I’m a High School History Teacher, But I Feel More Like the Mask Police

Culture

In July 2020, ELLE.com spoke with West Wendover High School history teacher Kathy Durham, who made end-of-life plans before resuming in-person classes. A year and a half (and a slew of new variants and dangerous surges) later, Durham says she has “resigned” herself to being both an educator and her school’s mask police. “This is our new reality if we want to continue doing what we love,” she says. Below, in her own words, Durham, who is 58, explains why the faculty and staff need more support to enforce mask policies.


One thing the pandemic has taught me is that you don’t know what the future will hold. Things can turn on a dime, and you have to be proactive—not reactive. You need to be prepared for anything. Before going back to in-person classes, I wrote my will. I’m glad I did, because if something happens, there won’t be any financial hardship for my family.

We started with half of my students coming in on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half coming in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What struck me most was how much they didn’t talk at first, not even in the halls. The kids had been so isolated for so long, that they just weren’t ready to do school again. It reminded me of 9/11, when they knew something was going on, but weren’t processing the tragedy the same way the adults were. If the kids did talk, they whispered. That lasted for a couple of months, until their social skills finally started to get back to normal.

Eventually all restrictions were lifted, and we were all together in the classroom at the same time. With this latest Omicron surge, things feel dangerous again. On average, about 27 percent of my classroom is gone every day, because they have the virus or have been in close contact with someone that does. It is scary, and us teachers are nervous. But, in a way, we have also resigned ourselves. This is our new reality if we want to continue doing what we love.

You can make rules and guidelines and policies, but what you can’t do is account for human factor. Our school is fully open. Masks are required for adults, but not for kids. We’re still cleaning classrooms, we’re wearing masks, we’re trying to do best we can. But kids are sitting in the hall and hug without masks on. We no longer have assemblies, but we’re still holding basketball games. On the door of the gym, there’s a sign that says “All spectators are required to wear a mask.” Yet, when you walk in, nobody is wearing one. A new school policy came out last week requiring students to wear masks at school for the first five days post-quarantine. But nobody has taken ownership of enforcing it.

There are rules in place, but no support system to help teachers and staff and nurses see it through. Instead, the burden has been on us to try to figure things out. I’m a government teacher, so I’m a big rule of law kind of person. If you’re going to have a mask policy, then enforce that mask policy—or don’t call it a policy at all. It drives me nuts, but what can I do? Do you want me to teach, or do you want me to be the mask police?

It’s always been that way in education. When we don’t have the resources or the manpower or the time to do something, the response is usually: “Well, figure it out.” Things weren’t working in the school systems before, and then you throw a pandemic on top of it. Why do you think people are leaving the profession in droves? And you want us to make up for all the lost learning time with the same or less staff than we had before?

The vaccine felt like a security blanket. I’m fully vaccinated, boosted, and I wear a mask at work. My husband, who has a heart condition, is also fully vaccinated and boosted. I hope that we are able to get a handle on the virus, that it doesn’t keep mutating. I hope I don’t have to go the rest of my life having to wear a mask out in public. But that fear I felt when the pandemic first hit? That’s gone.

Two years in, and at this point I just feel COVID weary. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. We learn, we adapt, and we adjust accordingly.

We’re all in this storm together, but to get through it we need to listen to teachers. Do they need more PPE? More social distancing? Another shutdown? Health and safety should take precedence over everything. We still need to be listening to front-line workers. We all want our schools to remain open. We want to teach in person. Please remember to be kind to teachers, because we are trying to do our job in the middle of an impossible situation.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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