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‘I could cry or scream’: HCS teacher describes emotional rollercoaster in exclusive diary

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Early College High

Plexiglass structures are now in place at HCS Early College High, with partitions connected to desks already in the classroom.

CONWAY — It has been well-documented throughout the United States that teachers have apprehension over return-to-school plans, not because they don’t want to be with students, but mostly due to safety concerns that extend beyond themselves and to the families they go home to each evening.

At Horry County Schools, the district has lost roughly 2 percent of its teaching workforce — 57 instructors — during the 2020-21 school year, one that has been earmarked by a number of instructional model changes, none of which were put into play with feedback from those in the classroom.

Jenny Leckey

Jenny Leckey is a teacher at HCS Early College High

And as HCS says it will continue to comply with the CDC’s five key mitigation strategies of safely delivering in-person instruction, one instructor says that many of the CDC recommendations are not being followed — even as elementary schools have already returned to full-time, face-to-face instruction, with middle and high schools initially slated for the same on March 15.

Jenny Leckey, the 2018-19 HCS District Teacher of the Year and current teacher at Early College High, says that supplies are not securely stowed away, teacher work zones are not marked, windows do not open and she has been instructed to keep the door closed due to “safety concerns,” and there are no provided fans or air purifiers — all items that the CDC recommends.

Throughout the current school year, Leckey has been keeping a journal for the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach, many of which showcase the angst that teachers are facing as plexiglass is installed and struggles with student engagement continues to be a rollercoaster ride.

Leckey pointed to a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh as the motivation for providing the inside look:

“You have the courage to do it because you have compassion; because compassion is a powerful energy... You have the courage to say it because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness,” the passage reads.

Leckey, despite multiple employees throughout the school year indicating they’ve been instructed not to speak to the media, says she believes it is necessary to provide transparency for the community.

“My hope is that my vulnerability within these entries will help to cultivate compassion, understanding, and grace for all people involved in the education system,” Leckey said. “As Atticus Finch teaches my students in To Kill a Mockingbird, we sometimes need to walk in another person’s shoes to see experiences from another perspective to cultivate compassion. I hope these entries do just that — for the greater good of us all.”

Here are a trio of Leckey’s first-person entries over the past 60 days:

February 8

Well, the day has come. Demo plexiglass trifolds have been installed in a few classrooms. Wow, just wow. It’s like we’re at the DMV taking a driving test — no elbow room, like learning in a box. My heart breaks for my students who will have to learn in these conditions.

I was checking out examples in my co-worker’s room and can’t believe how close students will sit when we are back face to face. I already knocked into one of the dividers that hangs at least 10 inches off of the edge of the table. I wonder how long it will take for a student to knock into that and crack some plexiglass. I wonder how long after installation will it be until the student gets cut by broken plexiglass?

There are so many things that could go wrong in this situation that my mind is already whirling.

Let's talk about the “installation” — it is a joke. The plexiglass is literally held in the air with what looks like a command strip. There are gaps at the bottom of the plastic to give room for the metal outlets that pop up on the table tops. So basically you are sitting in a plastic cubicle that still has holes that flow through to your neighbor’s desk space. If anything, this seems like it would be a breeding ground for germs. The plexiglass is restricting airflow and funneling it through that little hole that leads to your neighbor's work area. How is that better? How am I one of the only people who is seeing this? Are people in leadership positions that blinded by economic interests, public perception, and politics that they will push this sort of crap through and make it part of everyone's daily lives?

I am sorry, but these decisions were not made for the greater good. These decisions seem to have been made to allow students to be herded back into school for child-care purposes. I don't see anyone's personal health and well-being being at the forefront of any of this decision-making. I don't see how sitting in a plastic cell is good for a child's mental health. Don't tell me that kids are coming to school to socialize and then put them in a plastic box. Literally in a plastic box!!!

I am sad because I finally found a good flow, a formula that works for the hybrid schedule. The kids are in a routine, I am in a routine, and we have a workflow going on. Throwing plexiglass at the problem is going to make it worse! I have it where my students can at least turn and talk from a distance with a table partner. Now, with a full class in plexiglass, there is no way that can happen, or it will endanger their safety. Putting more kids in a room feels like we are herding cattle. It feels so corporate, so cold, so prison-like.

It does not feel like the warm learning community that I created in my classroom.

I know that students feel it, too. In one of my classes, with whom I created a close bond already five weeks in, they asked me when the plexiglass is coming. They also were wondering when we would be back full-time, face-to-face. Some students want it because they struggle with personal accountability on the distance learning days. But others, well they expressed their fear. They are worried about COVID-19; I am, too!

We had a staff meeting at the end of the day and it was mentioned that the plexiglass people from the district came in to install examples. I raised my hand and asked if these were set in stone or if they were just trying out some ideas. I was told that this is how it would be. There hasn't been any directives given to us by the DO as of yet as to how this plexiglass should be cleaned and there aren't any tips or directives for setting up a cleaning procedure in the classroom. Blows my mind.

The district office spent $5 million on plexiglass and does not have a roll-out plan besides installing plexiglass. It all falls in the admins’ laps. Therefore, it will all fall in the teachers’ laps. We have approximately 60 seconds in classroom change time to clean down the plexiglass. Does this mean that I will be cleaning plexiglass in between classes? Does that then mean I will not have access to hot water to wash my hands after doing so? How is this even possible? As it is now, I give a wipe to every student to clean down their area as they leave. There is no way that a bunch of students can or should be responsible for cleaning plexiglass!

I am frustrated and ashamed of our lack of leadership at the highest level. We are expected to take on more and more responsibility without any leadership or guidance, let alone any opportunity to contribute our point of view or our needs from the ground level. It all blows my mind. What is even worse is that we are becoming complacent with this new normal! We just have to roll with it and are expected to take it on the chin. I am all about helping the greater good, but I am not all about rushing something and being used.

Early College High

Plexiglass structures are now in place at HCS Early College High, with partitions connected to desks already in the classroom.

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January 29

Apparently there is a parent group that is looking to hire people off the street to install plexiglass in schools. You've got to be kidding me! To become a teacher, I had to go through a whole fingerprint background check with the FBI — all-that-kind-of-stuff process. And now, in a rush to get students back in school — so their parents don't have to deal with them at home anymore — we are going to hire random people off the street to enter our schools and install plexiglass?

Yes, ladies and gentleman, you read correctly. The madness continues.

I don't understand! Maybe somebody can explain it to me because this blows my mind. What is even worse is that I see comments where the school board chair is supportive of this idea. Ken Richardson said he “love this post parents are willing to move things along faster. I'm not a big fan of the plexiglass but the quicker it's installed in all the schools the quicker everyone gets back in school.”

Hello, sir! Contradiction much? If you are not a fan of plexiglass, then why are you inflicting the situation on everybody involved?

There is no scientific evidence backing up the validity of the use of plexiglass! I don't understand. And then we hear that he is looking to run for the opening seat in Congress in 2022. It is clear that there are many layers to what is going on in the school district both at a political level and an economic level. I'm so sick of being the pawn. I am so tired of the culture where everyone is fearful of speaking up. When is enough going to be enough? Teachers were mad over the past two years about pay — that has since died down.

Then, teachers were frustrated with what decisions to go hybrid, but we accommodated. We thought we were protected because they said they would give us two weeks notice and we entrusted our health and safety to our elected officials on the school board and to our superintendent. And yet we were betrayed in October by changing which data is utilized to make decisions.

And now, I am in my classroom, and I have to do whatever they tell me to do! I can't leave due to health fears and concerns like other jobs. If I did try to, they can take my teaching license. Plus, I don't want to just leave my kids high and dry. This is a calling, not a job. I don't even know what to say.

All I know is that it is not just me who feels this way. Teachers feel disheartened, stressed, and under pressure. This is not an environment conducive to learning, health, and growth. If you are worried about people's health so much, then why are we constantly being put in a state that drives up cortisol levels and puts us constantly in fight-or-flight mode?

These are the questions I try not to ponder anymore for the sake of my sanity and my own well-being. It is hard when it is in your face almost everyday. Some new level of madness is appearing. It seems like this is a movie, but instead it's our reality. I keep the feelings tucked away, so I don't send them out to my students. That isn't healthy, either. I hate that I don't have power. It makes me complicit in these terrible plans and that is something I struggle with every day.

December 15

One of the most frustrating feelings is giving your all to lesson planning, mapping out skills to maximize the in class and distance learning experience for students, to then have them come into class and brazenly tell you they didn’t do work for your class because they were “busy.” Some of today’s students apparently had work for other classes and English was at the bottom of the list. It’s hard not to get frustrated and defeated. This attitude — the “I’ll do what I want and expect the teacher to deal with it, accommodate it, and accept it” — is a major reason why there are classroom frustrations all over the district.

Many of my peers are also feeling extremely stressed and defeated right now.

Teaching is often like an ongoing game of tug of war. The only difference is that you’re accountable for succeeding, for winning and that is measured through a child’s grades and success in your class. You’d better have parent contacts during that tug-of-war game as well, and do it all with a smile on your face. Did I mention that you often have at least 10 games going on at once?

Maybe even more given the learning climate and slipping effort from students during this hybrid model.

So here I am, playing mind games with myself, practicing mindfulness to ward off feelings of frustration, stress, and sadness. Trying to survive until break. Survival. That sums up a majority of my teaching career. What kind of life is that?

It consists of elevated blood pressure, an ulcer, and sleepless nights, for starters. It includes feeling like you have to try to stay one step ahead for fear you’re “getting in trouble”; students’ success and lives are in your hands, after all! Circling back to the students who constantly come into my classroom professing that my class is at the bottom of the list of priorities.

Teaching is a constant practice between making it personal and building connections, while at the same time not taking things personally. While I play tug of war with students, I also play tug of war within myself.

I wonder to myself on some days, “What would happen if I just let go of the ropes? Let the ropes fall where they may?” That is the nature of humans, after all. We have our own guidance systems. Is it the teachers role to drag the students along for the sake of a system that says they should be performing and parents who expect teachers to work miracles when the students are practicing habits that have existed for years? Is there an expectation that adults will always come behind them to push them along and clean up the messes?

What does that say about our system — that students have learned to be complacent, compliant, and co-dependent on others to provide the entertainment and motivation that’s needed to succeed? Are we truly empowering students to grow into self-reliant adults, or does the system create adults who need accolades and punishments to motivate their choices?

I ponder this often as I shift uncomfortably as I’m forced to participate in such a system. As I type this, my chest is getting tighter and I feel like I could cry or scream. So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to let go of the ropes and let live. Let the cards fall where they may. Let it be. It is what it is. Cliches for the win!

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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