It’s been more than a year since we shifted to our virtual platform on Teams. Learners have acclimated to technology like fish to water, and it is sometimes educators who must keep stride with their hunger for new tech tools. We experienced a sense of satisfaction when we could persist with lessons online and believed that we were still giving the next generation a glimmer of normalcy in a complex pandemic scenario.
As time passed, children found their eyes straining and their focus diminishing. Although they attended the classes, facilitators find themselves speaking to display photos. No one talks back.
I had an eerie morning a few days ago when I logged into Teams at 9:00 am despite a bad night of anxiety. The pandemic appears to have taken over our lives and minds in this second wave, and I was up with worry thinking about my husband out at work and how we could remain safe in a dangerous world. The next morning, I did what any teacher would do. I slapped a smile on my face and welcomed my students as though nothing was wrong. For the first time in a year, no one responded. I hurriedly checked my internet connection and ascertained that all was well. A growing sense of worry gnawed deep in my belly as I saw only display pictures and blank screens before me. The teacher’s mantra of “Am I audible?” made its way out of my throat, and one kind soul answered that they could indeed hear me. Something was amuck and I couldn’t consider starting my lesson on this note.
I asked the young ones how their weekend had been, and a few subdued voices echoed the word ‘fine’. My third graders are eight years old, and I found their responses to be startlingly measured, almost adult-like. A few weeks ago, they had been giggling children, poking fun at each other, eagerly asking their teachers about the tasks set for the day. The anxiety surrounding my day began to compound. As an adult, I can suppress my worry and regulate it while reflecting on my choices and consequences in these pandemic times. I suddenly began to wonder, how many of us are asking our little ones if they are doing alright?
I invited the students to switch their cameras on so we could have a heart-to-heart. When I saw their faces pop up on the screen, there were tell-tale signs of events taking place in the quiet of their private lives. Dark circles under their eyes indicated to me that they were either up with worry about their family or were binging on electronic devices while they were being cared for by someone other than their mum or dad. Unfamiliar surroundings told me that they were not in the spot where they usually attended their classes. A lack of a pencil box and notebooks spoke volumes on how quickly they were ushered out of their homes. Coronavirus, in some form or the other, had crept into their lives and had infected them with fears, if not with the actual virus itself.
It hit home when one of my students confided in me this his parents were Covid + and he was wondering if they were going to die. They were quarantined in the same house, so he was barricaded away from them, looked after by lesser-known family members who mollycoddled him even though he knew the situation was dire. When he asked his parents through the door if they were alright, they said that they were fine and that he should not worry at all. He knew it was not true because he had heard them retching during the day and saw uneaten plates of food left outside the door. This child had been forced to grow up before his time and had nowhere to turn to voice his fears and anxieties as others made him feel like they were unfounded. I only wished that I had been there for him sooner.
My class of students began bubbling over with stories of how the pandemic had affected their homes. If it had not seeped into their homes yet, their friends’ houses had been shaken. I initiated speaking with them about statistics and telling them about recovery rates. A quote by Michael Marshall came to me at the time- “You can’t stop being afraid just by pretending everything that scares you isn’t there.” I found this to be the case as the students took turns to cry, console, and gorge on information that their parents had not given them.
The children in COVID touched households had been shuttled back and forth residences with only a few details about what the plan of action would be and how the situation was truly being handled. I urged my students to have an open line of communication with their parents as well as their teaching team. I had seen that the young ones in my class were displaying maturity far beyond their years as they had learned to bottle up their emotions to avoid upsetting the adults of the house. They had become exceptionally independent, even though this was at the cost of their childhood and their sense of security.
I have had numerous conversations with my husband behind closed doors on how to keep our children and other family members safe. We have weighed the pros and cons, talked about action plans in case we get infected and have prepared (to the best of our ability) how we will take care of ourselves in case we suffer from COVID. I reflected on how much of this discussion reached our children. They are keenly aware of what Coronavirus is, its lethality and in some households, the little ones know that the disease can be fatal. The youngest of the lot know of the grave consequences should a mask come off in public and are given dire consequences if they fail to wash their hands when they charge into the house after an outing. The fear of COVID has been successfully passed on by parents to children, or even through hearsay at the park. This was essential to keep everyone safe and on the same page when the fiasco began.
I cannot possibly speak for the various household dynamics that exist in this world. As an educator, I see signs of a struggle daily. Students confide in me because I lend them my ear without judgment or advice. I hear what they have to say and empathize with what they are going through. I cannot tell them that the journey won’t be tough, and perhaps this honesty is what they need.
Every parent knows their child best and knows their threshold for information. Bearing this in mind, every adult needs to be present to listen to their children, including their teachers. I can foresee troubled times for our young ones ahead in the sphere of academia as well as their social and emotional health. The most we can do for the next generation treat them with the maturity and responsibility that they are exhibiting. Speak to them about their fears and combat them with facts rather than brushing them aside. They have already seen more troubled times in the last year than we have in our entire lifetime, and we need to appreciate and respect their resilience.