By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that, for eight hours a day, their students become their children too. Like any parent, teachers want the best for their students, want to keep them safe, and help them learn and grow in the world around them.
The world around students in 2020, however, is one besieged by turmoil and uncertainty amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As schools returned in August, with the threat of the virus ever-present, teachers across the country had to adopt new ways of teaching the children in their care and in the process learn some new lessons of their own.
Four teachers from four different Woodruff schools, whose experience spans decades and thousands of students, opened up about the challenges of teaching during COVID, their successes, setbacks, and the joy of once again being able to spend their days with the students whom they care so deeply for.
Kim Fowler, who has taught at Woodruff Primary School for almost 30 years, has perhaps had one of the hardest challenges in that her students, being the youngest in the district, do not yet have a firm grasp of the seriousness of the pandemic. Fowler noted, however, the success shown by even these youngest of students and credits the parents for preparing them for the new challenges of school during a worldwide health crisis.
“I have to say the parents have done a great job of preparing the students before they came into the school building,” said Fowler. “I have read some books to them about wearing their masks and why we have to wash our hands so much. It has been an easy process with the handwashing and mask wearing. The parents made our job so much easier by preparing their child and supporting us.”
Vanessa Ray, Woodruff schools’ longest serving active teacher with more than 30 years in the classroom, says that her fifth graders have shown remarkable maturity which has made hers and the jobs of every teacher far less stressful.
“I have found that the students have a good grasp of what is transpiring during this pandemic and are taking it seriously,” she said. “The students adhere to the mask guidelines quite well. I have observed them being respectful of their classmates in regards to maintaining the required social distance and wearing masks when they are in close proximity to others. Over the years, I have learned children are pretty resilient and for the most part can usually adjust to new circumstances.”
The resiliency of the students has also had a positive effect on teachers, said Ray. Ray has taught her students about another devastating pandemic which ravaged the planet over a century ago and has used that lesson as a real-life application for how to stay safe from COVID-19.
“Of my 30-plus years teaching, I have never experienced anything like this,” Ray said. “Being a Social Studies teacher, I have always taught my students about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I never dreamed I would be living through one!”
Even with the early successes and low virus counts among students and faculty in Woodruff schools, the transition back to the classroom has not been without challenges that have left some teachers feeling overwhelmed at times. It was a feeling that began to take hold at times during the early months of the pandemic when, during last school year, all learning went virtual as students were sent home.
Woodruff schools began the 2020-21 school year under a hybrid A/B learning model. Essentially, half of the students within the district attended class in-person on Monday and Wednesday with the latter half attending on Tuesday and Thursday. Finding a way to present a cohesive curriculum while teaching two separate groups of students put a strain on time and resources said Woodruff Middle School teacher Mary Runyans, though she credits district administration with equipping teachers to be successful under difficult circumstances.
“We have been blessed that our district was able to purchase Chromebooks for our students this year,” said Runyans. “This has been wonderful because students are able to work on their assignments digitally. However, the teachers have had to learn how to create and upload digital assignments. In the long run this new method of completing work will be beneficial for the students as well as teachers.”
In the midst of an ever-changing educational landscape marred by unwanted fluidity as health and virus circumstances change, the teachers of Spartanburg County School District 4 have also taken notice of another effect caused by the pandemic. This one has positive long-term ramifications.
Students, of their own initiative, are showing an acquired maturity and increased level of accountability for their work.
“These students have been amazing,” said Dr. Susan Gagliardi, who teaches English at Woodruff High School. “They have been quite mature about the situation and are taking it very seriously. They regularly mask without my having to remind or ask, they willingly social distance if the contact will be longer than a few minutes, and they are very respectful of their peers’ feelings about COVID to ensure safety and caution for all.”
Runyans added that she has also noticed an increased work ethic from many students as they are forced to learn and work from home, alone, on virtual learning days while their parents are at work.
“A major challenge to some students is they have been required to become more independent workers,” she said. “Many of the students, like my own two children, do not have adults at home on their virtual days to sit with them and ensure they are working. Some students have stepped up to this challenge and done well. I am proud of them for putting in this extra effort.”
It would be agreed upon by all that the year 2020 has been one of unprecedented change, adaptation, trials, tribulations, successes, and failures as the world attempts to defeat and recover from such a virulent pandemic.
Despite such hardships, these teachers agree that they have seen difficult circumstances bring out the very best of their students as well as themselves.
“(The students) are very protective of their teachers,” Gagliardi said. “When we have a one-on-one book talk or writers conference, they will voluntarily use Zoom or Google Meet to avoid close contact and exposing me to the virus. If we meet face-to-face, they are especially careful to mask and distance so that we can discuss the author’s choices or their own essays. I really appreciate their kindness more than I can say.”
There has even been a small glimmer of normalization. Earlier in October, Woodruff Primary School began to phase students back into five day per week in-person learning. For Fowler, it was a welcome development.
“We have been in school face-to-face for two weeks now and we are finally beginning to see some normalization,” she added. “We are our own little family in the room and we do everything together. The first few days back together was like starting over but it did not take but a few days for things to fall into a routine. We really have a great school district that has supported us all the way.”
Ray added that she leans on her decades of experience to help guide her younger colleagues through the worst times. She uses an age-old adage that was conveyed to her by a former Woodruff Elementary School assistant principal as a way to let her fellow teachers know that better times are ahead.
“The one thing I have tried to do to help the younger teachers navigate through the difficulties of the pandemic is to always project more of the positives than the negatives,” said Ray. “These are difficult times and managing your stress level is important. You have to maintain a good attitude and remember that the bottom line is making sure we educate our students. I always keep in the forefront of my mind something I learned from one of my previous administrators, Assistant Principal Mrs. Jan Williams, ‘This too Shall Pass!’”