‘A shift in education’: Challenged teachers return to classrooms amid pandemic

Ada Todd, a fourth-grade teacher at Academy of Dover, prepares different kits for her students and sets up a socially distant classroom. The school brought back about half of its students Wednesday for in-person learning. This year, students will have their own tools, to cut down on sharing. Delaware State News/Brooke Schultz

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This story begins a series that will follow three teachers throughout the year as students return to school amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fourth-grade teacher Ada Todd isn’t sure if anything prepares one for a year like this.

“As teachers, it’s almost like it’s their first year all over again, for every teacher I talk to, because we have to increase our skill set. We have to increase our research and how we’re doing things and still think of all of those things that we know are best practice,” she said. “It’s almost a complete change in education. It’s a shift in education that might not go away. Even if COVID goes away.”

Ms. Todd, a teacher at the Academy of Dover, is one of the thousands of educators in Delaware who is heading back to the classroom this fall, with a year impacted by coronavirus.

Many students and educators across the state went home on a Friday in March and didn’t return to their classrooms through the rest of the academic year.

But many are getting back into their schools now, setting up for the start of the school year even if students won’t be at their desks to start.

Ada Todd, Academy of Dover Charter School

At the Academy of Dover, the first day of school had students lined up three blocks behind one another before recess and sitting spaced apart in their desks, while their peers appeared on screen at a Chromebook, following along remotely.

The charter school brought their students back to begin the school year Wednesday, with about 120 students in person, a little under half of their enrolled population.

But before students came back, Ms. Todd was in her classroom, making sure seats were spaced out and that every student had a water bottle holder (since there will be no water fountains this year) and baskets to hold their individual items (since there will be no sharing).

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure each student still has the same opportunities, just where everybody is not touching all the materials,” she noted.

She described the end of last year as “COVID-teaching mode.”

“It was a survival mode. We were trying to meet the needs of students. Mostly, trying to fill that emotional need that they had because they were scared and upset because of the major changes that just happened,” she said.

A lot of time was dedicated to maintaining relationships, giving them time to talk with their peers and talk about themselves — while also fitting in lessons.

“It was a lot of work for them, and for us,” she said. “A learning curve for them, and for us.”

This year won’t be “COVID-teaching mode,” though. The lessons will be more rigorous and the teachers have had more time to learn new tools, she said.

Schoolwide, a remote teaching instructor is helping answer questions, field technology concerns and engage with students, said head of school Dr. Michele Marinucci.

This year, all of the students were given individual Chromebooks. One Chromebook is set up for students to watch live lectures, but Ms. Todd was also preparing recorded lessons, too.

This is Ms. Todd’s fifth year at AOD. She’s always been drawn to teaching younger children — she worked in early childhood education before coming to AOD.

“It’s really amazing when you’re in a classroom,” she said. “As a teacher, you learn every day. And because I love to learn, it’s a great place to be, because I’m always learning from them.”

Looking ahead, the goals haven’t changed as what she hopes her students get out of the classroom, just the manner of teaching. In science, she’s figuring out how to show the more hands-on lessons to those in school and at home.

“I have never met a teacher that isn’t doing their very best to make sure we give students every opportunity to succeed, whether it’s online or in person. I know we’re hearing two sides of the coin — we almost have to avoid social media because some people are saying, ‘I’m thankful for teachers,’ but then you have other people that are saying, ‘Oh, they just don’t want to go back.’ I haven’t met a teacher that doesn’t want to go back,” she said.

Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks, Dover High School

As a nurse, Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks was nervous about any kind of gathering for school. As a teacher, Ms. Shaw-Hicks prioritizes connection with her students.

“I’ve been to weddings. I’ve been to funerals. I’ve been to hospital rooms where Mom just passed away,” she said. “You create those kinds of bonds. From day one, the classroom rule is: I’m here for you, I’ll be here for you.”

Shaneeda Shaw-Hicks, a certified nursing assistant teacher, sits at her desk. Ms. Shaw-Hicks returned to Dover High over the summer to plan for the year ahead, which includes a virtual start for Capital School District students Sept. 8.

Capital School District is starting school remotely, before phasing in hybrid learning beginning Oct. 19. The district won’t start the school year until after Labor Day.

For Ms. Shaw-Hicks, who is a career and technical education teacher for the certified nursing assistant program, her classroom is split between instruction and hands-on practice. Where tables comprise one part, beds are lined up in another, for students to practice their nursing skills.

When last year ended, a lot of the seniors were in the midst of their clinical time. They were out in the field, in a nursing home.

“We received a call that we could no longer come to the nursing home,” she said. “And the expectation here is 75 clinical hours for CNA training and we probably had completed no more than 10. That question of when, when, when they would be able to complete [their hours] was the first thing in my mind.”

More than 40 students were certified because they’d completed the hours in the first half of the year. Nine students are still in limbo.

Looking ahead to this year, there’s a lot of learning by the book — especially for the students just starting the pathway as sophomores. But other parts are hands-on: whiteboards for answering questions, looking at a sample urine bag, learning how to read a syringe.

“I’m very hands-on and in the time of a pandemic when you can’t be hands-on. That actually creates a challenge,” she said.
One of the lessons the juniors do, for instance, is brushing their seat-mate’s teeth.

“I do that in 11th grade to build their confidence level,” she said. “This is somebody you’ve sat beside. And I do that mainly because I need them to understand what you’re getting ready to go out there and do. You’re going to be taking care of people. You’re going to be bathing them, you’re going to be washing them, you’re going to be feeding them. They need to trust you. So if you can’t build a rapport with the person you’ve been going to school with since kindergarten, how are you going to go out there and build a rapport with somebody brand new?”

The start of the year will be spent doing Quizlet or Kahoot learning games. It will be setting up time individually to make sure everyone is on the same page.

This is Ms. Shaw-Hicks’ eighth year as a teacher. A Dover High alumna herself, she had been dropping off her own children at Fairview Elementary and used to see a van leaving the high school. She found out it was part of the CNA program. When a position opened up, she decided to interview.

“My biggest desire, especially in a high school setting, is one, to give the students hope, and two, I’ve been out there in the field, being a CNA myself, I know what the job entails and I know it can be life changing or pivotal for the start of the a medical career,” she said. “I love teaching. I really do.”

This year, though, will be all new.

“You just want to make sure that the students get up, they’re on time, they’re where they need to be. Some of them have taken on jobs and are taking care of their family,” she said. “We are still in a pandemic. So for us to not recognize that this is still a pandemic is not realistic. It’s not realistic. We still have families who don’t have an income. It’s a different set up. It’s a different time.”

Amber Hobbs, Lake Forest North Elementary School

Although school was out for the summer, Amber Hobbs spent the break meeting with her last class of kindergärtners who didn’t finish out a normal first year of school.

There were chances to see them, after schools closed, at a kindergarten graduation and a celebration she had for her class. For the ones who couldn’t come, she set aside one-on-one time where she gives them their class shirt and memory book and treats them to ice cream.

Academy of Dover students returned to class Wednesday, sitting six feet apart and wearing masks through class.

“It’s nice to have some closure with the children from my class that I missed,” she said.

Ms. Hobbs had thought the Lake Forest School District might start the year hybrid, and was already determining strategies for how to address that — how to teach children how to hold a pencil, how to use a laptop for remote learning. But Lake starts the year virtually following Labor Day — allowing for some hybrid instruction from the get-go for students who need it — before phasing into a hybrid environment.

“I am one that is ready to go back in the classroom because I think the kids benefit most from in-person instruction and they need that personal connection,” she said. “We can get that through Zoom, but not as well as we can in the classroom.”

Connections are important to Ms. Hobbs, who became a teacher 16 years ago after having a traumatic childhood, the teachers in her life inspired her to do better not just school, but life.

“I’ve always been drawn to kindergarten and this year I feel like I really wanted hybrid for those same reasons: those children who need their basic needs met, we need to make sure they’re not experiencing trauma at home or that they can have that positive connection with an adult who loves them and cares about them,” she said. “I feel like this year, when we’re doing it virtually, we’re going to have to work really hard to make sure that those students feel like they’re valued and loved and that their needs are met.”

The first few weeks will probably be a reteaching process, she said.

“Instead of teaching how to make a line and how to walk in a line and how to raise your hand and not interrupt the teacher, we’re going to be teaching them how to log into Zoom and mute and unmute,” she said.

Though she won’t be one of the teachers back in the building for in-person learning right away, she has been back to set up her classroom in anticipation of going hybrid.

She contemplated what a kindergarten classroom will look like, with her kitchen center and doll house the students typically can use.

“I have to either remove those items from my classroom or try to cover them up so the students won’t be able to touch them and that’s hard to envision: what is a kindergarten classroom going to look like without centers? How is it going to be when they have to sit in their seat, at a desk — not a table, a desk — and face all one direction and it kind of takes some of the socialization away from the children that they need?”

But, she noted, to young learners, kindergarten represents the start of “real school.” And the teachers can make it into what they think is the norm, she said.

“It will just be an experience that they will enjoy because, as teachers, we’ll make it fun and we’re going to do everything we can to make them want to come and love it and want to be there,” she said. “Unless I’m depressed and they take that on, they’ll just enjoy school because we’re going to make it fun for them.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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