Back to School 2020–It’s a Hot Mess

I love the anticipation of a new school year!

It’s like preparing for a big holiday gathering. I get to see and visit with students and colleagues I haven’t seen in a few months. There’s new hair cuts, new clothes, a new backpack, and a lunch box. For my students, it’s the nervousness of being in the classroom of a new teacher and the excitement of returning to my music room for more joyous creating.

But this is 2020.

NOTHING is typical. It’s a Hot Mess!

The photo on this post is my classroom filled with individual “instrument kits.” In total there are about 800 of them in my room to be sorted into boxes by class and day. I’m not a neat nick….but chaos makes me crazy!

I haven’t seen many of my colleagues and students since early March. There won’t be the regular joyful hugs and conversations about summer activities. We will be distancing and wearing masks if we see one another in person. Most will wave and talk over the internet and try not to interrupt each other during our online meeting.

Instead of planning an energetic and engaging collaborative game for the first class meeting, I post online videos, Google forms, and schedule Zoom meetings. I have re-imagined what music learning will look like and how to keep my students safe in my classroom. I have spent several hours constructing simple “instrument” kits for each of my students (approximately 800).

Schools are incubators for whatever virus or bacteria is going around, and COVID-19 is no exception. As an elementary teacher, I’ve seen it more times than I can count. A student seems a bit off toward the end of the day, then is absent. The next day 3 or 4 students are complaining of not feeling well. I check in with the teacher to find out the absent student has been to the doctor and is diagnosed with strep (or the flu, or a stomach virus, or something else) and will be out the remainder of the week. By the third day, there are 5 students absent with the same illness and it has started spreading to other classes. This is also typical in secondary schools. When my daughter was a high school sophomore her lab partner came to school still contagious with the flu. A few days later, my daughter is diagnosed with 2 strains of flu and is out of school for 10 days.

I worry about carrying the virus to people who could become gravely ill. I worry about exposing my immune-deficient mother. I wonder if I will contract COVID-19 and have the worst possible outcome. What will happen to my children? Who will guide them in the final steps into full adulthood? Will my mom have to move across the country to live near my brother?

What if one of my colleagues gets ill and doesn’t recover? How will that affect me? Will we have enough counselors and emotional support for the students? Who will teach that class for the remainder of the school year?

How many staff will we lose because they don’t feel safe? How will we fill their positions? We will never be able to “replace” them.

I don’t feel the anticipation of a grand holiday celebration. The beginning of this school year feels like waiting for a jury decision. It will either bring great relief or incomprehensible tragedy.

I am an optimist. I always see the glass as half full. The last five months of distancing and isolating have been tough for me emotionally. I KNOW our students need school. Our teachers and support staff also do. I also have a child who is a high school senior. I want her year filled with wonderful positive memories.

I DO NOT want this year filled with the memory of losing colleagues, students, friends, or anyone else to the virus because we ignored the scientific data. The last thing I want to see in my daughter’s high school yearbook for 2021 is double-page layouts of memorials to those who died.

I have had conversations with friends, family members, and attorneys about what should happen if I die.

When did THAT become part of my professional risk?????

I love teaching and being in a challenging teaching situation. I have NEVER looked for the easy way out of anything. I’m not looking for it now.

Yet I wonder what are the people making policy are thinking?

Are they concerned about individuals or statistics?

Has the politicization of this issue clouded the ability to make the right decisions?

Do people REALLY believe that COVID-19 is going to disappear the day after the election?

How do we, as teachers and guardians of children, guide them through this with the support they need to navigate this trauma?

How do we help students and adults come out on the other side of this crisis more robust and compassionate?

How do we focus on the good?

I look forward to conversations with you about this topic.

History has its eye on you. Who will tell your story? How will they tell that story?


Susan Collins

I began my teaching career in 1991 in rural Mississippi. I served in 4 different communities in central and north Mississippi as a music educator, mostly elementary general music with one year as a middle school band director. I stepped out of working full time in the classroom for 9 years when my children were very young but never left teaching. I set up an early childhood music studio and taught music for children ages birth to age 5 (with an adult caregiver). I moved to in northwest rural Arizona in 2016 where I teach k-5 general music.

I achieved National Board Certification in the fall of 2016 and began my relationship with the Arizona K12 Center for Professional Development. I have served as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow and a Candidate Support Provider for National Board Candidates. I am passionate about advocating for the needs of rural schools and ensuring that every student receives an excellent education provided by passionate and qualified educators.

When I am not teaching, advocating, or writing about education issues, I am outdoors with my teenage children. I love hiking, reading, and going to musical performances. I can usually be found off the grid pondering my next writing piece!

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