COVID-19 is not only a physical danger, but it’s also made the negative parts of being a teacher seem even worse.
I’m an English teacher, so naturally, my thinking tends to work itself out in imagery and metaphors.
When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but think of any number of books I’ve read or films I’ve seen where literal storms pop up in the distance right before a critical plot point.
As a viewer and reader who approaches things through a critical lens, I know that a storm is never just a storm. It’s never about the weather.
Dark clouds menace and hover in the sky — all gray and black — inching closer to the shoreline, toward people, toward life now threatened.
Sure, storms may disrupt the landscape and cause actual damage, but there’s always something else at work, some ominous force, some foreboding disruption in the characters’ lives.
When I think about March 2020, I think about how we were still ashore, everything still relatively intact — but with a dark cloud on the horizon, quickly approaching. As the days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, a year, and more, the cloud stayed dark and spread, covering our lives completely.
Like most of the country, my school finished the 2019-2020 school year remotely. We were in survival mode.
I love comedy, so besides covering the essential curriculum and checking in with my students, I spent a lot of time making funny videos to introduce lessons. My poor husband had an unpaid internship as my cameraman, best boy, and gaffer.
At the time, virus-related things were just ramping up, but my colleagues and I remained hopeful.
Our governor took things seriously. Whether I voted for him didn’t matter: He became nationally known for how he handled the conflict, held daily press conferences, and stood next to a respected doctor every day while she gave her reasoned and scientific opinion about how best to fight this emerging pandemic.
When it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t a phase, that we could only wait this thing out with hope and prayers, when patience for things like holing up in one’s home, wearing masks, and distancing oneself from loved ones wore thin, my family and I dug in our heels.
Why? Partly because we trust science. My husband and I are reasonably smart people (between the two of us, we have four English degrees), but math and science never came easy.
Medicine and science are broad fields, and sure, one doctor may disagree with another. However, when the majority of Ultra Smart Science People give us simple steps to take to defeat a disease that has destroyed countless lives, I’m inclined to follow their advice.
There’s another reason why my family played it safe during the pandemic: I have multiple sclerosis (MS).
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is described as being “an immune-mediated disease,” which is confusing jargon that means people with MS have an immune system that attacks itself. Specifically, our immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath around our nerve endings, impairing cognition, sight, feeling, and mobility.
COVID-19 is relatively new, and long-term effects even newer, so I knew there just wasn’t enough data to come to any conclusions about what the disease does to a person with MS.
This is the case with many conditions. We lack the data because we’re just now collecting the data. Time, I hope, will tell.
The National MS Society’s COVID-19 guidelines suggest that while having MS doesn’t necessarily make you more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, factors like type of MS (those with progressive MS have it worse), weight, race, sex, disability level, and treatment type may make a case of COVID-19 more severe.
Additionally, I’ll never forget my neurologist’s words when I asked him about the vaccine. He said there was not enough data, but he suspected people with MS aren’t as protected by the vaccine as people without MS. But some protection is better than none.
People with MS are used to living with this kind of vague sense of not knowing. I’m an optimistic person, but I’ve also made my peace with a certain level of existential dread.
Having MS means you are constantly assessing your own body: what it’s going through, what potential stressors will do to it, and advocating for your health on a near-constant basis.
Teachers with MS may forget where they put their keys every single day, but we’re great at multitasking what’s going on with our bodies at the same time we teach Shakespeare.
Knowing my immune system isn’t the same as a typical person, that a vaccine wasn’t available at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, and that data was “still being collected,” I applied to work remotely.
Working remotely isn’t novel, though many of us are new to it.
Working remotely is still hard work.
Working remotely is necessary for some, hated by some, a luxury to some, and hard to secure for some.
Working remotely for a public school that stayed open turned out to be more of a headache at first.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists for a reason, and without throwing my school where I work under the bus, my meeting with HR to express my desire to work remotely was less than warm.
When I raised my concerns and my request to teach from home, the first thing the person on the other end of our Zoom conference suggested was that I take a year of unpaid sabbatical.
I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy being able to afford things like housing, and, I suppose, food for my children to eat. Unpaid sabbatical leave wasn’t an option.
Having MS means you are at times advocating for yourself to hostile and unsympathetic ears. A lifelong conflict-averse individual, I’ve had to toughen my skin and steel my nerves to know my rights, speak up for myself, and plead for what’s best for my health.
Ultimately, I was allowed to stay home. I’m grateful for that — truly, I am.
Only a few of us worked remotely, and while I know many people found teaching over Zoom to be tedious, isolating, and full of challenges both big and small, I had a wholly positive experience.
I am not camera-shy, I keep things lively, and on the whole, my students responded to that. The peace of mind from getting to teach from home isn’t lost on me.
Fast-forward to the current school year, and besides the fact that many people (myself included) are vaccinated and masked, the news about COVID-19, the number of people dying and dead, and the implications of long-term effects continues to be bleak.
I’m disheartened by the number of people — smart, reasonable people — who have fallen for fearmongering propaganda about the vaccine or who have falsely conflated the inconvenience of wearing a mask with the government’s desire to control our every move.
The slippery slope fallacy is in full effect across the United States.
This school year, I’m back in a building where masks, to my dismay, are optional. I wear one full-time for myself, for my students, and for my own children who are too young to be vaccinated.
The first couple of weeks back were a shock, a slow but abrupt transition from being around my family of four and a few of our vaccinated friends to being in a building with a shoddy HVAC system, questionable airflow, and, thanks to past events, closed classroom doors in case of an active shooter.
To top it off, since I’m a high school teacher, I have around 120 students in a given day.
Since returning to the building, I’ve noticed an uptick in my fatigue. After school, I go home and lay on a very comfy couch in our front room.
Some days I need this rest. Some days it feels like the rest has claimed me, taken me, consumed me. I’ve noticed a constant self-monitoring of my feelings.
People with MS are used to not knowing what’s around the corner. The fear of an MS attack is a little similar to the fear of COVID-19. The big difference is that there are preventable measures we can take to help decrease our chances of contracting the coronavirus.
The fact that so many people hide their heads in the sand, refuse lifesaving vaccines, and eschew masks in the name of “freedom” feels personal.
Good intentions aside, it feels like in addition to the risks that people with MS have on a daily basis, there’s this increased risk because of carelessness. I have not gotten COVID-19 so far, and I do not want to.
I definitely don’t want to get COVID-19 because of an unmasked, unvaccinated student who comes to my classroom day in and day out, a student nevertheless to whom I give my full professional energy.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said that although earning an income from the arts isn’t guaranteed, the arts “are a very human way of making life more bearable.”
There are a million things about being an educator that drive me bonkers, make me angry, and drain the life out of me. COVID-19 is not only a physical danger, but it’s also made the negative parts of being a teacher seem even worse.
Yet the aspects I love about teaching, either remote or in-person — my wonderful students, my thoughtful and dedicated colleagues, the literature I’m so attached to — make life infinitely more bearable indeed: COVID-19, MS, or otherwise.
Erin Vore is a high school English teacher and Enneagram four who lives in Ohio with her family. When her nose isn’t in a book, she can usually be found hiking with her family, trying to keep her houseplants alive, or painting in her basement. A wannabe comedian, she lives with MS, copes with a whole lot of humor, and hopes to meet Tina Fey one day. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram.