"I am optimistic that the pandemic will fade away and students, teachers, and school systems will be more resilient."
Benjamin Hart, Author
"I feel it's end times. It's like the zombie apocalypse plague is in China," two girls said to each other as I walked by in the hall. It was early January 2020. I wondered what they were talking about. Later, I searched the internet to learn more about what I overheard and found strange, frightening images. I wondered if the disease would spread and what life would become like.
As SARS-CoV-2 spread throughout the world, I thought that it was imperative to study viruses. I allowed for time at the start of class for students to share their thoughts, knowledge, and questions. One student in my AP Biology class had family in Wuhan, China. She told us that her family was only allowed to leave their home once a week to purchase food. Another student of mine had an aunt who is a doctor in a neighboring province. He shared with the class that some of the hospitals in China were dedicated to treating patients sickened by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Later in January, the first case of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States was identified only about 30 miles from Redmond High School. That changed the atmosphere of the school. The virus was no longer something that was far away. It was here!
Students and staff were worried. Another teacher I share a class with began bringing in Lysol wipes to class. I continued to dedicate the start of each of my AP Biology classes to discussing the pandemic. Some students asked thoughtful questions like, "Mr. Hart, why are we so worried about this? I read that the virus spreads when we touch a surface that has the virus and then touch our face. All we have to do is wash our hands." This view seemed to be the prevailing one in the U.S. media. Based on the reports I read and the speed at which the virus reportedly spread, I was skeptical.
I shared with student an article I found from Xinhua News reporting that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne. I explained that it is possible that if the virus spreads on small droplets, then you may not need to cough or sneeze to spread it. Rather, just breathing could cause its spread.
By February, we were getting weekly and then daily emails that schools would be open but that the district leadership was working with Public Health to determine if schools should close. Then a neighboring school district announced that they were closing. I believe it was the first in the United States to do so. Then our school closed, at first for just 2 weeks. Then the governor of Washington ordered all schools to close a few days later.
At first we had a sort of strange vacation in our homes. Then as the weeks dragged on, we were allowed to provide "learning opportunities" to students that were ungraded. I learned about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute virtual labs from a training I attended. I previewed lab after lab until I found labs that would hit on the topics I wanted students to learn. My favorite labs that we explored were about elephants and lizard evolution.
Students in my AP Biology class took the AP Biology tests from home, and I worked as an AP Reader over the summer. I also taught credit recovery summer school.
During the 2020–21 school year, our school district worked diligently to create a more supportive online learning environment with live synchronous classes. Then finally, in April 2021, all K–12 schools in Washington state reopened. Currently, I am teaching students both in person and online in the "concurrent" instruction model.
The biggest challenge I have faced during the school closure is engaging students that struggle in school. I have reached out to families more frequently and celebrated student success by sending physical postcards home. I am optimistic that the pandemic will fade away and students, teachers, and school systems will be more resilient.
View other stories in the ABE Pandemic Teaching Stories series.