Grounded in uncertainty, local educators returned to their school buildings for the start of the 2020-2021 school year with harrowing feelings.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March of 2020 forcing the final two months to be completed virtually, a time-consuming task of building lessons plans that were easy to follow through an online setting.
“The pivot was awkward at first because we thought it was just for a couple of weeks,” said Loper Elementary School fourth grade teacher Teresa Meredith. “There was this big question mark – nobody knew, but we had a feeling. For a couple of weeks, we could coast through and do reviews and we had things we could build online.
“Then we got through a couple of weeks and realized it’s going on longer. That’s when we felt we couldn’t just do a review, we had to do more in-depth content. And how are we going to do that? So we recorded some different things. Even then, it’s not the same.”
Getting educational content online and scheduling Zoom classroom meetings did not prove difficult. Tracking down students who lacked supervision or a complete lack of internet connectivity was a challenge.
“We had a hard time getting all the kids online,” said Meredith, who will start her third year back at Loper Elementary on Aug. 4 following a six-year run as the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “I had a little over 60% consistently turning in everything. They might not have been on every Zoom, understandable with parents working or at a babysitter or outside playing or no Wi-Fi … so if I had a live lesson I tried to record it and share it but that other 20-30% of kids you had to chase down and see what is going on and try to get assignments out of was tough.”
While students were assigned to one teacher, lessons were put online by all the teachers for each grade. That meant students had to take daily instruction from a teacher they did not have a day-to-day relationship with at school.
“It was hard for kids too because they didn’t know all the teachers,” said Meredith. “We rotated so the kids knew at least 2-3 of us but if you don’t know a teacher’s style, it’s different. It took a little bit for the kids to adjust, but they probably adjusted quicker than we did.”
A summer of uncertainty followed. All four school systems in Shelby County returned to the classroom setting for the 2020-2021 school year but masks were required to be worn at almost all times and social distancing was difficult when class sizes swelled (William F. Loper Elementary Facebook page photo).
“The hard part for me was I had 28 kids so my desks were not very far apart … they were as far apart as I could make them,” said Meredith. “I couldn’t group the desks like I like to do. I like to put them in pods of four, then there is teamwork. My room was wall-to-wall desks.”
Then there was the constant reminder to pre-teens to keep masks covering their noses and mouths.
“I was pretty strict on masks that first month and then after that they kind of policed it for me,” continued Meredith. “And for the most part, I had no problems. But I took my kids outside a lot for mask breaks. I told them if they get 1-2-3 done, when everybody is done, we would go outside for a 3-minute mask break.”
The veteran teacher found it effective in relieving some stress on fourth graders.
“We could come back in and get to work,” she said. “Kids are pretty resilient, at least in fourth grade. The hardest part for me was not being able to gather a group of kids together and work closely with them. That was really hard. I would sit beside them, we both would face the same way, masked up and we would work 1-on-1. I didn’t do small groups.”
Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Hendricks Elementary Facebook page
The 2021-2022 school year will start without masks being required on campus. Each school system remains in full assessment mode as to what worked and what didn’t work in 2020-2021.
“We made it work. It wasn’t great but I think (the students) learned a lot of lessons,” said Meredith. “They may not have been all tested lessons but I think they learned a lot of lessons about just surviving and patience and trying to trust the adults around them even if they couldn’t understand why.”
Virtual learning is now a growing trend, one sped up at the local level because of the pandemic. Shelbyville Central Schools will operate its own virtual school in 2021-2022 while still maintaining the traditional classroom setting for a majority of its student body.
“We have learned how to do virtual better,” admitted Meredith Hall, music teacher at Coulston Elementary School and president of the Shelbyville Central Teachers Association. “We will have a virtual option this year for our kids. There are new platforms out that are really great and will be helpful for parents. If we are going to do virtual learning, we will do it the best we possibly can and hopefully better than anyone else.”
While masks were an annoying inconvenience, there was a positive that came from keeping faces covered more often.
“One thing I did notice, flu and asthma and those things, I had no issues this past year,” said Teresa Meredith. “This is the first school year I personally haven’t had major asthma issues in probably my entire teaching career.”
Meredith admits she was not a big fan of hand sanitizer in the classroom pre-pandemic, but that has changed now.
“I will probably keep the hand sanitizer on my desk,” she said. “I used to not be a big fan but I’m probably going to make sure they are using the Purell in and out and keep some of the cleaning practices (instituted).
“We were cleaning desks every time we would transition. So if we are leaving to a specials class, when we came back I would have all the desks sprayed and they would grab a towel and clean off their desk. I will keep some of that up for 2021-2022.”
While the return-to-school policy is set, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. How the students sit in class on day one may be different on days 21, 50 and 100.
“I think we’re hoping we will be able to get back to more of what we used to do,” said Hall. “They (the teachers) want to know are they going to have to wear masks. They want to know protocols about quarantining. Everyone wants to know what is going to happen. But I think we have a pretty good plan.”