The 'good enough year': Anxious teachers brace for a return to school

As they head back to class next week, some Minnesota educators say they’re far from ready to provide the instruction their students deserve

A woman with a face shield standing near bookshelves in a school library.
Media specialist Joy Ayu wears protective gear Wednesday at Jonathan Elementary in Chaska, Minn.
Courtesy of Joy Ayu

It wasn’t until this week that veteran high school math teacher Ternesha Burroughs learned that she would be remote teaching instead of hybrid. And just 11 days before welcoming students back, she was told that she would not be teaching just high school algebra, but middle school math as well — a level she hasn’t taught for several years. 

A woman smiling at the camera.
Ternesha Burroughs is an Osseo Area Schools high school math teacher.
Courtesy of Ternesha Burroughs

“That’s a lot of stress for someone to start their school year. I don’t care how long you’ve been teaching. That throws you back into the ‘Oh my goodness, this is like my first year of teaching,’” said Burroughs, who has been an educator for close to two decades.

She and many of her fellow Osseo Area Schools teachers and district administration advocated for a delay to the beginning of the school year. Last week, the board agreed. The district moved the start of the academic year back by one week and approved a plan to start all students in distance learning before transitioning to a hybrid model at the end of September. 

For Burroughs, the delay was a no-brainer. Between distance and hybrid learning this year, she and her colleagues are teaching new subjects, in new environments, on new platforms, with new public health restrictions. Launching into so much new territory with little to no time to prepare seemed ill-advised to Burroughs. 

“You don’t want to do that, not if you want quality education for your students,” Burroughs said. “We as educators, we scaffold. When there’s a new concept for students, we don’t just throw it at them all at once, [we] give them bits and pieces. We scaffold it so they can learn it, retain it. Why would you not do the same thing for a teacher?”

After Gov. Tim Walz in July announced his plan for the 2020-2021 academic year, Osseo Superintendent Cory McIntyre — like many Minnesota administrators — started trying to put together the puzzle pieces of new public health data and restrictions together with new teaching models and requests from parents, students and staff. 

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In a normal year, creating an entirely new learning model such as the district’s full-time learning academy would have taken a year to develop, McIntyre said. Osseo’s was crafted in about four weeks.

The uncertainty amid the pandemic “pushed many districts like us into giving assignments much, much, much later than we ever have before,” he said. “From a teacher perspective, I totally get their fear, their apprehension.” 

McIntyre is hoping the delayed start to the year in Osseo — the first day is now Sept. 14 — will give him and his team time to hire more staff and do more training before welcoming students back to class. 

But the ripple effects of new state guidelines and late decisions from districts are being felt beyond Osseo. All of Minnesota’s options for returning to school this year involve steep learning curves and little preparation time for teachers. Many instructors plunging into the unknown say they’re concerned about how well they’ll be able to balance keeping students safe while ensuring they actually learn this year. 

“Right now it just kind of feels like I have no idea what I’m doing,” said Maria Higueros-Canny, an instructor at Osseo Area Schools. 

She teaches elementary school students whose first language is not English. She knows she’ll be part of her district’s distance learning academy but still hasn’t been assigned a grade level and doesn’t know what classroom teachers she’ll be working with. 

A young child standing beside his mom working at a laptop.
Maria Higueros-Canny with her son, Alessandro, in Anoka, Minn., on Wednesday.
Courtesy of Maria Higueros-Canny

The teacher and mother of two said she usually thinks of herself as pretty laid-back. But lately, she’s been battling anxiety and insomnia, worried that this year will be a repeat of the chaos of last spring. 

She’s been teaching for 12 years and spends a lot of her time advocating for her students and their families, but when schools closed in March, she found herself doing even more than normal, trying to translate or find translators for her families. She’s nervous her district isn’t doing enough to get timely information to families and students in languages they understand. 

“At the end of the day we’re still going to try, I’m still going to try my absolute best to do whatever I can for my students and families,” Higueros-Canny said. “That will likely mean a lot of extra time and work, especially for my multilingual learner families to be able to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” 

Ultimately, she thinks the problems facing students and families this next year go far beyond what she or her district have the ability to solve. 

‘Good enough is fine’

Meanwhile in Eastern Carver County, district leaders have announced a return to learning that will include in-person options for elementary students and a hybrid option for middle school students. 

Joy Ayu is a media specialist at Jonathan Elementary School in Chaska where students are returning to full-time in-person learning starting next week. 

Ayu has mixed feelings about the plan.

“I’ve never seen kids this excited for a school year to start.” Ayu said. “To see those kids so excited to come back and to be there — I’m trying to kind of focus on that.” 

But there’s still a lot that Ayu feels is not in place to welcome students back. She has a face shield and mask. But just days before the start of classes, the district still has not installed a promised plexiglass sneeze guard meant to protect both her and the hundreds of elementary students she expects to visit her library and media center, Ayu said. She hopes it’ll be up before students come back to the building.

“Kindergarten in the beginning of the year is honestly like herding cats,” Ayu said. “With kindergarteners you have to physically move them because they’re distracted by everything. How am I going to do kindergarten without touching? That’s where I find it hard to wrap my brain around what this is going to look like.” 

Reworking her lesson plans to keep her students physically distanced goes against all Ayu’s training that emphasizes collaboration and engagement. 

For Ayu, delivering quality education while remaining safe in a pandemic often feels like trying to fulfill two objectives that are diametrically opposed to each other. 

She also gets frustrated by messages she hears from parents and politicians on social media. 

“The message now is ‘Get back in classrooms, you signed up for this.’ That’s really hard to hear,” Ayu said. “We want the best for our students, and I’m a parent and I understand ... but where’s the support now?”

Other teachers in the district are facing different challenges. 

A person holding a yard stick in a classroom.
Science teacher MJ Nairn stands in her classroom at Chaska Middle School West in Chaska, Minn., on Monday.
Courtesy of MJ Nairn

MJ Nairn, a science teacher at Chaska Middle School, is a few days out from launching her students into hybrid learning. She’s spent time in the last week making trips to the dollar store and craft store to prepare her classroom, and moving desks to make sure they’re 6 feet apart. She’s also devoted time to training sessions provided by her district to better understand the computer applications she’ll be required to use. 

She’s excited to see her students in person, but still feels far from ready.

For Nairn, the hybrid model means she has two cohorts of students and has to plan both in-person and distance options for all of her lessons simultaneously. And that’s on top of other details like learning new curriculum, masking protocols, attendance, schedules, technology and new communication documents to keep hundreds of students and parents informed. 

“I’m just about ready to crack,” she said. “I just have felt so very overwhelmed.” 

Nairn’s district has chosen to start the school year on time. And while she and her colleagues have doubts about being able to provide the quality of education they want to with little time to prepare or train, she’s determined to do her best. 

“We all hold ourselves to high standards, but this has to be the good enough year,” Nairn said. “Number one in my mind is keeping kids and me safe. ... Whatever we do, it just needs to be good enough. Good enough is fine.”