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Our reporters are spending the year listening to people from across the country who are involved in their local public schools in one way or another. This winter, we talked to a parent in Cleveland, a superintendent in Wyoming and a basketball coach in New Mexico among more than a dozen others.

What we heard was that January 2022 proved to be one of the most challenging months of the pandemic yet in many school districts as they were forced to close schools that could not operate safely due to stunningly high staff absence rates. As omicron infections ran rampant across the country, students lost much of another month of learning. But most of them kept showing up as much as they could.

“I don’t know if we’ve learned anything,” Ben Lawson, a band and choir teacher in Oregon, told us. “But I do have plenty of students and teachers that aren’t willing to just stop and aren’t willing to quit.”

As the spike in infection rates subsides in most of the country and mask mandates continue to drop away, educators, students and parents are wading into yet another phase of pandemic learning. There is cautious hope that it may be the last. In the meantime, as Maranda Seawood, a student support specialist in Arkansas put it, “the juggle is real.”

Here are some voices from our second round of interviews, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity:

(Data note: County vaccination rates are for people age 5 and older and were pulled from The New York Times’ vaccination tracker on February 21, 2022.)

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

  • 198,645 students
  • 52 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic
  • 72 percent vaccinated

With so many staff members falling sick due to omicron, 91 Philadelphia schools temporarily shifted to remote learning in early January. Even before the latest virus surge, some district schools faced severe staffing shortages. The city set a record for the number of homicides last year, and frequent gun violence is keeping some students from classrooms.

Anna Phelan, kindergarten teacher at Overbrook Educational Center in Philadelphia

We went virtual the day before winter break. We were supposed to have our gingerbread house making party, and we had a scavenger hunt planned and a Polar Express party planned. And we went virtual at the last minute. I was so upset. Then I thought, ‘OK, we will do it right after break, it’ll be a welcome back party.’ Then we found out late that night that we were going to be virtual again. Now, I think, if it happens, great, but I need to stop getting excited just to get my hopes dashed.

“[My kindergarten students] are thick-skinned, even though I don’t think they should have to be as thick-skinned as they are.”

Anna Phelan, kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia

What’s keeping me going is thinking about April of last year. We did get through it. Even though hybrid was kind of terrible, it was still something. And seeing the strength of students and how excited they get to learn. Even though I personally do not like teaching virtually, seeing them still enjoy learning, even in what I think is a god awful way of learning, seeing them happy to learn this way, I think, ‘If you are happy, I am happy.’ They are thick-skinned even though I don’t think they should have to be as thick-skinned as they are.

Sharahn Santana, African American history and English teacher at Parkway Northwest High School 

Before, if something was due on the 13th, it was due on the 13th. Now, hard deadlines, they really don’t even exist, to be honest with you. The deadlines have to be soft because you have to consider what is going on with students mentally, physically, their family. And you have to have a lot of patience and update grades as they get assignments in to you, you have to grade them in real time.

It feels like the necessary and right thing. … The whole world has changed in that regard. We are preparing our students for the world we live in. Nowadays if you say, ‘Oh, you have to have something done at this time,’ and not consider that someone’s child may have had Covid. Everyone in my household has had Covid. I’ve had to take care of them. We’ve all had to take off work at different times to take care of each other. That is a part of the new normal. Extending that empathy to our students and their family is in fact preparing them for the world we do live in.

William Hite, superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools

The uncertainty is the most difficult thing I’m facing. The uncertainty of surges, virtual vs. in person, the staffing. It all causes a great deal of uncertainty when school districts are typically organized with a great deal of certainty. The calendars are done ahead of time. Individuals know when their holidays are. You have individuals to come and support if individuals go out sick.

William Hite is stepping down from his role as Philadelphia superintendent later this year. He has been with the district since June 2012. Credit: Image provided by the School District of Philadelphia

Eighteen months of virtual worked for some students. For others it was an absolute turnoff. Trying to recover from that is what we are working really hard to do. If we don’t recover, children will just find other options, whether it is work, whether it is whatever is happening in their communities.

Our work now is to come up with something that is better than what individuals left prior to the pandemic. With all the investments from ESSER, ESSER II and CARES, here’s an opportunity to rethink and redo what an educational experience is, particularly for our high schoolers, and think differently about time, think differently about those institutional barriers like hours, courses, Carnegie credits. We need to think about all of those things very differently than we have in the past.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS

  • 10,400 students
  • 66 percent of students are white, 12 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Black
  • 58 percent vaccinated

In early January, so many classroom teachers were absent that most of the Fayetteville Public School district’s administrators were standing in as substitute teachers. On January 13, the district was forced to go remote for the first time in many months. By February 10, the total number of active cases among staff was down to 10 out of 1,463 employees. The number of recovered cases for staff stood at 335, meaning that nearly a quarter (23 percent) of school staff have had Covid and recovered since the district began tracking. Despite the closures, attendance remained relatively high, at 91 percent, in January.

Evan Garner, father of four and rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

We FaceTimed on the phone while I ate dinner in my bedroom [where I was isolating after an exposure] and they ate dinner at the dinner table. Today was the first day that our kids had to get up and get ready to go to school without my assistance. It’s hard on [my partner ]. I can hear from the bedroom when it’s hard on her and on them. Thankfully — I know it sounds like something silly — but, it’s a little warmer today and so two of our kids were able to walk to school, so that relieved that pressure.

We got an email from the superintendent of our local schools, that our plan is to continue to meet in person, but it is possible that that would change and the fact that the superintendent is even naming that as a possibility, let all of us know that it’s real.

What we’re having to cope with is not knowing. Cases are rising so quickly. And public discourse doesn’t seem to have changed any. In fact, that seems to be hardening.

My coping mechanism to respond to some of the uncertainty in the larger system is appealing to government or quasi government agencies as well as personal physicians that can help me just know that I’m doing the right thing.

Maranda Seawood, student support specialist at Washington Elementary School

There have been so many people in and out because of the quarantining … I might have two kids out, so I have to create some new lessons for these kids. And then by the time those kids come back, you have other ones out. You have to create another lesson for the next week for those kids.

So it’s a juggle. The juggle is real.

We have a [half hour] block of time every day called WIN. The acronym is for What I Need. We are actually using that time to try to intervene whether it’s in class, whether it’s an essential skill that they need if they’re struggling. We check their grade level and look at the scores and see what their needs are. What we’re learning is that block of time is very essential to us.

I’ve been pushing for teachers to take care of themselves. It never ends. There’s no break. There’s no weekend breaks. You have papers and there’s always something. I will tell any teacher this, anyone in education: Take care of yourself. You can’t take care of anyone else if you can’t take of yourself first. When the weekend comes, you have to take care of yourself and your family and let the school go.

It’s hard. But everyone’s tired. I hoped things would be different and Covid would be going away. The hard part isn’t even the Covid, it’s working around it.

Steven Weber, associate superintendent for teaching and learning for the Fayetteville Public Schools

At one point we had all three administrators out in one school. They were out for Covid or their children were in quarantine. And we had over half of the staff out. When we started getting those kinds of numbers in more than one school it became a safety concern — for lunch duty, hallway duty. You can’t have 26 substitutes doing duties that the regular staff do — they don’t know what to look for and where to go to stand on duty time.

We talked about 10 percent or 15 percent… What number should we have before we make a decision and you can’t really do that because [it’s different] for a school of 200 students versus a school of 2,500 students? We were watching carefully, and schools were giving us updates and we just reached the point [on January 13] where we felt like it would be safer to have students at home.

Steven Weber, associate superintendent for teaching and learning in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Credit: Terra Fondriest for The Hechinger Report

There’s some fatigue with educators I haven’t seen in the past. I think when we were going into August of this year, people felt like we were going to be able to return to normal and do a lot of things like field trips. There was a roller coaster between August and December. Then during the December break in Arkansas, there was a spike in the numbers and every day, they get higher.

It’s hard to teach class when 50 percent of your kids are absent. They’re out for five days and then they come back and they’re behind. Now another group of kids are absent, or the teachers are absent. Disrupting the daily routine makes it difficult for the students to learn and makes it difficult for teachers to teach all the different levels of readiness levels in the classroom.

It’s a stressful time but anyone working with kids is still being positive. Adults are frustrated and stressed and tired, but when it comes to being at school, they’re very positive for the kids.

FREMONT COUNTY, WYOMING

  • 400 students
  • 66 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Native American
  • 64 percent vaccinated

Schools in Fremont County — and throughout most of Wyoming — continued to stay open through the winter’s omicron surge. Average daily attendance in January was 86 percent, with many students quarantining. The district has seen an enrollment bump of 25 percent this school year, said Superintendent Troy Zickefoose. Revised mask guidelines from the state, price hikes on meat for school meals and a scarcity of applicants for job openings are among the challenges for this small Western school district.

Troy Zickefoose, superintendent of Fremont County School District #6

Covid’s still a battle. We changed our protocol to follow the new CDC guidelines with the five-day quarantines. At the same time, our state was working on its protocol. They sent new guidelines on Jan. 5, which seemed more student friendly [than the CDC’s]. Wyoming’s guidelines ask — never demand — that we enforce masks, but students can remove them for artistic or athletic activities. Then we ran into an issue with the high school girls basketball team all quarantined. And boys basketball. And boys wrestling.

Troy Zickefoose, Fremont County, Wyoming Credit: Image provided Troy Zickefoose by

We’re still keeping kids in school. That has been huge. Enrollment is up a bit from last year, and kids and parents, they want to be here. We gained 130 kids. Out of a district of about 395, that’s a definite success.

Hiring will be the challenge in the next three months. Our assistant principal/AD [activities director] resigned. We’ve only seen a handful of applicants. I don’t know how many are even certified. We have no Spanish as a high school elective, no foreign language at all, so we’ll be trying to hire for that. We just don’t have a lot of applicants. We’re a small, rural school. There’s no reason to drive to or through Pavillion. Last year, we posted three positions and got four applicants. It’s just hard to get people to move out here.

Right now, with lunches and breakfast still being free with some of the CARES Act money, you still run into situations where you want to do something different for a meal. You actually want to give a kid a good meal. But beef’s expensive everywhere right now. Everything’s expensive right now. Just go to the grocery store. We live in a farm and ranch community. If people are going to cull their herd or they have a dry cow and they’re done with it, we’ll take it. Even if it’s an old bull, we’ll turn the whole thing into hamburger. It definitely helps with our food services. Considering where we live, it seems like the right way to ask for help.

Rory Robinson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe

My club serves four different school districts [including #6]. They’re all rural, but very Native. A lot of our kids live with grandparents, and that’s been my biggest concern. I wish I kept notes, but maybe close to April 2020, I realized this wouldn’t be so hard on kids. At the same time, multigenerational households or grandma and grandpa raising them…we shut down the club out of concern for them. We didn’t open up for regular club until June 2021. And since we opened, we haven’t even had one case traced back to us. They’re talking about shutting things down again, and I’m like, really?

The reservation schools stayed virtual, but we have terrible infrastructure. So we convinced them to let us have kids come and use computers — only four kids at a time, or up to eight from one household. We had a tutor. Our school districts provided Chromebooks. We didn’t have wireless but used Covid funds to put that in and started advertising that we’re open for tutoring.

Rory Robinson, Fremont County, Wyoming Credit: Image provided by Rory Robinson

We had maybe 12 kids a day coming by October. In normal times, average daily attendance is about twice that. We got stalled at 12, and then that started going down.

Our kids are already one to two years behind. Around November, I go to tribal council and say, “This is a big problem, and I know you’re scared of Covid. But the problem you’ll face in two years, five years, 10 years with all these kids not learning. This gap will never get smaller.”

We are really underwater here.

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND

  • 128,777 students
  • 55 percent Black, 36 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white, 3 percent Asian
  • 77 percent vaccinated

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus spread rapidly through the D.C. metropolitan area, Prince George’s County took an unusual step among the suburban districts: over the winter break, the district’s chief executive officer, Monica Goldson, decided to revert to all-virtual learning until Jan. 18., rather than return to in-person learning on Jan. 3 as originally planned. The case rates were causing significant disruption and anxiety, Goldson said. Later that month, the district ended a full-time virtual program that it had made available to more than 10,000 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Alvaro Ceron-Ruiz, 16, junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and student member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education.

It was a pretty interesting experience returning to that virtual setting. I know for a lot of students, they didn’t like it the first time around. And then when it came the second time around, they wanted it to be over.

A lot of students were feeling bombarded, because two weeks [after the return to in-person learning] was the end of the quarter, grades were being put in. A lot of students were feeling stressed, I was feeling stressed, coming back and being expected to recall everything you learned in a virtual setting.

But dealing with the Covid cases, with the ‘close contact’ letters and all that, I think it was the best decision [to close.]  We had numbers coming from all over.

For me personally, what has always helped me has been organization—using my schedule and my calendar. And right after school, I take some of that time for relaxing, personally taking that time just like 30 minutes to myself is helpful.

What’s been said is that since omicron is becoming more of a cold in a sense, the worry about it being a pandemic has been lessening. I’m hoping that we stay in school and that seniors aren’t robbed of a graduation and a prom again.

Monica Rodriguez, mother of two 

I’ve been on the principal’s heels and I have a great rapport with my son’s teachers. I began talking with them, asking what the process was in school. One of the teachers, I have her personal cell phone number. She is the one I was most comfortable talking to, knowing that she would give me the truth. I knew that in taking every precaution to protect herself, she would take every precaution to protect my son.

My concern is, I have an honor roll student and he gets principal awards every quarter, and I didn’t want to make decisions solely out of fear. It turns out after much prayer and talking with the principal, we’ve decided comfortably to send him back to in-person learning.

There’s no guarantee that he’s not going to come in contact with someone with Covid.

I’ve had to have those conversations, in talking with his principal, that when my son is at school, he is the most important person there. I need you to understand, the same way I’m the squeaky wheel about his education, I’m going to be on you guys about his safety.

My eighth grader, he does not possess the ability to be at middle school with almost 40 kids in his classroom and focus. The pandemic was the best thing that could have happened for him. He is getting As and Bs, and that wasn’t happening with in-person learning. If he wants to return to in person learning for 9th grade it is solely dependent on his performance in eighth grade virtual learning.

I don’t believe in sugar coating anything. I wish all parents were like that. We all know our children better than anyone.

REDMOND, OREGON

  • 7,469 students
  • 76 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Hispanic
  • 72 percent vaccinated

Redmond schools stayed open in the early weeks of 2022, despite high absenteeism among students (average daily attendance was at 86 percent in January) and staff as the coronavirus surged. The district was also able to reinstate bus routes it had canceled in the fall due to staffing shortages. But ire over masks in this small city, surrounded by ranch lands, reached a boiling point and the school board voted to make masks optional in Redmond schools starting on March 2. (The indoor mask mandate in Oregon is set to expire on March 31, but individual school districts can decide to keep masking rules in place.)

Judy Pickens, community liaison and Spanish-language interpreter

So this year, there are older kids who are not coming to school because they’re taking care of the kids who don’t get to go to daycare [when it’s closed due to Covid]. And then we have the new kids – they never went to kindergarten and started in first grade, so they come in here and they didn’t develop basic skills to start in school.

We have students there right now…they’re not talking one language or the other, just mumbling. [Teachers] call me and say, “Judy, can you tell us if he’s really saying something? Because in English, we don’t understand.”

Mouth shape cards that are used to form different letter sounds are attached to a white board. Credit: Terra Fondriest for The Hechinger Report

And also now, they cry all day, because they don’t want to be here. They’re not used to leave home, leave mom, at all. It is difficult for the teachers to have a kid that is disrupting the whole classroom.

They’re getting food in school, you know, twice a day. And then they go home in the afternoon. So I see more people are getting in the routine. And I see people are celebrating. I mean, you know, Quinceñeras, weddings, birthdays and baptisms. The kids tell us. So they’re relaxed now. They feel like they’re safe.

Everyone brings a different story of struggles. We have wonderful, wonderful families here in Redmond. And not everyone [in the Latino community] is the same. We might look, we might sound the same, but we’re not. We all have our struggles and stories. Some are beautiful stories. Some of them are really sad. But at the end, we celebrate.

Ben Lawson, band and choir teacher

Just my class time, like the 70 minutes I have in each class, that’s fine. The kids are acting almost like normal. And they’re working, and they’re trying, and they’re doing a good job. But, like, going on field trips, busing, all those things are a struggle.

Ben Lawson is the band and chorus teacher at Redmond High School in central Oregon. Credit: Image provided by Ben Lawson

So Oregon State has a policy that everyone [participating in an upcoming band festival] has to be vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID test. I need to figure out how can I get my group there, but I can’t go around or just ask each kid, “are you vaccinated?” I have to work through the school nurse and the district office for them to collect those names. And then they might not have enough tests, or I might have to arrange for the kids to get outside testing. And just this whole other layer to get out of the building. And that’s assuming that I actually get a driver.

I mean, everybody’s kind of messed up right now. It’s like, you’re locked at home for 18 months, and you haven’t had to work on a schedule, you could show up to class whenever you wanted to. This could be the generation of kids that weren’t held accountable, that weren’t held to the same standards, were given a free ride or a free pass on some things. And they aren’t seeing why you work so hard. They’re not getting the rewards. Talking about all these [bend festival] events: We work. We spent all this time rehearsing to go to an event because it’s fun and exciting and to get feedback. But the kids haven’t experienced that.

Maybe it’s just that I’m only willing to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just gonna keep on going towards that direction whether it’s there or not. I’m a 42-year-old music teacher. My skills are very specific. I teach teenagers to play music.

Yoselin Viramontes, English language development instructor

Although we just came back from [winter] break, it really feels that our students still need some healing time.

I just started teaching this September. I try to get a lot of my work done at school. So that when I’m home, I can do some self-care. I love to go on walks and kind of decompress. I love spending time with my dogs. And I really tried to give myself grace, and just take it one day at a time. And I do a lot of positive self-talk. I say to myself: ‘It’s not the end of the world. You’ll get through it.’

Yoselin Viramontes is an English Language Instructor and first year teacher in Redmond, Oregon. She grew up in Redmond and previously served as a district translator. Credit: Image provided by Yoselin Viramontes

Some of our students, and especially the students that I serve, have to come home to a very complex home life. And I understand where they come from because I’ve lived it firsthand. I came to this country at a very young age, but I still [had] very traditional Mexican parents. And so it’s definitely about being empathetic with our students.

Our high school definitely brought light to [the emotional and social needs of students] the first two weeks. But I really think that after a year and a half, two weeks doesn’t really cut it. As educators, we also have this pressure of having to cover this material and making sure that our students are academically where they should be. But the reality is that they’re not there emotionally or mentally or academically.

And it’s hard to see an end, right? So it makes me worry about what direction we’re going to take. And I really hope that we learned to put their mental health and their emotional well-being first.

CLEVELAND, OHIO

  • 36,000 students
  • 64 percent Black, nearly 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white
  • 68 percent vaccinated

The high-poverty district of roughly 36,000 students was hit hard by the omicron variant and returned to virtual learning for part of January. The district had planned to move toward competency-based education, invest in the arts and social and emotional learning, and introduce new earn-and-learn opportunities as ways to reengage students post-pandemic. But some of that work had to be put on hold as the virus continued its spread. Average daily attendance was down to 74 percent in January. The district’s enrollment recovered somewhat from the 2020-21 school year but has yet to achieve pre-pandemic levels.

Jessica Boiner, mother of two and home-based child care provider

What’s keeping me going is that I have to pay bills and being a mother is important to me. I don’t want to fail my children or my family. I just don’t.

My daughter is going to a private school this year. She’s four. Before the pandemic, it was not high on my list; I was going to send her to public school. But I can see how much confidence she’s gained just being there. It’s easier for that school to create a sense of community with students and parents than it is for the public school my son attends. It’s expensive, but I’m going to try to keep sending her there if I can.

“I don’t want to fail my children or my family. I just don’t.”

Jessica Boiner, mother of two in Cleveland, Ohio

My son has been doing really well at his school though. At first, when I received the email and then the call from the Cleveland schools saying they were going back remote, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was nervous, because even though he does well remotely, that in-school piece is very, very necessary for him. His teachers are very good at saying, ‘How about you ask a friend if he wants to play?’ I don’t want him to miss out on that, and I can tell when he sees his classmates, he’s excited. But we are coping pretty well. He did well at home. They haven’t had a tremendous amount of cases at the school he attends and we’re doing okay.

Eric Gordon, CEO, Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Cleveland became ground zero for the omicron explosion during the last couple of weeks of December… We had to close schools because we had too many people quarantined or calling in sick. I’m actually working on site at a building now as the on-site administrator because we have too few personnel … [I have been responding with] a lot of bounded optimism. Nobody wants Pollyanna in a world that they don’t believe is bright but they do want to be reassured that things are going to be OK.

Our attendance has not come anywhere close to recovering to pre-pandemic attendance patterns. It looks much more like the attendance patterns we saw in remote and hybrid. I took that to my student advisory committee to say, I know what’s happening, I don’t know why. And one of the four core reasons that they said students are missing a lot of school is that they are still responsible for caring for their families.

Eric Gordon, who leads the Cleveland school district, has been pitching in answering phones and finding other ways to help plug the district’s staff shortage. Credit: Image provided by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District

They are still working, they are babysitting their brothers, sisters, cousins, and that causes students to miss school. We are still seeing the impact of family need. Family need is driving legitimate decisions that disrupt school.

We’re going to have to be a lot more nimble, particularly at the high school level. School has got to be worth it. Pre-pandemic students tolerated a lot more. It has got to be truly engaging. The days of the strategic compliance, ‘I’ll take the five AP classes because I know it’s the smart thing to do,’ is just simply not going to be enough anymore. Or in urban communities it’s often a more ritualistic compliance, ‘I have to go to school, I’ll get through it.’ I think those days are gone, and I think it’s really going to challenge us as educators that we’ve got to make school really worth it.

GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA

  • 76,601 students
  • 51 percent white, 23 percent Black, 17 percent Hispanic
  • 58 percent vaccinated

Greenville County Schools is the largest school district in South Carolina. The district operated on a hybrid schedule during the 2020-21 school year because of the spread of Covid-19 in the community. Greenville schools have operated on a normal schedule this school year, with student attendance at 92 percent in January. A proviso passed by the state legislature last year only allows schools five eLearning days for the year.

*Editor’s note: Greenville was not featured in our first installment of this project. It replaces another South Carolina district, Richland County.

Betsy Bloodworth, mother of one

We’ve been pretty cautious. We don’t eat in restaurants. We only eat at home. We’ll do take-out and things like that. We only go out when we’re wearing masks. We don’t go around people that are not in our family without being in masks. I have made our carpool kids wear masks in the car, because we’re in the car for 20 minutes together in very close quarters, and one of them is not vaccinated. And the vaccine matters, but you have plenty of people who are still getting sick, even that are vaccinated. So, you know, we have those kinds of things, but again, that’s not really a substantial change from the way we’ve been managing things all along.

“…all I can do is take care of my family and make the decisions that I’m comfortable with.”

Betsy Bloodworth, mother in Greeneville, South Carolina

It feels sustainable, to an extent. I think I’ve kind of gotten used to the things that I’ve learned about people that I didn’t want to know. It’s even family members and close friends and neighbors, and I’ve just had to come to accept that. A lot of people are not gonna be on board with this, and all I can do is take care of my family and make the decisions that I’m comfortable with.

And you know, that’s just the way it is. I think I’m in as good a place with that as I can be mentally. I’ve had a lot of times when I’ve been highly frustrated with it. And maybe I’ve just reached the point of giving up. Because I realized that there’s some people that no matter what evidence you present to them or tell them, they’re going to hear what they want to hear, no matter what the situation is. And you can’t waste your time worrying about that because you can’t fix it.

Anne Tromsness, drama teacher at the Fine Arts Center

I’m really trying to focus even more on student voice and agency — giving them a place to be able to explore the big feelings and the big thoughts that they’re having right now. Theater is a great place for that, because it is not therapy by any stretch of the imagination, but we do explore our humanity and we explore that through stories.

And I’m finding that the students are really, really eager to be creative and to not be engaged in screen work and a lot of technology. They want to get back to the basics and really connecting with one another through story and exploring doubts, fears, joys, aspirations, all of those things. So I’m coping by continuing to keep my focus on them, trying to find a way to help their creativity proliferate.

Anne Tromsness teaches a class of young drama students. Credit: Image provided by Anne Tromsness

I’ve seen with my kids that great hunger for a creative outlet and for that person-to-person connection that we were all missing for so long. I’ve also seen a cost in having to use so much technology. Their attention span is different than it used to be. They pull away and tend to kind of isolate in a different way sometimes than they used to. And so we’re kind of, in the drama classroom, learning how to be together, within safe restrictions. We’re still six feet apart. Masks are optional at our school district, but a lot of us are still wearing those and we’re taking care of one another, but we’re learning how to be in that space together.

For me, all the really great things about theater, which are about engaging with different people’s stories and perspectives, building empathy with one another, and exploring struggles through the distance of narrative and story — all of the great things about theater we really need right now. And I’m finding that our students really need that right now.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA

  • 22,500 students
  • 55 percent Black, 21 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic
  • 45 percent vaccinated

The school board in Richmond is one of seven suing over Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order signed in January allowing parents and guardians to opt out of mask mandates. Youngkin, a Republican who campaigned on more parental control in education, also passed two other education-related orders upon coming to office last month, including one that forbids the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory.” Richmond was hit hard by omicron but did not switch to remote learning. Chronic absenteeism rates are high, nearly 28 percent between September and mid-December.

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools

At the moment [the hardest thing I’m dealing with] is keeping our doors open given the number of infections, quarantines, and the impact that’s having on staff of all different types, whether it’s teachers or bus drivers or principals. I would say that’s one thing. And two is navigating the unique politics of masks here in Virginia … We feel that number one, first and foremost, it’s the right thing to do to keep everyone healthy and safe … And two, we really feel the law is on our side on this one.

Executive order one bans critical race theory. Truth be told I don’t think critical race theory is being taught in any Virginia schools, it’s a graduate level framework. The more concerning part of that order is the ban on “divisive concepts” which is rather ambiguous and feels like a very scary, slippery slope.

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, right, argues that schools need a Marshall Plan-style investment to help students recover from the pandemic. Credit: Image provided by Richmond Public Schools

I’ve been very public about my opposition to this order and have been clear that at least here in Richmond we are going to continue to study the very difficult history of Richmond and the reality that the Commonwealth and the capital were quite literally built by enslaved Africans and that has profound implications for all kinds of inequities that still exist today.

The pandemic has revealed more clearly to the public at large how many services public schools provide beyond teaching reading and math. In most cities the public school system is one of the largest, if not the largest, provider of food, transportation, mental health support, in many cases physical health support, recreation, child care and lots of other things. Those are very challenging and expensive services to provide. They are more so in the middle of a pandemic especially if you are serving students from low-income communities. My hope, my prayer, is that this is an inflection point for investment, not abandonment.

Katina Harris is a Richmond native who has worked in the school district for 14 years. Credit: Image provided by Katina Harris

Katina Harris, middle school English teacher and president of the local teachers union

We’re very concerned about the eviction of some of our students. The Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority sent out letters January 1 to notify the tenants who were behind in their rent. We’re trying to prevent that from happening, to make sure that families get support so children won’t be homeless. It would be very difficult to educate children who don’t have shelter. It’s winter and we’re still in the middle of the pandemic and it’s extremely important that we stand with our students and families.

Morale among my colleagues is extremely low. We have a teacher shortage. The superintendent got the central office staff to be substitutes. That has helped but it’s a temporary fix. We need something more long-term. Some parents are keeping their children home, because they believe that it is unsafe. The option of opening up virtual school again would be helpful and it would help attendance.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO

  • 2,700 students
  • 68 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 8 percent Native American
  • 85 percent vaccinated

As the pandemic grinds on, Taos County Schools has found new ways to invest in teacher mental health, including day-long retreats and “recharge rooms.” Funded in part by the district and in part by outside philanthropies, the big efforts to make Taos schools a place where teachers choose to stay for the long haul also indicate the depth of the problem. The district lost nearly a quarter (22 percent) of its employees last school year, according to a story reported jointly by The Hechinger Report and The Santa Fe Reporter. The return to regularly scheduled sports this fall has also been a pick-me-up for teachers and students in this rural district, proud of its athletic prowess.

​​Hernando Chavez, interim athletic director and boys’ basketball coach

Our winter sports started in mid-November. All kids are required to wear masks while they play any indoor sports in the state of New Mexico. The kids are doing the best that they can do to follow the guidelines and do their part so that hopefully we can stay face-to-face and they can keep sports and activities alive.

For a number of our athletes here, [sports are] their motivating factor for coming to school. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the coaching staff that we have here at Taos High. [Our coaches teach] not only lessons about their sport, but life lessons as well. I do really believe that things like athletics, and even the ability to come to school every single day – rather than receiving all their instruction remote – I think that’s what really gives them the ability to cope during bizarre, strange and difficult times.

[Today’s students are] going to be a group that went through one of the most difficult times and challenging times in our nation’s history and found a way to persevere… I am amazed at them every day to be honest.”

Hernando Chavez, interim athletics director in Taos, New Mexico 

I’ve never really felt that the winning and losing was the most important thing, I’ve always felt that the process was the most important thing, right? I even made the analogy with some of the young men that I coach in basketball: ‘Years from now, whether or not you won a state title isn’t going to matter all that much. If you have a wife, and if you have a wife and children, you know, your wife isn’t going to care about whether or not you got a title or anything like that.’

It’s really hard for them right now to realize that.

The one thing I can say about this group of young men and women – they are going to be a resilient group. They’re going to be a group that went through one of the most difficult times and challenging times in our nation’s history and found a way to persevere, found a way to succeed, to continue to succeed, and to not lose sight of their goals. I am amazed at them every day to be honest.

Florence Miera, social worker and homeless liaison

I think we’ve had several [students’] family members with Covid. And, you know, some grandparents who have passed away or family members. And so that’s been one of the biggest pieces that I have dealt with — the kids grieving.

And actually even parents [who are] younger, we’re seeing it a little bit more with 40- and 50-year-olds. As small as we are, if one person dies, and they’re 30, 40, 50 years old, why it can impact quite a few people. Everyone knows each other or is related to each other. And so the impact is big. And what I’ve seen in the kids is, yeah, grief and loss is hard core. The kids are devastated.

Teachers walk a school track in Taos, New Mexico during a retreat aimed at increasing teacher well-being and improving retention. Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report

We just had our [winter] breaks. And then we had a little bit of time off after [in January]. So getting kids back, like the younger ones, they’re afraid and they don’t want to come back. They’re crying. So we’re dealing with that, but then once we have them it’s pretty amazing.

[The older kids] need to be at school, but now they’re having anxiety and depression and all these things going on, because I feel like they were so used to being at home for almost an entire school year. And then we were back in, and some of them are still struggling.

If they have something to look forward to, like the athletes, the cheerleaders, the ones that are on some sort of sports team tend to do so much better, so much better. My population specifically [that] I work with is the homeless and the doubled up kids [who are living with friends]. And most of these kids really do not play a whole lot of sports or are not very active. And so that’s why what I see is very different than what Mr. Chavez [the high school boys’ basketball coach] sees.

This story about pandemic coping was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

Ariel Gilreath covers early education and K-12 schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. She most recently...

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Christina A. Samuels

Christina Samuels writes, assigns and edits stories about educational innovation, resilience and inequities, primarily in the South. Samuels previously worked at Education Week, where she covered topics...

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