Sometimes the total reality of an unfair world can be seen through the eyes of one person.
Rachel Baucom often toils in her garden under the hot sun of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A school teacher by trade and by calling, her summers are short and intensely hot. She’s back in the classroom early in August, where she teaches a first-grade class at a public school. Most of her children are from families who are Hispanic and among the working-poor. The parents of her children are service workers and during the pandemic are considered essential employees. Some parents work as teachers and health care workers. Others are housekeepers or are employed as fast food workers, custodians and construction workers. Rachel is very concerned about returning to the classroom and being able to ensure safety, for her kids, their families, and for herself and her family—the entire community.
Teaching is more than a job. Rachel often likens teaching to growing a garden. “You’re doing one thing and finding another...discovering the hidden joys beneath the surface.”
Rachel helps kids to grow in a world that doesn’t offer them the best of everything. She looks for all the unseen ways she can reach children so they bloom against all odds. She was called to teach the same way her father, the Rev. Peter Moore, was called to be an Episcopal priest—you count on your grit and the grace of God. As a dual language teacher, Rachel conducts her classes in both English and Spanish. One of Rachel’s colleagues, Fabiola Espinoza, said, “Rachel exemplifies what dual language teaching should look like.”
Rachel can deal with poverty and uncertainty—a child could be in her class one day and gone the next, or of having to make do with limited resources, but one thing she didn’t bargain for was being forced to be on the front lines of the pandemic. She is not a health care worker and does not enjoy being told by the federal government to be one. Her vocation is pure—to teach—to take young children and imbue them with the powerful gift of learning.
Growing up as the child of an Episcopal priest meant moving around a lot. Her father’s first parish was St. Luke’s in the Field on Hudson Street in the West Village of Manhattan. Although Rachel was born in New York City, she has no memory of it and hazy recollection of her early years in Missouri and Indianapolis, where she lived until she was ten. The most memorable aspects of her childhood happened in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Except for a brief stint in the Pacific Northwest, Albuquerque has always been her home.
When Rachel isn’t teaching or gardening, both of which require their own significant immersion in time, she spends time with her husband Rob, or takes road trips, favoring the trek through the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. The craggy southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains offers her a scenic meditation through meadows, streams, lakes, and the Santa Fe National Forest. Every winding turn through wilderness and harsh but beautiful terrain churns with travertine formations, hidden grottos and vistas yawning toward the sky. The ruins of a 17th century mission church spring up along the journey the same way hot springs and volcanic vents reveal the land’s past.
There haven’t been any road trips this summer. Rachel’s elementary school was shut in March and suddenly she was teaching online classes to her first-graders, which is vexing to even the best teachers. Six-year-olds are not terribly adept to learning via zoom casts on a tablet, and if you throw a whole host of learning styles and disabilities into the fray, you have an education program that is almost assured to fail.
But Rachel is stubborn and doesn’t give up without a fight. When she and her colleagues started hearing about a shutdown, they were in the midst of their parent-teacher conferences. Students weren’t in the classroom. The days were back-to-back meetings with parents. It was late afternoon on Thursday, March 12th when word came that the shutdown was going to happen the very next day. Rachel pulled rabbits out of a hat, using every trick in the book to engage her young students in the world of online learning.
The teachers quickly sprang into action and pulled together emergency packets to send home to the kids via their parents. Each child got two volumes of discontinued reading programs in their native language, plus guides to build vocabulary and phonics skills in both Spanish and English. Packets included math reviews, basic school supplies, pencils, crayons, erasers and composition notebooks. A week into the shutdown, it soon became clear the school was not going to start back up in three weeks. Deadlines for reopening passed and the school stayed closed. New packets were put together with essential math workbooks, tools to build vocabulary, more basic school supplies. scissors, glue, Play-Doh, and a watercolor scrapbook designed for kids to create a family memory book. The packets put together by Rachel and her fellow teachers had a 100% pick up rate by parents who took them home to their children.
Until the pandemic shut down school, the teachers had little training to teach digitally. Teachers were rushed through online webinars and sent exhaustive pages of links to come up to speed. Rachel noted that the instructors teaching webinars speak fluently about technology but know little or nothing about education and how to teach small children. A teacher might be great in the classroom, but shifting to the screen takes a different set of skills and often innate talent.
Even before the pandemic, some of Rachel’s students were latchkey kids, who spend a huge chunk of time at home alone, watching video games. Hard-pressed to be as engaging and as entertaining as video games, she donned an assortment of attention-getting colored wigs: Read-aloud in Spanish was blue, in English-green, and when teaching science, her wig resembled the wild scraggly hair of Einstein. She utilized amazing videos from YouTube channels made by educational publishers and people who turned a secret skill into a full-fledged career. With every digital resource she relied upon, she also knew that too much screen time is bad for kids, shrinking the part of their brains that allows them to feel empathy. The American Pediatric Association has long warned of the dangers of too much screen time. Rachel needed to get her first-graders off the screen too.
To stay connected to her kids, Rachel made curbside visits. She wrote them letters and sent along the little things six-year-olds love to feel in their hands like marigold seeds, sunflower seeds and rubber band butterflies. All along she has been playing catchup to make sure her kids are doing okay, constantly asking herself, “How do I make this less bad for the children?”
By mid-July, while Rachel grappled with culling forth the best tools and resources for her kids, politicians in every level of government, from the top down, duked it out publicly with such nastiness that first-graders began to look like the real adults in the room. President Trump and Education Secretary Betsey DeVos downplayed the risks of reopening the schools, claiming children do not cause transmission of the virus. DeVos falsely claimed children are “stoppers” of COVID-19, a statement which was later sharply refuted.
As coronavirus cases surged across the nation, even in states with previously few cases, President Donald Trump pushed for schools to reopen for in-person instruction. “Every district should be actively making preparations to open,” Trump said at a coronavirus-focused press conference. “This is about something very, very important. This is not about politics."
Health and medical experts argue that there is still a lot of research to be done on how the virus impacts children and how children spread it, but everyone agrees: there is no evidence to suggest children are immune or can stop the disease. Also, the more widely the virus is spreading in a community, the riskier it is to open schools. There is also the very real danger that while children don’t easily catch the virus, they can bring it home with them and infect their parents and grandparents. According to the July analysis conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Roughly 3.3 million adults ages 65 and older live in a household with school-age children.”
As a dedicated member of her community, Rachel is aware of her many tight-knit family units, where Grandparents are the epicenter of family life. Many of her first-graders have great, connected extended families made up of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. “One of the things I admire most about the families I work with are their strong sense of family and connectedness,” she says. There is also a sense of continuity among generations. Rachel is teaching the children and grandchildren of the children she taught years ago. She often teaches siblings coming from one family, and ends up teaching the children coming from their extended families. After years of teaching, Señora Baucom is seated at the center of their lives.
On the national level, Education Secretary DeVos faced a backlash after demanding schools reopen full-time while the pandemic continued to surge. Or else risk lose your funding, she warned. “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” she said in an interview on Fox News Sunday, July 12.
Trump claimed the administration had a “national strategy” for schools reopening. The White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did provide different layers of “guidance” to schools, but they never did release a cohesive federal standard for schools to reopen. The enormous problem of reopening was thrust upon state and local officials to try to figure out. Between Trump’s misguided assurances on safety and the Education Secretary DeVos’s insistence that there is no danger “in any way” if kids are in school, school districts across the country have been thrust into a state of desperate chaos.
Rachel worries about returning to the classroom. Thinking about the dangers and risk of exposure keeps her up at night. She frets that the White House has dumped the problem onto teachers and principals to make it work. She sees the directives made by Trump and Education Secretary DeVos as endangering human lives. She points out that DeVos has no background in education or knowledge about how public schools work, and who is only using her position to dismantle public education. “An educator with lots of experience should have the job.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, asserted that Trump and DeVos are not putting the safety of children and teachers first and criticized their lack of planning and resources offered as some schools are set to open. Weingarten backed her assertion with hard data published last month in a report from the Kaiser Institute. One in four teachers has a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus.
Rachel is aware of the risk she faces. She knows about the recent case in Arizona that alarmed public school teachers across the country. About 100 miles southeast of Phoenix, the Hayden Winkelman Unified School district in Gila County is in the middle-of-rural Arizona. Three teachers wore masks, strictly adhered to social distancing, hand-washing and jugs of hand sanitizer. All three caught COVID-19; one died.
The Arizona school superintendent Jeff Gregorich mourned the loss of Mrs. Kim Byrd who he describes as a master teacher. “She’d been here since 1982,” he says, “and she was always coming up with creative ideas. They delivered care packages to the elementary students so they could sprout beans for something hands-on [to do] at home, and then the teachers all took turns in front of the camera.”
Superintendent Jeff Gregorich says, “Mrs. Kim Byrd did everything right. She followed all the protocols. If there’s such a thing as a safe, controlled environment inside a classroom during a pandemic, that was it.” The three teachers shared a room so they could teach a virtual summer school program. They routinely checked their temperatures, taught on their own devices and didn’t share anything. Similar to Rachel’s school in New Mexico, the Arizona school is in a high-needs district, ninety per cent Hispanic and more than ninety per cent free and reduced lunch programs. Like Mrs. Kim Byrd, Rachel Baucom is also over sixty. Rachel acknowledges that ten per cent of the people in her age group who catch COVID-19 die, and that number does not take into account any preexisting conditions.
Teachers don’t make much money as it is and many schools are operating with skeleton staffs and tight budgets. Schools are being forced to buy new programs for virtual instruction, making sure all of the kids have tablets at home, and have someone showing them how to use them. Then there are all of the materials needed to ensure safety, from Plexiglas barriers to gallon jugs of hand sanitizer, larger classroom space, and the installation of air ducts and HVAC to provide adequate ventilation. With all of the changes needed to make safer environments for teachers, children and their families, the money isn’t forthcoming from the federal government. The financial burden has been placed squarely on state and local governments that are already strapped for cash.
The real reason why the current administration isn’t doing anything to provide a federal plan to reopen schools and the funding to support that mandate is clear: they don’t want to pay for it. At a time when the Trump administration seeks to radically shrink government services, they do not intend to pay to make schools safe. Republicans and Democrats both agree that schools need billions of dollars to reopen, but Congress has been stonewalled by the GOP, an impassable roadblock that has left educators in a state of panic.
The chaos caused by the failure of national leadership has left many educators and health officials with the awful feeling that the sky is falling. There is a collective scrambling of teachers and administrators who are being bullied into reopening schools even though they are not ready, with no financial support from the federal government. Around the country, at least forty-eight local health leaders have quit or been fired during the pandemic. Many more heads will soon roll.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did ultimately release guidelines for reopening in the midst of the pandemic. The guidelines specified wearing face coverings, maintaining social distance, using large-size rooms and outdoor areas to teach, but the guidelines were lambasted by Trump. He criticized them as “very tough” and “expensive,” and ordered the CDC to lighten requirements, still demanding that “schools must be open in the Fall,” calling virtual learning “Terrible.” Vice President Mike Pence concurred, "The president said today we just don't want the guidance to be too tough,” and announced that the CDC would modify their guidelines.
Now that Rachel’s school is reopening, her public school district has asked the teachers to set up a Hybrid Model, which means half of the teaching is online and the other half in person in the classroom. Nationwide, many schools have opted for the Hybrid Model, but it has been strongly criticized because it is not a viable solution, neither here nor there, so to speak—a stop-gap model that places the burden squarely on the shoulders of the teachers to figure out a solution.
The guide for the Hybrid Model only offers suggestions but no concrete action plan. There is talk that teachers will be tested, but no one is saying who will do it and how it will be done. No one is talking about testing the kids. Teachers will have half the kids, half of the time, and the other half of the time, those kids will be taught virtually, which makes twice as much work for the teachers. And none of this makes anything safer for the teachers because they end up being exposed to all of the students.
There are no social distance requirements but there are requirements for face coverings. There are no guidelines to schedule specials classes, PE classes, pullout classes or times to go to library, or computer lab. There is no plan to avoid large-group gatherings or how to get kids in and out of school, especially when parents are dropping off their kids. There is no plan as to who is going to sanitize the spaces in between classes. How is the Hybrid Model safe for educators? And when you’re dealing with six-year-olds, how do you stop them from hugging one another? How do you make them keep on their face masks all day? There are too many unanswered questions.
Plenty is dumped on teachers nowadays.
Rachel does not want the responsibility for taking temperatures, installing Plexiglas shields in the classroom, and paying out of her own meager pocket for gallons of hand sanitizer. The prospect of trying to maintain six feet of social distancing among six-year-olds sounds good to some people but try enforcing it.
Rachel is between a rock and a hard place. She knows she is facing the toughest decision of her teaching career, one she has little control over. She could ask to teach virtually and the district would have to find her a position. The district would place her on the must-hire list, but then she would have to take whatever job is offered. And if she did do that, she’d lose the position she has had for twenty years teaching first-graders and might not ever get it back. “That does not feel like a choice to me,” Rachel says. “I have a job that resonates with me and meets my needs. I’ve spent twenty years being part of the community. If I say I want to teach virtually, all of that is gone.”
Another option is for Rachel to accept a private contract to teach a pod of children in one of the new pop-up schools cropping up in wealthier communities. Parents who have the financial means are founding startup schools to implement their own stringent safety standards. Small pods of children are assigned to one teacher. Parents, children, and teachers are self-quarantined in a safe circle to create a mock tight-knit family unit with minimal outside contact. The children get the advantage of staying on track, or even excelling academically, while the exposure to virus is next to nil.
Rachel can’t bring herself to accept a private contract. While the money might be good and the risks of contracting COVID-19 are lessened, it undermines why she became a teacher in the first place—to give children who ordinarily would not have had opportunity in life a fair shot. “My kids need to be in school,” Rachel says, “but I don’t believe we should do the hybrid model.” She leans toward creating safe circles within public schools the same model being privately created by wealthy parents. Small groups of children can be assigned to one teacher. Parents, children, and teachers are in a safe circle. “We would take every teacher in the district who is available, and we should access every single space in the school and across the district to create our own safe circles.” The one ingredient missing from implementing a safe-circle model in the public schools is money.
Being on the front lines of a pandemic is something Rachel didn’t bargain for, but her passion for teaching manifests itself as a supreme act of stewardship. In her own words, she says, “One day her children may not remember me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them.” As a teacher of first-graders, Rachel Baucom is their launch into the world, offering them a chance to grow, to flourish and to have a good life.
She always returns to the kids, the sound of their laughter, how their eyes light up when they discover something new for the first time. “I really believe my job might kill me,” she says. But for now the kids are her life. She knows the risks of being in the classroom, but if she teaches remotely, she loses the collective mindshare of her kids during the most formative years of their lives. She knows the kids are hurting already because they haven’t been able to be together and are suffering from loneliness, boredom and depression. Already there is trauma to deal with—fallout from the pandemic. People are getting sick, loved ones have been lost, but Rachel Baucom has the gift to guide her children just the same way she tends her garden, “You’re doing one thing and finding another...discovering the hidden joys beneath the surface – and that’s a metaphor for life....”
RESEARCH AND LINKS:
December 2017 Albuquerque Public Schools Teacher of the Month. Made possible by the APS Education Foundation and Pepsi, with special thanks to the Flying Star Cafe.
May 27, 2020 New York Times
DeVos Demands Public Schools Share Pandemic Aid with Private Institutions by Erica L. Green
July 13, 2020 The Associated Press and Boston Globe
Betsy DeVos claims opening schools is not ‘in any way dangerous’
by Calvin Woodward, Hope Yen and Christopher Rugaber
July 13 2020 ABC News
Education secretary faces backlash after demanding schools reopen full-time amid pandemic by Libby Cathey
She has not provided a specific plan despite insisting on reopening.
July 24 2020 ABC News
Trump, DeVos downplay risks of reopening schools, claim children don't spur transmission: DeVos has falsely claimed the children are "stoppers" of COVID-19.
by Libby Cathey
July 28, 2020 New York Times KEY DATA OF THE DAY
AS TRUMP CALLED ON STATES TO REOPEN, A FEDERAL REPORT URGED 21 ‘RED ZONE’ STATES TO IMPOSE MORE RESTRICTIONS.
July 28 2020 New York Times
Trump defends sharing a dubious video and falsely says much of the U.S. is ‘corona-free.’
July 29 2020 New York Times
Why Is There No Consensus About Reopening Schools? by Kim Tingley
August 1 2020 New York Times
Rich City Tykes Swell Schools in Hamptons and Hudson Valley
August 4 2020 New York Times
When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well
by Isabel Kershner and Pam Belluck
August 4 2020 Daily Kos
Confused Trump can’t understand why so many Americans are dying
August 4 Columbia Journalism Review
To School or not to School - A burning question by Charles Richardson
August 4, 2020 The Week
The American leadership void by Ryan Cooper,
August 4, 2020 The Atlantic
How the Pandemic Defeated America by Ed Yong
August 6 2020 New York Times
Congress’s Ideological Divide Has Stymied Aid for Pandemic-Stricken Schools
by Luke Broadwater
Republicans and Democrats agree that schools need billions of dollars to reopen, but policy fights have the parties at loggerheads, with educators growing desperate.
August 7 2020 The New Yorker
How Did I Catch the Coronavirus? by Carolyn Kormann
August 10 2020 New York Times
Republicans and Democrats agree that schools need billions of dollars to reopen, but policy fights have Congress at loggerheads, with educators growing desperate.
August 11, 2020 Axios
At least 48 local public health leaders have quit or been fired during pandemic by Orion Rummler
August 17 2020 The New Yorker
The Woeful Inadequacy of School-Reopening Plans by Amy Davidson Sorkin