Teaching Online Puts My Students — and My Health — First

Originally published to Medium – September 23, 2020

By: Verna Richard

For twelve years, I taught chemistry and physics in a brick-and-mortar public high school. Then, after more than a decade of teaching in a traditional setting, my health took a downturn. This forced me to consider two options: I could find a different career, or I could teach in a different kind of academic environment. I decided on the latter and became an online science teacher. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Across the country, there are thousands of teachers just like me who are being forced to make a choice between their health or the job they love. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 in 10 of U.S. adults have chronic disease. And nearly one in four teachers has a health condition, myself included, that puts us at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. That’s why, as officials continue to finalize their decisions on how to safely re-open schools this fall, their decision-making process must consider the health needs of our nation’s teachers.

Before I became a teacher, I worked as an industrial lab and research tech for a national food service company and as an environmental geologist with a local firm. Teaching allowed me to share my experiences and passion for science with my students, and I loved every second of it. But I soon began to experience strong symptoms of hyperparathyroidism, which included excessive and frequent migraines, discomfort throughout the digestive tract, kidney stones, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, brain fog, and heart palpitations. Individually, each of these issues was manageable, but when they came in groups of three or more, they zapped my energy and I was completely lethargic.

Calling in sick was something I did not like to do, but I could not make it through the day when my pain level was at a 10. When I missed a day in the classroom, my students missed a day of instruction. If there was a substitute teacher available, they could do enrichment exercises, but oftentimes there wasn’t a sub and my students were redistributed to several classrooms. I wasn’t getting to do what I loved the way I wanted, and my students were the ones paying the price.

I knew if my health continued to decline, it would not be long before I wouldn’t be physically able to teach. To keep doing what I loved, I needed an environment in which I could still provide my students with high-quality instruction, even if I did not have the energy to commute to or walk around a traditional classroom. I decided to teach online at Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (LAVCA).

Today, as a high school science teacher, I plan engaging online lessons, conduct fun science experiments, build relationships with my students and their families, and help prepare them for life after high school, just like I did in a brick-and-mortar school setting. My daily agenda is always full. I often work 50–60 hours a week making and optimizing lessons, grading written assignments, and providing feedback the same way I did in brick and mortar school. And my students receive the same curriculum and meet the same testing requirements as their peers across the state.

I still have days when my health issues flare up, but because I teach online from my home, I rarely need to take a day off. I can be there for my students without worrying that they are missing valuable instruction time or worrying about my health, especially during the pandemic.

While many districts are beginning the school year fully online, other districts are using a blended learning approach with both online and in-person lessons. Others have already opened their doors to daily in-person learning. However, I urge every school district to consider implementing more online teaching options for educators. Teaching online is a way for teachers, like myself, with health issues to have a safe alternative to continue doing what we love to do — teach! Without the opportunity to teach online, I would not have been able to continue my career as a science teacher. The best part is still seeing those moments of discovery in my students’ eyes, and knowing I am helping to shape the next generation of scientists.

Verna Richard, M. Ed. is a 20-year veteran science teacher in both online and brick-and-mortar settings. She has been teaching high school science at Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy (LAVCA) since 2012.

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