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Justice Page teacher: ‘Things are up in the air, but you can only be so frustrated’

January 29, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Tracey Schultz, science teacher, Justice Page Middle School

Today is our end-of-semester record keeping day, so the kids don’t have class. We’re halfway, hooray! 

We’ve been back a month since winter break. The break was a good chance for everybody to get away from the screen to rest. Coming back was kind of normal in that you had the whole range of emotions: the kids who were like, “I’m so excited to be back” and the kids who’d shifted their sleep schedules and were like, “Oh, this is so hard.” 

I spent some time over the break rewriting my unit on energy. This year I told the kids that their learning teams — the groups I put them in — had become a company to produce electricity. I fast-forwarded the kids into the future and told them, “You are a college graduate who’s landed a job at a start-up in Las Vegas.” I took them on virtual field trips to the Vegas strip, the Hoover Dam, a wind farm and a solar farm. We use a program called Nearpod for the virtual trips, which gives each kid the ability to look where they want to look. 

For another part of the project, I gave each kid an apartment using an online virtual lab. In the lab, there are four rooms of an apartment — a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a laundry room. The kids can go in and pick an appliance and investigate how much electricity consumption it uses — what’s the wattage? — and calculate their apartment’s monthly electricity bill. It’s a little cartoonish but it’s realistic.  

I’m still reinventing everything. Last year this whole unit was mostly kids researching an energy source using paper. I didn’t have the dramatic play element to it. That’s one of the things about this whole craziness that is good. Sometimes you find a better way of doing it. 

When we were working through the apartment, one of the kids said, “I really wish we were back in person right now.” And I asked, “Why do you say that?” And he said, “I’m just picturing what this would look like in our classroom.” Now keep in mind they’ve never been in our classroom and some of them have never seen me live in person. And he said, “I”m just picturing our classroom at Justice Page, and I’m picturing you setting up this apartment.” I thought, “That’s fantastic; I’ve got to write this down. When I do this again maybe I can borrow a play kitchen or bring in an old doll house or something like that.”

The unit’s been such a success that the pressure’s on: What am I going to do next? It would be great to follow it up with “we’re going back to school” but we’re not there yet. 

My elementary colleagues go back to in-person schooling on Monday. There are some of us at the middle school who think we might be back for the final quarter, in early April, but who knows? 

We heard earlier this week that the governor had released just over 2,000 doses for Minneapolis teachers, which will go for folks who will be with kids. It’s such a crazy time. There is some rumor mill vaccine stuff. Someone on our staff got word that Abbott Northwestern was giving extra doses to Allina and you could grab one if you met the criteria. Of course, teachers are in line for vaccines right now, and I’ve had some colleagues get vaccinated, but it’s a really small number — like single digits. When I tried to call, they were like, “If only you called two hours ago; try back tomorrow.” 

It’s so hard. Part of me says, “I’m going to call on Sunday night to see if they got any more in.” But another part of me is really torn and says, “If I do get through, I want to call one of my elementary school colleagues and give them my spot.” But I’ll be honest: I want this vaccine, too. 

Maybe there’s a way to get back with kids sooner if I have the vaccine. I don’t know what that would look like. At one time they’d talked about bringing back some of our highest need kids in secondary — kids in our special education program. But, of course, I don’t have any information on if that’s happening or when it’s happening. Things are up in the air, but you can only be so frustrated.

We’re back at my partner Annie’s family place in the mountains of Idaho near Ketchum, where we were for a month in the fall. Annie teaches social studies at Anthony Middle School, so she’s in exactly the same boat that I am. We’re looking out the window at two-and-a-half new feet of snow. It’s been awesome to go out and cross-country ski after school and then come back and pick up where I left off with work. It’s been great for my mental and emotional well-being. 

I didn’t tell the kids I was coming back here after winter break, but right away one of them was like, “Wait a minute, you’re in Idaho again.” We’ve lost the line between our personal lives. They pay attention. They want to know what’s going on. 

Costco came and made a delivery to replace a mattress — and of course it comes right in the middle of class. It’s so surreal. The kids asked yesterday if I could take them on a tour. I said, “No, I’m not going to take you on a tour, but you can look around this room.” They said, “Mr. So-and-so gave us a tour.” [Laughs.] Well, OK, I’ll hold that for if I’m really desperate. 

There’s so much pressure in education right now because we have kids who are really behind. It’s hard to figure out how on task we need to be. But the kids just want to talk. The first five minutes of class are a soft landing. We’ll talk about their pets or a student will show us her latest puzzle. It is fun to talk and just see what’s on their mind. I need to think about how to make some adjustments so we get to do this when we go back to real school.

It’s hard for me that we’re coming up on the pandemic’s one-year anniversary. Thinking of these kids being out of school for a year, questions float around in the back of mind about whether it was worth it or the right thing to do. But what do you do?

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