Teachers Optimistic About Return To Classroom

Lisa Leu hasn’t gone out to dinner in months.

Other than church and grocery trips, she’s rarely left her home since March when the COVID-19 coronavirus closed schools, shuttered businesses and home quarantines became the norm. And when Leu has ventured out, she always wears a mask and hand sanitizer is a constant companion. She’s even consulted her daughter, an RN who has worked closely with COVID patients, about best practices to avoid the deadly virus.

Thursday, Leu will be one of the more that 150 teachers in the Glenwood Community School District that welcome students back to their classrooms for the first time since March 16.

As schools all across the county prepare to open their doors amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Leu has some concern about the possibility of exposure but she’s “cautiously optimistic” she, her fellow teachers and the district’s health measures can and will keep students safe.

“I suppose I feel as safe as I can feel right now,” said Leu, who is going into her 14th year as a Title 1 teacher at Northeast Elementary.

In July, Glenwood released a 33-page plan for its return to school this fall. There is no way to ensure zero risk of infection, but the district’s plan calls for mitigating potential risks by following enhanced safety measures.

The plan details every aspect of in-school teaching from requiring masks to be worn by staff and expected to be worn by students and social distancing guidelines for hallways, classrooms and lunchrooms to enhanced health and cleaning measures and guidance for Fall athletics and performing arts.

Maria Jacobus is a world civilization and government teacher at Glenwood Community High School. She’s also the president of the Glenwood Education Association, the union representing Glenwood’s teachers.

Jacobus said she and the district’s teachers know this school year will look far different than any other they’ve been a part of. She commended the time and energy the district put into the return to learn and the fact the GEA was actively sought out to provide input on the details of that plan.

But she knows teachers have concerns. Concerns about both returning to classrooms during the pandemic and what teaching will look like.  In July, Jacobus surveyed Glenwood’s teachers about their level of concern and 88 percent of the respondents said they had “some level” of concern about going back to school this fall.

“Teachers are concerned about going back,” Jacobus said. “There’s always that concern when you have something new like this happen. No one has experienced anything like this in 100 years.”

GCSD Superintendent Devin Embray said no school district staff members have tested positive for the virus. Since the outbreak began last spring, six district students have tested positive.

These are unprecedented times for schools where decisions are hard and situations  are fluid.  Jacobus knows there’s no possible way to please everyone, but the teachers, staff, and administrators are giving all their efforts to make the upcoming school year a success.

“We may have concerns, but we’re going to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and provide our students with the best possible educational experience we can give them,” Jacobus said. “The association may not agree with every decision that’s been made regarding reopening our buildings, but we’ve got great communication with our district leadership and look forward to working with them throughout  the year.”

None of the teachers who spoke to The Opinion-Tribune said they were reluctant to return to classrooms. But all did have some level of unease about the virus impacting students and teaching.

Colleen Confer is one of those teachers. An instructional coach at the Glenwood Middle School, Confer says she isn’t living in fear of COVID-19 but she does have some fear of contracting the virus and transmitting it to someone else. She is also concerned the virus could prevent her from assisting the teachers she works with daily.

“Personally, I’m not too concerned,” she said. “I’m more worried about people who could take it home to someone else or have kids that come from all different buildings.”

The biggest concern she’s heard from teachers is how they can provide a quality education in what will be a blended learning approach. Teaching in the classroom while simultaneously teaching remote learners, all while wearing a mask, is a daunting prospect.

“Our job is to provide the best possible education we can,” Confer said. “When kids are removed from the classroom, it’s kind of daunting. Are we providing them with what they need to be successful not only today but tomorrow and beyond? That’s very stressful for some.”

Kaitlyn Zogleman, a fourth grade teacher at West Elementary, agrees. She isn’t sure how the social distancing guidelines – masks, reconfigured classrooms and new health protocols – might impact her ability to teach.

“When I teach language arts, there’s some obstacles that come with wearing a mask,” Zogleman said. “Doing some things with phonics, where you do have to watch your mouth when doing that type of learning, is going to be challenging. And it can be difficult to understand people when wearing a mask. So it’s a matter of thinking of things we can do to make those obstacles less challenging.”

When Zogleman welcomes her class of 19 fourth graders to her classroom, they will find desks three feet apart. That’s been a challenge in its own right, she said, considering the already-limited square footage in most school classrooms.
Most classrooms will also have plexiglass partitions around student and teacher work areas. Teachers and staff will also be required to ask health screening questions of students each day.

“Everything is going to be so different,” Zogleman said. “It’s not going to look the same as it did last year, obviously. And just making sure I’m doing my best for my kids, my families I’m going to be working with.”

Then there’s the question of the sort of dual teaching Glenwood teachers will be asked to do this fall. While most students will be back in buildings this fall, slightly less than 175 students have opted for online remote learning at this point. The district’s “synchronous live option” will have classes taught in the classroom and on a live stream for students to work in real time via their Chromebook or tablet according to their daily schedule from home.

Teaching in the traditional classroom and in front of a live stream, while managing and monitoring the progress of students both in and outside the everyday classroom is a paradigm shift in how teachers do their jobs.

Confer says there’s no doubt about it: this fall’s return, and the directed health measures and instructional changes, will impact most every district job, from administration to teachers to lunch staff to custodians.

“The administration has been really good about acknowledging that and trying to break down some barriers to help them succeed,” Confer said. “But yes, all of our jobs will look different.”

As an instructional coach, Confer will be heavily involved in assisting teachers with the additional work of live synchronous learning. She also plans to work closely on helping assess and fill the educational gaps for students who saw the last three months of their previous school year  disrupted when they were not required to attend online classes nor do graded work.

Teachers need to know what students are bringing with them that builds into the current curriculum, she said.
“Assessing isn’t just a test covering everything they may have missed,” Confer said. “It’s looking at the great big blocks, the particular skills that are vital to what they’re going to be doing next.”

Leu, along with other Glenwood teachers, took part in a training last week that addressed many of these issues teachers will face as they welcome students. Leu has no doubt the district is far better equipped than it was five months ago.

“Before, it was a lot of trial and error,” Leu said. “Now that we’ve had time to work through it, I think we’re a lot better prepared. I think it’ll be easier to implement things now. We just didn’t have much notice before. Also, sending kids  home with their Chromebooks, we didn’t have much time to show them what to do.”

Zogleman called that somewhat chaotic pivot to online learning last spring “crisis schooling.” She also called it a learning experience – for teachers, the district, students and parents – that will serve all teachers, whether the district remains in its brick and mortar form or does have to go fully remote.

“We were all kind of learning as we were doing it,” Zogleman said of the spring shutdown. “But now having experienced it, and getting an idea of what that looks like, if we do have to shut down and do an online type model it will look much different and we can do it much better than we did it in the spring. We know what to expect now, we know what worked and what didn’t work and we know more of how to do it.”


The Opinion-Tribune

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