Even though Katie Miles has been teaching for 10 years, nothing could have prepared her for how teaching would change in light of a global pandemic.
“It’s like I have this very well-curated and well-maintained toolbox,” says Miles, a language arts teacher at Centennial Middle School. “And I brought that with me to school this year only to find that suddenly everything is in metric. Like none of my tools are the right size.”
It’s been more than a year since the first cases of COVID-19 hit Colorado, with businesses, schools and entire cities shutting down not long after. As everyone stayed home, educators adapted, connecting with classrooms and students virtually, doing the best they could with what resources and space they had.
In the beginning, science and student council teacher at Monarch High School Tony Tolbert taught from a corner in his closet, using a lamp to illuminate the space as he recorded lessons.
“That was my space; I would walk over there and just tell myself I’m going to work now,” he says, laughing at the memory of his teenage kids watching him emerge.
Sara Nelson, a second grade bilingual teacher at University Hill Elementary School, says, “It’s been a constant learning curve. My teammates and I joke about how in March suddenly we became YouTube stars,” as they created their own content, before there was, or they knew about, the wealth of resources now available.
Now most teachers are back in the classroom, instructing in a hybrid model where some students are in the classroom and others are at home.
Miles shows up at school at 6:30 a.m. most mornings to plan, modifying old lesson plans to fit the new hybrid instructional model.
“When we’re all living week-to-week with uncertainty, that especially is hard and really requires us to be human and be vulnerable with each other and be flexible in authentic ways,” she says. “These are skills, character skills, that we always kind of hope that we can teach, and they’re always sort of on the periphery of our lessons. But man, when we’re really feeling these things, I think it plays a little bit more of a central role in the learning.”
And it’s not just teachers keeping things running and kids engaged.
“Right now, I’m working more than I ever have,” says Dee Lowance, a food service assistant at Birch Elementary School in Broomfield. Now that students are back in school, she serves breakfast and lunch at Birch, then two days a week she helps with food distribution at Emerald Elementary School, handing out groceries to families in need, before heading to the BVSD Culinary Center late into the evenings to help bag food for the next distribution.
Before the pandemic, Lowance says, she would speak to kids individually, “instead of it just being a conveyor belt to come through to get the food.” A grandma herself, she says she loves children, and is happy to hear them back in the cafeteria, although she misses mingling with them like she used to.
IT customer services techs, like Debra Williams, have been working around the clock since March, making sure everyone in the district can connect to virtual learning. They spend hours every day on the phone with teachers, students and parents troubleshooting technology issues whereas before they spent the majority of their time “in the field” training teachers and working with students.
“It’s August all over again, like Groundhog Day. And I say that because August is a crazy busy month that you basically just know that you’re going to be working long hours because there’s a lot to do,” Williams says. “It’s been that way since the pandemic (started), because we changed and shifted and pivoted so many times.”
School nurse consultant Kristina Hyde can also lose track of which day it is. Responsible for six elementary schools, nurses like Hyde used to really only interact with students with specific medical needs or those who experienced injuries on campus.
“Now we attend to the health of our entire school population every day,” she says. She’s constantly monitoring state guidelines, tracking possible outbreaks, implementing quarantines when necessary and working with everyone in every department to follow safety protocols.
Engagement specialist Elton Davis says the number of students and families he works with has increased since the pandemic started, as he’s responsible to help re-engage students who are withdrawn for whatever reason, whether it’s drop-out prevention in the high schools or working with those just not participating in class.
“What we know is that consistency works with the students that we work with and that fluctuation between being consistent and not is really a way to keep things from being successful,” Davis says. “Right now, we don’t know what it looks like day-to-day. So, we have to really be intentional, and flexible and think outside of the box in how we’re supporting our students, because we can’t create plans that are going to end if there’s another change that happens.”
He says he’s doing a lot more home visits than before, trying to nail down what barriers are preventing students from being successful, whether it’s technology issues, food insecurity or mental well-being.
“There are more things that we got to take into account these days,” Davis says. “As soon as we notice that there’s something going on, we have to revisit plans really quickly to try and keep students engaged and keep families engaged for that matter.”
Teachers and other educational staff are more cognizant than ever of students’ social and emotional well-being as well as mental health during the pandemic.
The pandemic “has made me realize how important it is for me as a teacher to make sure I’m being equitable,” says Kari Costello, a family and consumer science teacher at Fairview High School for more than two decades. “Knowing that I have students that don’t have food or their electricity is going to be shut off, you better believe I’m going to make sure I’ll be there for them and listen to them and make sure I’m not requiring ridiculous amounts of school work.”
When the pandemic first started, Costello, along with a handful of other teachers and staff at Fairview, immediately began delivering food to families who needed it, working with both BVSD food services and EFAA. Then all through the summer, once a week, she continued the food deliveries. To this day, she’ll still help provide groceries or even gift cards whenever she hears about a family who needs help.
Despite an overwhelmingly positive outlook, the pandemic was difficult for educators, many of whom entered the profession to connect with kids.
Tolbert says growing up he didn’t have a positive experience at school, something that has driven him to make school a fun and safe place for all students, teaching student council and acting as the advisor for both the Black Student Union and Latinx clubs at Monarch, both of which have seen increased membership this fall after a summer of protests in support of racial justice.
“Every year I am literally begging people to join,” Tolbert says. But this year, “more people have decided they wanted to be active, they want to take some type of part in helping things be actually fair.”
The clubs are currently working with administration, Tolbert says, to restructure curriculum, even as they are only able to meet virtually.
For Nelson, there are days when teaching at least some of her class virtually can be especially challenging, leaving her feeling incompetent despite 24 years of teaching experience. But, she says, the parents in her classroom have been especially encouraging and she’s connecting with them more than ever.
Nelson took time during the first month of school to call all of the parents and guardians in her class, asking them questions about their kids and trying to get to know the families a bit better. Now she has every parents’ number saved in her cell phone, something she never used to do, but now she often communicates with parents throughout the week.
“Having a productive relationship with the parents matters in any year, no matter what the year is,” she says, “but in a way now it’s been a little bit easier because we’re in contact with parents more often.”
Flexibility is probably the most important tool in a teacher’s toolbox these days, Miles adds. Being able to adapt lessons and think on your feet is more important than ever, she says, to keep kids engaged when everything is constantly changing.
“Post pandemic, I’m going to have new tools in my toolbox. So that’s the attitude I’m trying to keep,” she says. “At the end of the day, I think most teachers would tell you it’s worth it. And that’s why we got into this work — we care a lot about students and their experience matters a lot.”