I was so excited last week. Exhausted, like so many of us are, but just plain happy. As my students romped into my room, and I heard the laughter each day as they sanitized their hands and plopped down in their seats. They just made my heart happy. Their personalities are showing: it would almost feel like a normal day if we were not “sanitize in, sanitize out” and weren't all wearing masks.
My remote classes make me happy too, and we have had an ongoing conversation at the start of our sessions about the things we like and dislike, and the things we love and hope to do when this COVID time is over, and always with a smattering of who is eating what for lunch. We were three weeks into in-person learning and the week was rolling along pretty wonderfully. Then it happened: the request for a seating chart.
You see, I have a love-hate relationship with seating charts. As my students and I develop working relationships that let us learn together and build rapport in our classroom, my seating charts change. As a teacher, I do use them, but I don’t keep them the same all the time. I mix them up. I change them regularly. I let the students build their own (as long as they can work productively in teams).
I require seating charts at certain times and don’t require them at others. But starting with the 2020 hybrid school year, with some students in classrooms and some remote, that idea changed dramatically. Contact tracing—the nemesis of many a school teacher, district professional or administrator right now—stripped the classroom of that flexibility. It required district-mandated, turned-in-to-the-office, color-coded, written-in-pencil and note-covered seating charts to be used daily.
Gone are the seating charts with student group tables and paired-work opportunities. Out the window are some of the kinesthetic activities that put students close together but offer a different way to learn. Gone are some of the paired-inquiry activities with the manipulatives (hand-held objects) my students enjoy. No longer may I stand next to my student to help him or her with a question without the Health Department warning of “stay at least three feet away” ringing through my head.
Rule-following teachers are now regular “rule breakers.” Often the needs of our students require us to break that distance barrier for both our littlest learners and for students in older grades who are desperate for connections in person or who need special support in their learning.
Gone are the seating charts with rows far enough apart that I can move freely through the room to encourage my students and to collaborate with them to think and work.
How can I read a Chromebook screen to help one of my struggling students? That is hard enough even with glasses to help! Now my students are spread as far apart as possible, separated and facing forward, and not allowed to turn around to talk or move. That’s not quite what any of us expected coming back to the classroom, even though most of us teachers had an inkling that that was what the safety requirements would mandate.
Today we have the COVID seating chart. The one that requires me to have three special desks marked because they are closest to the three electrical outlets in my classroom, where kids can charge their dying Chromebooks. The one in which there aren’t really any rows because distancing rules require we have desks spread as far apart as possible. The same seating chart that made my heart sink after the message from the office.
I kept a happy face on for the kids, but that day I didn’t feel like eating lunch. I had a feeling I knew what was coming. I wasn’t sure, but call it a mom’s intuition, a teacher’s “gut” reaction or something else: I knew something was up—and it was—when my administrator came to check the seating chart with me after lunch and confirm the student names. I went ahead and asked. One of my students was positive for COVID-19. Two hours later I got the message in my email inbox from my district COVID health professional and my principal, stating:
Based on contact tracing done with our public health partners, you meet the criteria for close contact and exposure, so you must self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of exposure. Following the guidance from public health, the self-quarantine period begins immediately.
Public health guidance says close contact and exposure is determined based on the amount of cumulative time (15 minutes or greater) a person spends within a predetermined distance with the individual even if face coverings were used.
Well, that news ruined a perfectly good day—and frankly was about to ruin a few more. As much as we tried to be safe, someone was ill. That is never good news. And depending on how you look at it, that seating chart is either a curse or Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket of safety. Regardless, I don’t know that I will ever be able to look at a seating chart again without remembering how that particular seating chart, paired with diligent contact tracing, landed my students and me as statistics on the school district COVID dashboard.
What a way to make a good day turn sour and throw a bunch of happy people smack into quarantine! I guess there is one good thing that came out of it though, maybe one. None of us are in an annoying, social-distanced, forward-facing, non-group-working, COVID seating chart for two weeks!
This piece originally appeared on 9News' Back to Learning Blog, where Michelle is blogging about the 2020-2021 school year.
Michelle Pearson is the 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is is a middle school social studies teacher in the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colorado, where she has been teaching for 25 years.