The Signal of Approaching Silence

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The Signal of Approaching Silence

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On Friday, March 20, 2020, I was grocery shopping at Hy-Vee in Canton, Illinois when my mobile phone pinged with an alert from a local news app: the Illinois governor had officially issued a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Rumors of the impending order had been circulating for the past few days. I teach English at Canton High School, and we were scheduled to start a week of Spring Break that Friday. That morning the principal had cautioned us to take home our computers and any teaching materials that we might need, just in case we did not return to school after Break. So, the text message confirmed a stark reality.

Talk of the stay-at-home order overtook the conversations of shoppers around me. People were speculating about what would come next, now that schools and businesses would be closed. I remember passing the meat counter where I overheard the department manager taking a phone call from a gentleman who wanted to place an apocalypse-sized order of beef. This is it, I thought to myself, trying to figure out what kind of groceries to buy that would sustain my family over for an indefinite period of time, because even though the stay-at-home order was for just two weeks, I had a sinking suspicion we were not going to best Covid-19 in two weeks’ time. I began pushing my cart up and down the aisles faster, a little more frantically, in response to a burgeoning awareness that the virus could already be circulating within our community.

Looking back now, I see that we were somewhat cocooned in Fulton County, Illinois, a mostly rural county. The health department announced the first positive case on April 10; the first death occurred on October 21. The virus was slow to take a foothold, but eventually it did. In late July, our school district’s board unanimously voted to start the school year fully remote. Each school day, teachers reported to ghost-town school buildings and holed up in their empty classrooms, with admonitions from administrators not to co-mingle with each other. During that time, I dutifully logged onto Google Meets for each class period, where various avatars greeted me because students were not required to turn on their cameras, so none did. Sometimes I got to hear tinny student voices, which sounded a lot further away than across town, and I wondered if each voice matched the person I pictured in my mind’s eye. I had never met the majority of my students in person, and the photographs on our school’s student management system had not been updated since the fall of 2019.

I remember the frustration I struggled to keep capped when I would call on students and be met with silence. Were they even sitting by the computer? Were they afraid to say something in front of their classmates, lest they look stupid? Were they just willfully ignoring me? Were they okay, physically and mentally? I pulled more words out of students through written assignments and chat boxes than through Google Meets. Although part of the student body returned to in-person school in January of 2021 while the rest remained remote by choice (we taught both groups concurrently), it was still difficult to get students to speak, even to each other. Sadly, many of our students had become so accustomed to the idea of school as a radio broadcast—one from which they could easily disengage if they so wished—that they no longer felt it necessary to contribute their voices. In Illinois, we’ve been told that all students will return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021, with few exceptions, but I fear the virus has done irrevocable damage to our students’ speech.

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This item was submitted on July 2, 2021 by Keely Vollmar using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”:

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