When the pandemic forced US office workers, teachers and students of all levels to start socially distancing in March 2020, many people began using Zoom for the first time. We held meetings and classes on Zoom, had Zoomtails with friends, worried about Zoombombing, complained about Zoom fatigue. Most of us were faced with a simple substitution – when we might have traveled to meet people face to face, we now entered a Zoom room. Not so for K-12 teachers in many school districts, who were faced with a bewildering mixture of online and in-person classroom configurations instead.
Many school districts gave parents a choice--kids could go to school or be online. This was often a rolling choice. Parents could choose one option for a few weeks, and switch. Schools had to accommodate all this parental choice. I interviewed teachers all over the United States. Some will teach an in-person class, and then hop online for the next group of students. But all too often, teachers were expected to teach with half the class on Zoom and the other half in person in front of them.
Sometimes teachers teach online while the students physically present in their classroom attend other classes by Zoom, offered by teachers in other rooms in that school building. For teachers, classroom space bleeds into Zoom rooms – the boundary between the two is constantly shifting, challenging how people harness and direct attention.
The most confusing configuration is teachers who have to go to school to teach in empty classrooms – their students are all at home online. Why insist that teachers come to poorly ventilated schools? Why not treat every body as a potential viral vector? After hearing a handful of unsatisfying explanations, I now wonder if the crux of the matter is that teachers are role models for students, and role models of what it means to be a worker. When K-12 teachers are forced into such contorted work conditions, their students get a glimpse into what their working lives might contain – they too should expect as adults to obey dangerous edicts for a salary.