April 10th, 2020

Teaching in the age of coronavirus: Week 2 — Vibe check

EducationOnline LearningSocial StudiesSTEMU.S.Uncategorized
Photo credit: Maximillian Re-Sugiura


by Sari Beth Rosenberg

“How is everyone feeling?,” I asked last Monday as I wrapped up my lesson on the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement. My inquiry was met with an uncanny hum of silence. One or two students finally chimed in and shared that they were “really, really stressed out, Miss.” This admission opened up a watershed of complaints and student expressions of anxiety.

I was not surprised by this response at all, because I was feeling the same exact way. My Zoom class that day had been accompanied by a steady stream of ambulance sirens in the background. Despite our best efforts at staying focussed on the lesson, it was impossible to ignore the larger context: the global pandemic that had put our dear city in quarantine. 

One or two students finally chimed in and shared that they were “really, really stressed out, Miss.”

Many of my students have still not stepped outside for weeks. Although it is good to know that they are following the social distancing rules, I am sure it is taking a toll on their mental health. Meanwhile, their anxiety levels seem to increase with every assignment and teacher email that piles up on their computer and smartphone screens. 

Related: Educator Voice: Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus: Week 1

So, after the unsettling results of the check-in with my students, I decided to change up my plan for the week.

My first step was consulting with my father, Dr. Gary Rosenberg, to get some advice. He is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. Although sad to hear it, he was not surprised that my students were struggling. From the beginning, aside from the virus itself,  he has “been most concerned by the stress and trauma that is impacting children and adolescents, as well as the parents and teachers who are on the frontlines in helping the children cope.”

Sari Beth Rosenberg (left) and her father, Dr. Gary Rosenberg (right). Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

He advised that any specific concerns about my students’ mental (and physical) health should be immediately referred to the school guidance counselor and social worker. He stressed the importance of professionals (not teachers!) using the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire to assess and support the emotional needs of children in this new and challenging environment. 

The fact that we are no longer teaching in a physical space, combined with the fact that we are surrounded by so many external stressors, makes it particularly challenging to maintain boundaries with students.  It was helpful to be reminded that although I play an important role in the well being of my students, it is important to refer students to a professional to help them manage and cope with their stress. 

…although I play an important role in the well being of my students, it is important to refer students to a professional to help them manage and cope with their stress. 

So, my next challenge was figuring out how I could continue to maintain the structure of class and assignments, without further contributing to student stress. I decided that it was important to keep the continuity of how I had been teaching all year. However, I needed to scale back my assignments, while still making them rigorous and meaningful. I shortened the homework readings, as well as the classwork assignments, for our Civil Rights Movement Unit.

I decided to play some of the video clips from “Eyes on the Prize” during our Zoom class, instead of having students watch them on their own. That way I could cut down on their workload and also pause the clips to ask focus questions to better guide their analysis. For example, when students viewed the scene from “Eyes on the Prize” about Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I paused the video to ask my students: 

“Do you agree with the white clergymen’s request to Dr. King to slow down in his push for desegregation?”

Then, when we viewed the segment about the Children’s March, I asked students if they agreed with the strategy of sending children out to protest segregation in Birmingham. This inquiry led to a lively discussion about protest strategy in general.

Screenshot of Sari Beth Rosenberg’s lesson plan on civil rights with photo by Bill Hudson/AP.

However, I could still tell that the overall student mood was not as lively as it had been during the first week of remote learning. The social distancing and coronavirus was taking an expected toll on them.

I decided to find a way to make the material from the curriculum more relevant to their current experience. Students had already been independently messaging me articles about the effect of the coronavirus epidemic on the most vulnerable people in the American population, including the undocumented as well as people imprisoned at Rikers Island. I was determined to find a way to connect my lessons to these issues.

My friend, Eliza Orlins, a public defender in New York City, jumped at the opportunity to talk to my students about the coronavirus and criminal justice issues. I set up an Instagram Live with her for the middle of the week. (I made sure to record it for students unable to tune into the event). It was a really educational experience for everyone.

Instagram Live screenshot featuring Eliza Orlins, public defender, as guest speaker in Sari Beth Rosenberg’s history class. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

As students watched, I interviewed Orlins about her occupation as a public defender and the human rights and criminal justice issues connected to the spread of coronavirus in prisons, especially Rikers Island. Orlins helped students connect the current day issue of prisoners at Rikers being more vulnerable to coronavirus as an example of a modern day civil rights issue.

Students asked questions in the chat section of Instagram, and she was able to help students synthesize current issues and help guide them in how to become more civically engaged. It was an educational and an empowering experience for many students who had been feeling helpless. 

We all showed off our respective face protecting gear (surreal, I know) and recycled some old jokes from when we used to hang out in an actual classroom. 

After the Instagram Live session, I received an outpouring of positive responses. Many students shared how they wished to pursue a career as a public defender, just like Eliza Orlins. In addition, one student reached out to me inquiring about ways that he could help the hospital workers and essential workers in New York City.

Students of Sari Beth Rosenberg. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg

Recognizing that my students were working diligently on the assignments while still coping with an inordinate amount of stress, I decided to modify Friday’s Zoom lesson. We spent the first part of class comparing Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, using primary sources they read for homework and an online textbook reading. However, I cut the lesson short just to allow the students to have an opportunity to unwind and vent. We even invited in their AP World History teacher from last year to join the discussion. We all showed off our respective face protecting gear (surreal, I know) and recycled some old jokes from when we used to hang out in an actual classroom. 

It felt great to allow everyone a space to “hang out” and model the importance of downtime since students had been stressing out all week. However, maintaining this delicate balance of meeting my students’ emotional and academic needs amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic is exhausting. I am proud of myself for staying flexible to meet their needs, however, I yearn to go back to a classroom with four walls where I can see their individual faces every day.

In the meantime, I had students send me their favorite “throwback” song and put them all together in a Spotify playlist for them, APUSH Picks Volume 1. Hopefully contributing to a playlist will help them feel a part of a collective group, even though we are all physically apart right now.

Sari Beth Rosenberg is an award-winning U.S. History teacher and writer. Her most recent media appearances include The Skimm’s Back To School series and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.” Last year, she wrote the #SheDidThat series for A&E Television Networks/Lifetime, daily women’s history posts and videos as well as numerous other publications. Sari helped write the new Global and U.S. History curriculum for the New York City Department of Education with a small team of educators. She also recently contributed to a forthcoming edition of the Hidden Voices curriculum. Sari is also a frequent curriculum consultant at New-York Historical Society, recently contributing as the Teacher Developer for the “Hudson Rising” (2019) exhibit. In March 2019 she was awarded the Paul Gagnon Prize by the National Council for History Education.  Sari has been teaching U.S. History at the High School for Environmental Studies, a public high school in NYC, for nearly 18 years. Find her on Twitter & Instagram @saribethrose, her teacher Instagram @sariteacheshistory and at


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