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The impossible task of being a teacher and a parent during a pandemic is enough to break a person, and on the Sunday before the first day of school in Durham, North Carolina, it almost did.

Sitting at the white kitchen table in her split-level home in a verdant, hilly neighborhood, seventh-grade English teacher Anca Stefan's eyes welled up with tears as she thought about the days ahead.

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School teacher Anca Stefan prepares for a virtual staff meeting before the first day of remote classes in Durham in the state of North Carolina, where the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many schools to run only online lessons for at least the first quarter of the academic year. August 16, 2020 THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

She spent the last two weeks scrambling to learn how to use Zoom videoconferencing, getting up to speed on the state's online learning platform and figuring out how to translate her in-person lessons for a virtual classroom.

But she has wondered if academic rigor was really what kids need at a time when many of their lives were turned upside down.

To do her job, Stefan has turned her kitchen into her classroom and the table into her desk, against the backdrop of a sink stacked with dishes and a refrigerator covered with family photos.

Down the hall is a bedroom filled with stuffed animals, and home to a pet gerbil named Giblet, that will be the classroom for Stefan's bubbly 8-year-old daughter Eliza, who goes by Ellie.

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Eliza Grow, aged eight, sits in front of her laptop and desk to prepare for virtual classes from her home in Durham, North Carolina, expecting that lessons will be held online for at least the first nine weeks of the academic year. August 16, 2020. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

The bedroom, which will be used for remote learning at least for the first nine weeks of the school year, has been readied with a squat wooden table for a desk, a black Google Chromebook and a cup full of colored markers.

While some parents might be able to help their children find their way through this new and unusual school year, Stefan will be busy with her 110 students.

The hope is the two will be able to have lunch together, but with the flood of emails and requests for technical help Stefan receives throughout the day it seems unlikely.

"We're not feeling confident right now, we’re feeling super vulnerable," Stefan, a single mother, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

School teacher Anca Stefan prepares lunch for her daughter Eliza in their home in Durham, North Carolina, August 16, 2020, worried about the impact of online education and lack of friends on her child as the coronavirus keeps many schools in the state closed for at least the first quarter of the academic year. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

She said she worries about what is missing in her daughter's life and who Ellie will lean on when she feels lost or confused.

"(Ellie) doesn't have her people any more, her friends, her teachers, and it breaks my heart," Stefan said as her tears spilled over and rolled down her cheeks.

She said she too feels lost, isolated from other teachers and colleagues after almost 13 years on the job.

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School teacher Anca Stefan takes her computer outside to find a better wifi signal during a virtual class from her home in Durham, North Carolina, August 16, 2020, having brushed up on her tech skills to cope with running lessons remotely for at least the first quarter of the academic year as the number of coronavirus cases keeps rising. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

Yet in some sense, they are the lucky ones.

In Transylvania County in western North Carolina, some 260 miles away, the district opted for a Plan B re-opening, which allows schools to re-open for in-person teaching with social distancing, staggered attendance and a slate of health precautions.

Teachers there are struggling to be sources of support for students but worry about safety - the number of statewide cases has passed 167,000, with more than 2,700 deaths.

"I'm not on a ventilator yet," joked Josh Tinsley, a high school English teacher and board member of the Transylvania County Association of Educators, the local teachers' organization.

"I've come to learn that there will always be some level of uncertainty," he said.

"I don't necessarily fear for myself, and it's not that I don't believe I won't get it, but in regards to students I have real concern about the impact on them and the impact on their families."

As schools face re-opening across the country, teachers are caught in a vice - being forced back into the classroom, risking spread of the novel coronavirus, or teaching remotely, feeling inadequate trying to reach students through video conferencing.

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An empty playground stands behind a church building housing the Little Believer’s Academy II in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, after many parents pulled their children out fearing coronavirus infection. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

In July, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced that the state's 115 public school districts could follow a Plan B re-opening, allowing in-person teaching with reduced class sizes and various health protocols.

Districts could also opt for Plan C, which allows schools to utilize remote teaching for at least the first quarter of the academic year.

Most districts chose the latter, which proved its challenges on the first day of school when the statewide online teaching platform crashed.

About four dozen districts, according to a database maintained by the North Carolina School Board Association, chose Plan B to allow some in-person teaching.

A spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state's school system, did not answer emailed requests for comment. Neither did a representative for the Durham schools.

Educators say they are concerned about how missing school will affect students in the long term.

An empty playground at Little Believer’s Academy II in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, where the coronavirus has emptied some daycare centers and nurseries although numbers are starting to rise as teachers return to school. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

"There's quite a bit of evidence that in periods where kids have not been able to go to school at all, like summer or in other natural disasters, that students did suffer," said Emiliana Vegas, a senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. 

"These impacts aren't just in the short term, but also are reflected in lifetime earnings and other indicators."

While quantifying the impact of lengthy virtual or distance learning is hard to measure, educators and researchers agree that the pandemic will most affect students, districts and schools on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder that already struggle with fewer resources, less adequate facilities and a lower quality of education.

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An employee of Little Believer’s Academy II checks on children in the main space of the center, in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, where numbers have slumped with parents withdrawing their children due to fears over coronavirus infections. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

   

Technological inequalities already hinder poorer students and schools trying to secure resources like equipment and high-speed internet access, said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.

But the pressing issue now is how reopening schools is a huge responsibility being placed upon teachers, she said.

"It's not an overstatement to say we’ve put the reopening of the American economy on the backs of America's teachers," Anderson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even when schools closed their doors in March, teachers took on roles delivering food and helping connect families with rent support and eviction prevention, all the while teaching remotely, she said.

Charlene Brooks, a caretaker at Little Believer’s Academy II, greets a family as they are dropped off in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, with many parents working in essential services such as healthcare and transportation in daily need of care for their children. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

One concern for many educators and experts is how teachers and school districts will attend to students' psychological needs when the children are isolated from friends and possibly watching family members fall ill, be hospitalized or die.   

Prior to the pandemic, a growing number of schools were practicing social-emotional learning (SEL), which seems all the more critical now, said Stefan.

"The question is what is the most meaningful contribution that I, as an adult guide and mentor, can provide for my students who are very raw and very green and being constantly rattled and shaken by a world in crisis," Stefan said.

Tinsley said he is considering starting group meditation with his students to help them address emotional issues.

Abby Schachner, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, an education research and policy organization in Washington that focuses on SEL, said the pandemic could hasten the process in which schools are incorporating emotional health issues into their teaching and programs.

"This could take place in advisory meetings, and using these spaces to check in on how kids are doing but also teach strategies for managing emotions," Schachner said.

For middle and high school students, she said, keeping a journal is a way to "reflect and process and talk through coping strategies and what they can do about the feelings they're having."

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Cassandra Brooks, owner of Little Believer’s Academy II in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, has struggled to keep her two daycare centres running, with numbers down by almost two-thirds since the outbreak of coronavirus. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

Daycare providers have been hit hard as well, struggling to stay afloat as parents opt to keep their young children at home.

Enrolment at Cassandra Brooks' two Little Believer's childcare centers in the suburbs of Raleigh has fallen by almost two-thirds since the outbreak began. 

"Like a snap of the finger there was major change," Brooks said.

Most people pulled their children out fearing infection, but some children remained, particularly those whose parents were essential workers such as health care and transportation employees.

Before the children are allowed to enter the daycare centers, their temperatures are taken and parents let workers know if they have had a fever, cough or runny nose.

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Charlene Brooks, a caretaker at Little Believer’s Academy II, checks temperatures before children enter the building, in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, as required to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

Inside her daycare center closest to Raleigh, housed in a red brick building that doubles as a church, the playroom is lined with a rainbow-hued carpet and filled with toys, but large pillows and other soft items that are hard to clean are gone.

Brooks said she has spent thousands of dollars on cleaning supplies and equipment, air purifiers and ultraviolet lights that are supposed to kill COVID-19.

At first she said she received money from the U.S. government's Paycheck Protection Program set up to help small businesses, but those funds ran out at the end of July.

The bills piled up after one child tested positive, and she was forced to close her doors and pay a cleaning crew $1,400 to scrub before she could reopen.

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A parent drops off their child at Little Believer’s Academy II in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, where numbers slumped after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

Brooks has 19 instructors, down from 24 after five quit over safety worries.

Brooks said she had seen an uptick in enrolment as some teachers return to school and need childcare, and also a bump in after-school program attendance.

"You can do everything you can to follow the protocols to be sure you keep a clean space, but you don’t know what anyone is doing outside of your space," she said.

"It's like you're on a seesaw, and you're hoping it's going to balance back out," she said. "Little did I realize that this is a journey, this isn't going to let up anytime soon."

A child walks to the front door of Little Believer’s Academy II in Garner, North Carolina, August 19, 2020, with more children enroling as some teachers return to school and after-school programs are in demand. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

In Durham, the school system stayed with virtual classrooms after an outcry by teachers, but the district will reassess its plans beyond the first quarter.

“If I'm in class with the kids, whatever that class looks like, I'm going to take care of them," Stefan said. "I'm going to share whatever knowledge and expertise I have and I'm going to make them feel like their time is helping them to grow and improve and to ground themselves emotionally.

"When I'm not in class I'm going to continue fighting for them."

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School teacher Anca Stefan prepares lunch for her daughter Eliza in their home in Durham, North Carolina, August 16, 2020, concerned about juggling work from home during the coronavirus pandemic and caring for her daughter who is missing her friends. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Lynsey Weatherspoon

Photography byLynsey Weatherspoon

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