As if teaching wasn’t time consuming and demanding enough, just throw a pandemic in the mix. Back in June when the 2019-2020 school year ended, we all hoped that the next school year would start off on a brighter note. Nope. Now we’re three months into the year and some students have yet to step foot in a physical classroom and don’t know when they will next.
This pandemic has tested us in ways we would have never imagined and our schools, students, and educators have had to adapt significantly. In some cases it has been for the better and in other cases it’s been for the worse. Either way, I think it’s important for us to understand how everyone has been impacted by this pandemic and how we can work together to make the best out of this situation.
So, meet Kindergarten and First Grade Special Education teacher, Kira Thorpe! Kira works at the Chatham Elementary School in Upstate New York and has been been a teacher for four years now.
What does a “normal” day at school look like for you since the pandemic?
Wow, “normal” is there even a normal anymore? Each day is the same but different in many ways. I think the biggest change is that although we as teachers have been trained to expect the unexpected, we now really have to expect the unexpected and roll with it. Before it was nerve racking to have your day(s) flipped around on short notice…but back then (aka February) we had veteran teachers with 20+ years of experience to help guide us through.
We had administrators who were trained for those unexpected moments and we spent hours upon hours receiving professional development to always be prepared. But today we don’t have all of those resources because even our most veteran of teachers have never experienced what we currently are.
So a “normal” day starts with our mandatory COVID-19 screening, which must be completed prior to entering our respective buildings. Then any child or staff who did not or could not complete that screening is met at the front of the building and a staff member checks their temperature and they are asked to complete the screening questions here on site. After that our day begins just like any pre-pandemic school day began, except our students no longer eat breakfast in the cafeteria, students don’t roam the hallways to pop in to their old teachers rooms to say hi and we have to make sure each child’s designated space is ready to go for them.
This year I am working in kindergarten and first grade and for these student’s not much has changed, because this is truly their first couple of years of public schooling so they really don’t know any different. They wear their masks with little disruptions, they take their 5 minute mask breaks every 30 minutes when they are announced and they make sure to put them back on when the time is up. Really our students are the resilient ones and they are the ones teaching us something this year. We continue our day taking breaks, being mindful to stay in our designated seat (or if you’re creative a colorfully taped 6 by 6 box) and keep the distance between one another and are mindful not to share materials with one another. Our students are finding new ways to interact and have social interactions while still keeping themselves and others safe.
What type of remote schedule and rules have been put into place as a response to the pandemic? What type of remote learning accommodations were made for the students and teachers?
In the spring we really were unsure of the expectations because we were unsure just how long this was going to last. However, now that we have done this with little notice we all have developed schedules based on our individual grade level needs. Because I am a special education teacher my role looks a bit different than a general education classroom teacher. I attend my students classroom google meets when we are virtual and then I will host a small group or 1:1 google meets to work on their needs. Also, Chatham is fortunate enough to be a 1:1 school meaning, every student and instructional staff has a chromebook. Although during a typical school year the chromebooks stay here in the elementary school, we have obviously had to make accommodations with that rule and now all of our students K-12 have a chromebook that they have access to for our remote learning days.
What are the positives of online teaching (if any)? What are the negatives?
This is hard because online teaching is not ideal for so many of our learners. However, it is comforting to know that we have this choice to continue to teach our students during a time that may not be safe for them to be out in public settings. As teachers we are concerned about this generation of students for years to come even after this pandemic ends and the learning deficits all of our students are going to be facing once this all ends. So having the ability to teach them from a distance to at least help them continue to learn is extremely important. Our students have fallen behind and if we can help close that gap even a little then virtual teaching is working.
As for negatives, I think most teachers could make a long list of why it is not ideal. But for me as a special education teacher I worry about the students with attention deficits, learning disabilities and social-emotional needs and how the lack of face-to-face interactions is going to hinder them as a person, sure academics is important but I also worry about their mental health. Students with learning differences are at a greater risk for developing mental health related disorders and I believe once we come out of this pandemic we are going to see the largest increase of mental related needs in students than ever before. When you ask a student to learn from home it is not going to be the same as if we were in person. Many students have other siblings in the same position as them and their caregivers are stretched thin.
What do you miss the most about being in school full-time teaching? What do you think your students miss the most?
It’s hard to say what I miss because it’s also hard to remember what life was like pre-pandemic even though it was less than a year ago. But, I think I miss the genuine connections that were made whether it be teacher and students or teachers to teachers. We have a pretty tight knit staff here and to no longer be able to meet in person and see faces you used to spend 5 days a week with has been difficult. Sometimes change is unexpected and challenging but it’s just what we needed to keep us on our toes and continuing to evolve as great educators. I have long believed that as an educator we are lifelong learners and sometimes we can get complacent in our careers, and this pandemic has absolutely made sure that is not the case for us teachers and it has truly shown just how flexible we as teachers have to be. Don’t get me wrong though I cannot wait for the day when mask wearing at school and social distancing is a thing of the past.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about teachers and schools currently?
I think right now people truly don’t understand how hard this is for teachers, especially for our mental health. Sure we can make it work and we will find a way to teach virtually if needed, but we are missing those connections and relationships that we build with our students. We are still forming bonds with them but it’s being done in a much different way than what we are accustomed to. I also think it’s important for people to understand that we are doing the best we can in a situation where we have no one there that has done this before. We don’t have that veteran teacher of 30 years that has pandemic teaching experience…because well no one in our life has been through something like this. So we are all doing what we can and trying to stay on top of the constant changes that are being handed down to us from powers outside of our school district. Much of what the districts decide to do is coming from the direction of outside parties, like our local county health organization, so really we have minimal control over the decisions being made. We show up, we do the best job we can, and hope that your child learned something no matter how small it is.
I think the other important thing to acknowledge is that this is a traumatic event for everyone. Our entire public school system is experiencing trauma and it is more important than ever that we work with our students on their social-emotional well being. It is not always about academics and making sure a child can read sight words or count to 100. Sometimes the most important thing we can do in a day is work with a child who is experiencing trauma, and unfortunately they all are right now. Not every child will develop a response to what is going on but it’s important that they acknowledge what they are living in and help them identify what it is they can do if they do feel something about what is happening in their world.
Do you have any interesting stories or situations you’ve already experienced during this school year?
Last year I was in a unique situation. I was 39+ weeks pregnant when Governor Cuomo shut down our schools. I ended up delivering our first baby that same week. So not only was I dealing with the fears of this virus and the pandemic, I was also about to become a first time mother in the middle of it all. The one positive was that I was only scheduled to take 6 weeks of maternity leave, however because we were working from home I was able to spend 5 ½ months at home with my baby, something I could’ve only dreamed of. But with that it has made coming back to work that much harder for me. Now I have to worry about potentially being exposed each day and bringing that home to my husband and our son. I was also dealing with the normal sadness that moms experience when it is time to end their maternity on top of teacher/covid pandemic anxiety and sadness. Last spring I was able to shelter us a little more than I am now. However, our students are doing an amazing job of wearing their masks and frequently washing/sanitizing regularly. I think this has been the healthiest I can remember our students being.
What advice do you have for other teachers and parents to help them get through this school year?
Find something that is just for you that brings you joy. For me fitness has always been my outlet for stress. When the pandemic hit and I was cooped up at home with a newborn baby and not allowed to see many people I again turned to my fitness routine. I feel better once I sweat a little and work through whatever emotions I am feeling. I also make sure to take time once a month to engage in some self care and much needed girl talk with my hair stylist. It’s an area of contention if you ask my husband, but men just don’t understand! I’m also a crafty person so when my now 8 month old allows it, I like to create wooden signs that I sell on my instagram page. I make sure to detach from work and focus on being the best mother and wife I can be after I leave school. It’s important that we separate our work life from home life in this season that we are living in.