Soo Sup Cha has been teaching how to read “ing” sounds to his screen of first grade students. He reads to a gallery of faces on Zoom, and to the quiet, still rows of empty desks and empty chairs in front of him. In their own Zoom windows, his students all write down the letters on their paper — or likely their iPads — and Soo Sup asks them each to read what they wrote. The microphones all turn on.
“I...N...G…” the chorus of students responds. Microphones quickly turn back off again.
Now Soo Sup asks them to read the sound. Microphones on.
“ING!” the students all call back.
If a student were to read a word correctly, normally he’d give them a high five. Now, it’s just a thumbs-up reaction on his Zoom window. One day, when a student fell out of her chair and was crying, all he could do was try to cheer her up through the computer screen. Inside his empty classroom, he felt trapped.
As Soo Sup looks out across his Zoom screen, he sees blurry faces and glazed eyes. He knows his students are listening, but he doesn’t know if they understand.
Soo Sup, 26, believes teaching is built on the connections he can make with his students. And while most classes are back in-person in Monroe County, Soo Sup’s first grade class at Rogers Elementary School in Bloomington is still online. He is working with the students whose parents did not want them to attend school in person during the pandemic.
Down the hall, he can hear the laughter and energy of classes taking place in the building. The connections he’d made with his young students — one of the biggest reasons he wanted to be a teacher since he was in first grade himself — has never and will never be the same over Zoom.
Before the pandemic, his students learned to read and write with wide-ruled paper or white boards, carefully tracing out each letter and excitedly holding it up, seeking his approval. Now, Soo Sup’s students learn from computer programs he didn’t know about a year ago, before he’d ever had to worry about teaching to faces on a screen.
At the end of the day, with his own screen closed, Soo Sup is lonely, longing for those chairs to be filled.
What brings him hope? The COVID-19 vaccine. After initially not being included, all teachers in Indiana are now eligible. Soo Sup thinks about the shot that will bring students back to his classroom and bring back what he once knew as normal.
[Related: Read our coronavirus coverage here.]
Soo Sup remembers sitting in his first grade class with Mrs. Kessinger, struck with the culture shock of moving from South Korea to St. Louis at 5 years old. One day, he didn’t know what a shadow was, so Mrs. Kessinger took the whole class outside and showed Soo Sup his shadow. In that moment, he remembers that he felt comfortable in his new American classroom and inspired by his teacher’s simple act.
From that young age, Soo Sup knew he wanted to teach. He got his first teaching job as a teenager — sort of.
Soo Sup tutored his brother, who is 10 years younger than him, mostly out of necessity. His family couldn’t afford a babysitter, so he helped his brother with his schoolwork every day while their parents worked.
He didn’t know it as a child, but all of his time with his brother and his admiration for Mrs. Kessinger made elementary school teaching the right fit. He now knows he works best with young children. And as he got older, Soo Sup also knew he wanted to bring a different perspective to his classroom, with so few male elementary school teachers, let alone Korean men.
“I just wanted to offer both a male perspective but also a culturally different perspective than what kids in southern Indiana might see,” Soo Sup said.
Soo Sup studied education at IU. He’s worked at Rogers since he graduated in 2016, teaching kindergarten. This is his first year teaching first grade.
At a school without much diversity, he said, Soo Sup makes his Korean heritage part of his classroom. He speaks Korean fluently, and when he has Korean students in his class — this year is the first year he hasn’t had one — he helps them learn English if they need and feel comfortable in his classroom, just as his own teachers did for him.
He describes his teaching style as wanting to make his students laugh, almost to a fault. That desire for laughter extends out of the classroom. Soo Sup has performed stand-up at the Comedy Attic, but his jokes certainly wouldn’t work in a kindergarten class.
He worked as an Uber driver sporadically over the last two years to pay off his student loans — his elementary school teacher salary isn’t enough. In his Toyota RAV4, Soo Sup always tried to laugh with passengers.
In his classroom, Soo Sup tries to incorporate play-based activities — using toys and games to teach, as well as to offer a mental break for his students. He said some teachers just quickly go through all the information in the curriculum, but he said at ages 5 and 6, kids are still kids. They still need to play. He strives first to make them feel comfortable and then to create fun, engaging ways to teach crucial skills like reading and writing.
And when class is on Zoom, his teaching style can’t happen the same way.
The Monroe County Community School Corporation uses three color phases to determine the status of in-person learning. Red means COVID-19 positivity rates in Monroe County are at or above 10%, meaning entirely online classes. Yellow is in the middle, with positivity rates between 6% and 9%, and a hybrid style of learning. Green is fully in-person with positivity rates at or below 5%, though parents can still choose to be online.
The status updates occur every two weeks for MCCSC and have fluctuated throughout the school year. That forces staff with in-person classes to constantly shift their teaching format.
MCCSC Communications Officer Kelby Turmail said there were some bumpy roads adjusting to technology and fluctuating modes of teaching but that MCCSC staff had done a great job adjusting.
Turmail said there is no evidence MCCSC knows of for COVID-19 spread in its classrooms.
Teachers were not initially prioritized for the vaccine in Indiana’s vaccine rollout plan, leading to strong pushback from the Indiana State Teachers Association. In February, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb came under pressure when rumors circulated on social media that teachers were being kicked off stand-by lists for the COVID-19 vaccine, preventing them from being vaccinated. Ultimately, the Indianapolis Star reported those rumors were false.
All teachers became eligible for the vaccine as a result of a March 3 federal directive from President Joe Biden. A week later, Indiana allowed all teachers to be vaccinated at state-run clinics.
“I was very discouraged that Indiana as a state wasn’t prioritizing teachers because we come in contact with so many kids,” Soo Sup said.
The federal vaccination sites in Indiana — Kroger, Walmart and Meijer stores — struggled to handle the surge of sign-ups when all teachers became eligible. On March 5, an employee at the Jackson Creek Kroger said no one at the store was able to comment on the situation and directed the call to the central division main office in Indianapolis. However, she also said the sign-up system was experiencing difficulties and teachers should wait until the next week to try signing up if they could not at the time.
“I suspect you already know demand is strong across Monroe County,” Eric Halvorson, Kroger Central Division’s manager of corporate affairs, wrote in an email to the Indiana Daily Student on March 9. “It rose as quickly as age eligibility fell, last week. We also began to welcome teachers seeking vaccinations. With those changes taking place at virtually the same time, our appointments fill almost as soon as they open.”
Early the following week, the website’s issues had been fixed.
MCCSC is not requiring teachers or students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as of late March, though it is encouraged. Turmail said the vast majority of teachers are getting vaccinated as they become eligible.
Turmail suggested MCCSC schools in green status may be the new normal, even for the coming fall semester. Social distancing, sanitizing and masks will still be a part of school, at least at the beginning of the new school year. Any future guidance will be based on guidelines from the state, Turmail said.
[Related: COVID-19 spread not detected in MCCSC classrooms, contact tracers say]
Even with steadily low case numbers in Indiana and Monroe County in 2021, Turmail said it’s too early to judge what school will look like in August and September.
With a fully online class regardless of MCCSC’s status, Soo Sup hasn’t had to handle the back and forth between teaching methods his colleagues have faced this year. He wakes up at 6 a.m. every day to be at school by 7:30. He goes into his lonely classroom to record a lesson. After that, he teaches a class on Zoom with the full group before moving into smaller break out rooms. After school, he goes home and to bed by 8:30 p.m., ready to start the cycle all over again.
He shares his screen to show his students the book they are reading or the various computer programs for reading, writing and math concepts. At some point, all the different websites and programs get overwhelming for him. Soo Sup sometimes forgets to upload a worksheet or two to Canvas because there is so much to keep track of.
For students and teachers alike, Zoom gets exhausting after a while.
[Related: IU experts offer mental health tips for the semester]
So Soo Sup likes to use the breakout rooms not just as a chance to teach, but as an opportunity for students to socialize with each other. He knows his students aren’t getting to make friends or connect with their teachers like they’re used to. Those short moments in the breakout rooms are the closest thing Soo Sup has to what his classroom would normally look like.
Sometimes, he’s had to explain and contextualize to his students what has been going on in the world the past year. He tells them to stay positive. Frankly, Soo Sup has to tell himself the same thing.
“Some days it can be very lonely because I thrive off of personal connections,” Soo Sup said. “I understand the importance of having an online education and understand the importance of my role and offering that to students. But parts of me still are very sad by all of it.”
Soo Sup first saw he was eligible for the vaccine when watching the news. His first reaction was excitement, followed by relief. Finally, he had hope.
[Related: Indiana reaches 1 million Hoosiers vaccinated for COVID-19]
Soo Sup said he initially experienced trouble signing up for his vaccine because of the website’s early struggles. He said other teachers he knew had similar issues.
He received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 8 at a Kroger in Columbus, Indiana. He received his second on March 30. With the shot in his arm, Soo Sup remembers having mixed emotions. He remembers a surreal feeling, finally getting the vaccine. He remembers feeling weighed down, thinking about all the hundreds of thousands of people who have died — people who might still be here with the very shot he was getting.
And he remembers feeling that weight on himself release, grateful for the science that developed the vaccine and hopeful for a turn for the better.
Soo Sup remains hopeful he’ll have students sitting in the empty chairs lining his classroom soon, even with vaccine eligibility for his students potentially not coming until 2022. He’s hopeful he’ll give his students high fives and hugs again too.
He’s hopeful he’ll laugh and teach like he’s used to again.
“Laughing is a little different online, isn’t it?”