Teachers bring creativity to plans for unusual year

The back-to-school jitters are a little different this year.

Kids still need notebooks and pencils, crayons and binders. Stores are still having back-to-school sales.  School staff is prepping the buildings to open their doors.

But with “facemasks” on the supply lists, it’s a not-so-gentle reminder that while some things stay constant, this school year is going to be a new experience for not just the students and families, but their teachers as well.  

“I’m excited for school to start back up,” said Hampshire High School social studies teacher Sadie Alkire. “There are definitely nerves involved this year with all the uncertainty, but with school having to shift to distance learning so abruptly in March and not really getting to say goodbye to my kids, it’ll be really nice to see them, along with meeting my new students.”

Alkire’s outlook is a positive one (“I just attempt to stay optimistic,” she added), and with big changes like the introduction of Schoology as a remote learning platform for students and classrooms missing 1/3 of the kids, she’s ready for the challenge and she thinks kids will be, too.

“If my few years as a teacher and a parent have taught me anything, kids are resilient,” she said.

Gayle Allen, a kindergarten teacher at Springfield-Green Spring Elementary, said she got to meet one of her resilient new students this week.

“He had his mask on, his eyes were just so bright and shining and he handed me some flowers and we just talked,” Allen recalled. “COVID or no COVID, mask or no mask, they are excited to be here.”

With the younger kids Allen teaches, it’s going to be a little different to get them on board and engaged with the virtual learning. About half the students on her 21-student roll are going to be learning remotely this year, which puts lots of pressure on her to create engaging lessons for these kids online.

“I’ve been researching online and through social media across the world: what’d they do with kids this age?” Allen explained. “You get their 5-10 minute attention span, and then they need to switch to another thing.”

One of the ideas Allen came up with was the idea of a “virtual buddy,” where someone who is attending school in-person is a buddy with a remote learner.

“It’s sort of like pen pals,” Allen said. “So then, whenever people can get back together again, they feel like they’re a part of the group.”

With the addition of the virtual learning, Allen said it’s going to take a toll on her out-of-school hours, namely, her 2nd job.

“I have to teach all day long, which is normal, but after I get done, instead of going up to the Wellness Center for my 2nd job, I’ll have to stop,” she said. “It’s 2 teaching jobs in one. I’m used to having 2 jobs, I’ve been working at the Wellness Center for 13 years.”

With the in-person teaching and working at the Wellness Center as a swim instructor, and now the addition of a sort of “3rd job” teaching virtually, Allen said it’s going to be tough to keep the Wellness Center on her schedule, and she’s not the only teacher with that problem this year.

“There are a lot of teachers with 2nd jobs out there,” Allen pointed out, adding that while these jobs might seem “invisible” (as in, people might not know about them), they do exist, and the added strain of teaching virtual as well as in-person puts lots of pressure on these folks.

 Virtual learning might seem relatively cut-and-dry: teachers add lessons, students attend lessons virtually, students do assignments and everything goes smoothly. But what happens if the class you teach is, say, nursing?

Kristie Long is the health occupations teacher at HHS, and translating classes in this department for virtual learners is far from an easy task.

“It’s going to work the best we can make it work, depending on the guidance from government agencies, including the local and state health departments,” Long said. “At present, students are not allowed in the long-term clinical area because of COVID-19 transmissibility.”

How does a class so dependent on hands-on learning make that switch to virtual?

Long said she’s been researching for a while how to replace hands-on clinical learning with simulation, and she’s hopeful that the practical application will work for the nursing students at HHS.

“It’s going to be a matter of being patient with the slow pace of recovery. It’s going to be a different pattern than we are used to doing,” she explained. “I’m pretty up on sanitation and being clean, but it doesn’t come that naturally to the students. They’ll have to learn that skill.”

The skills students learn in the health occupations courses are vital for the future of the community, and Long said this makes it all the more important that the simulation helps build the same skills as in-person learning.

“These students will eventually be hired to care for people I care about,” she said.

Long, Allen and Alkire are just 3 teachers in Hampshire County gearing up for school to begin, and the challenges they’re facing are the same as many other teachers and staff. Allen said she’s been lucky to have folks helping her out in the huge undertaking that is back-to-school in the time of COVID-19. 

“A lot of teachers are trying to do this all alone. They're not reaching out,” Allen noted. “Even if it’s daunting and overwhelming, at least you’ve got someone to share it with. It’s a lot easier to handle if you feel like you’ve got a support system.”

With stress on their schedules, half-full classrooms with virtual components and new rules and health guidelines that seem to shift every day, it’s going to be a challenge for Hampshire County teachers this fall, but it looks like they’re up for the task.

“I’m pretty confident that whatever challenges we face moving into this new school year, Hampshire County will be able to overcome,” Alkire said. “All we want for our students is for them to be safe, happy and successful this year, whether that’s in the classroom or at home.”

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