I keep wondering what it’s like for other teachers and students across the country right now. I wonder if all teachers feel the way I feel: overworked and underpaid. Very underpaid.

I’m only one person doing the job of many, and the pile keeps getting higher and higher.

We spent some much-needed family time together and played Trouble. Game night with Grayson is funny. It felt good to just spend time together.

(Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
(Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 25

Sept. 15

I don’t know what it was, but everyone just seemed to be dragging at work today. I honestly think it’s the lack of interaction with co-workers. LaTasha, one of our school counselors, and I met outside (socially distant, of course) and just talked for a little while. I spent quite a bit of time in her office before the pandemic came and took over. I know the students’ mental health is important, but any adult working in a school setting right now needs some type of support as well. Mr. Miller, Mrs. Cooper and Mr. Phillips, our administrative team, are doing what they can to support us. And it is greatly appreciated.

Day 26

Sept. 16

Today was a productive workday, maybe the first I’ve had since school started. Life is definitely different now, and it weighs heavily on the mind.

I find myself wondering if things will ever get back to where they once were.

Day 27

Sept. 17

The rain is terrible today, and inside feels just as gloomy as outside. Our handful of kids in the building today are really, really quiet. I don’t think I’ve heard a sudden outburst of laughter since school started today. Actually, I don’t think I’ve heard an outburst of laughter since school started on Aug. 31. These kids are miserable! But I must say that I am proud of them for wearing their masks and sanitizing.

I’m home now, doing mommy and wife stuff. The day just doesn’t seem to end.

The view from the classroom during the rain. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)
The view from the classroom during the rain. (Courtesy of Nikkina McKnight)

Day 28

Sept. 18

Today was going pretty well until the Internet went down in my room. I honestly think I have the worst room in the school when it comes to Internet service. That definitely threw things off, but I made it work.

Day 29

Sept. 19

My team has been on it today, checking in on me. I guess they can sense my exhaustion. Every woman needs a good squad to stand behind her, and my squad is the best.

We lost another great person today. Rest easy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thank you for your service, your honesty, your truth.

Day 30

Sept. 20

It was an easy Sunday: crisp fall air, dinner in the crockpot, and no tension in my neck or shoulders. I know tomorrow will probably be a different story, but I’ll worry about that when it presents itself. I purposely tried to stay out of stores this weekend. I just needed a break from my mask, and I know tomorrow it will be back on in full effect again. I probably should have done a little work, but I needed these moments to just breathe.

We went for a walk around the neighborhood. It was perfect. Just the four of us in tune with nature. Tomorrow keeps inching closer and closer. I pray that this week runs a little more smoothly than last week and that grace is graciously given. Lord knows we are doing the best we can.

Heavy is the head that wears the teacher crown, and I will be adjusting mine in the morning.

We also asked readers what their experiences of teaching have been like, and we heard from women around the world. Here are some of the responses, lightly edited for length and clarity.

“Although it’s my 19th year in the school district, I feel like a first-year teacher. I haven’t mastered the equipment or developed a method to teach the combination of live and remote learners I have every day. My fear is that I cannot make the emotional and intellectual connections with my students to provide them with the education they deserve. My hope is that they’ll find a way to adapt anyway.”

Lisa Hess, 61, Amherst, N.Y.

“I’m a college professor, and this is my 10th year teaching. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed. While some of my classes are in person, I let students Zoom in instead if they so choose to keep the class spread out and allow those who are sick or in quarantine to attend. We’re expected to chase down students who go MIA and allow make-up work with what feels like almost no restrictions. I don’t mind doing it, but it’s getting overwhelming. Everyone is constantly hammering us on flexibility with students, but no one seems to care that faculty are drowning.”

Shannon McCarthy, 34, Warrensburg, Mo.

“What is working is that the kids are great and that most parents have been patient and gracious. We are all suffering through the ups and downs of technology together. What isn’t working is the mental exhaustion I feel at the end of each day and the constant lesson planning — planning lessons for face-to-face learning and independent learning. My fear is that the public opinion of a small but vocal group will outweigh the common sense and health statistics suggesting we should not go back in the building. Educators did not create this virus, yet we are getting put down for wanting to take care of ourselves and our families. I can’t teach anyone anything if I’m dead.”

Christie Jones, 45, Stafford, Va.

“My school is doing better than a lot of schools in L.A. — we met before school, started to brainstorm solutions and are in regular contact with 98 percent of students through classes and messaging. My school is a public, democratically run pilot school with 97 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. I am afraid students are falling behind in work, but I’m more afraid their families are struggling financially, and that students aren’t getting the stuff they can normally get through school or connected programs: food, feminine hygiene products, a safe place to study, sports, social connection, college classes, help on college applications, therapy, contraception, art supplies, technology, housing/legal advice and hands-on experience. I’m afraid that some teachers want to punish students who are falling behind in work, but the students might be falling behind because about 25% of our students are working right now, and another 40% are responsible for younger siblings or cousins during the day. I’m also afraid that the district or politicians are going to make students take standardized tests, then point to lower scores that result from all of these stressors and say, ‘See how bad virtual teaching is,’ instead of ‘Look how broken our whole system is.’”

Susannah Hall, 34, Los Angeles

“The main thing I wish people, parents especially, understood is that this is hard for us, too. We would much rather be with our students in the physical, tangible classroom, but everyone's safety is the most important aspect to consider. I know parents are frustrated beyond belief. We are, too. This is the opposite of ideal. We are doing the best we can.”

Autumn Gonzales, 43, Portland, Ore.

“I recently saw my first in-person students since March. It was so good to see them! It was very hard not to give hugs. Elbow bumps just aren’t the same. Teaching my remote students is the other huge challenge. When I have 12 children live in front of me and eight more in tiny boxes on a screen, giving everyone equal attention is nearly impossible. I fear I’ll miss a raised hand from a remote learner, and if they take a while to give a response due to Internet lag, the in-person students lose focus. Oh yeah, and I teach music, and we can’t sing. I know that it’s only a matter of time before a student, a colleague, or I will get the virus. The constant uncertainty causes anxiety. My emotions are on edge. But my kiddos need me to be a stabilizing force. I can’t collapse because they need me."

Becky Hall, 51, Mayfield, Ohio

“I’m an ESL teacher in France. My students are from 11 to 14 years old. School is in person. It was really hot in France over the past month. The masks did not help. We were all sweating and suffocating. The kids kept on pulling down their masks, so I had to repeat ‘mask on’ several times per kid and per class. I still have to repeat it now, even though fall has kicked off. I myself had trouble breathing with the mask. As a language teacher, I have to show my students how to pronounce the language. It is impossible with a mask. It is also hard to understand what they are saying because of the mask. When I ask them to repeat, they are usually ashamed because they think they made a mistake.”

Maëva Béguin-Way, 32, Béziers, France

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