“The excitement of building relationships with students in person is amazing, so I can’t wait for that,” said the seventh-grade English and language arts teacher at John Lewis Invictus Academy.
As students return to area schools, teachers are charged with helping them return to some normalcy, despite the pandemic. But school is starting at a time when coronavirus cases are increasing around the state due to the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates.
While many teachers are eager to work with students, they also voice anxieties about the pandemic and the varying safety protocols in school districts. Georgia is among states with the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.
“If the focus stays on doing what’s best for students, everything else becomes less important,” said Phil Sandifer, a coach and social studies teacher at Wheeler High School starting his 19th year in education. He teaches in Cobb County, where masks are optional.
Ramsey said she’s worried about teaching in-person because many people feel like the coronavirus threat has passed and “want to go back to the old idea of normal.”
Because APS requires masks, she said she will regularly remind her students to wear them — and keep their distance.
“There’s not going to be an easy way to do that other than stating it over and over again,” she said.
Across Georgia, some 5,100 full-time teachers are beginning their careers, according to the state department of education.
One of those first-year teacher is Tylan Bailey, who will be a physical education teacher at Briar Vista Elementary School. He is among some 250 educators teaching for the first time in the DeKalb County School District.
“It’s always been my goal to become a teacher,” said Bailey, who admitted the pandemic remains a worry. He was a custodian at Hightower Elementary for more than 20 years before he earned his bachelor’s degree in the spring.
Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In a show of support, some school districts, including DeKalb, are offering wellness initiatives and other measures for teachers and other employees. There’s also ongoing mental health support for students.
APS has more than 400 teachers new to the district this school year and is “going all-in on emotional and physical wellbeing” of educators, said Skye Duckett, chief human resources officer.
Along with maintaining its COVID mitigation protocols, the district will introduce a new employee professional counseling program. “Zen” rooms also will be available in schools if teachers need to decompress, she said.
In Gwinnett where more than 1,400 teachers will begin teaching in the system this week, the district will have a health response team to work with teachers and staff who believe they have been exposed to the coronavirus, said Clay Hunter, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support.
The COVID-19 pandemic also changed how post-secondary programs prepared teachers for the classroom this year.
Sonia Janis, a clinical associate professor of social studies education at the University of Georgia, said some students didn’t receive an in-person classroom experience before graduating. Instead, they completed that part of their training in a virtual setting.
Her program worked with Clarke County schools to set up virtual new teacher orientation sessions. Since the remote meet-and-greets didn’t have the personal touch new teachers would get with face-to-face meetings, Janis said veteran educators played a large role in helping new teachers “feel like they are part of a community, even though they are at home.”
“At some point, you just have to get started and be willing to learn as you go,” she said.
Stanton Elementary School reading and instructional coach Shanell Lee-Angry, who has taught for 16 years, said new educators can lean on their veteran colleagues when needed.
“This year, we are going to have to work together more than ever before to make sure our students receive what they need,” she said.
The following is the estimated number of educators who will start the new school year in these districts. The data includes veteran teachers working in new districts:
Atlanta Public Schools: 400
Cobb County: 600
DeKalb County: 250
Fulton County: 427
Gwinnett County: 1,400