This Pandemic Has Been Tough, But Educators Are Tougher

column | Remote Learning

This Pandemic Has Been Tough, But Educators Are Tougher

By Kimberly Rues (Columnist)     May 22, 2020

This Pandemic Has Been Tough, But Educators Are Tougher

This week, I walked back into the library I abandoned in a chaotic rush in mid-March.

It was at the same time eerie, surreal, and intensely sad.

Sure, in the past I’ve been in the library many times when no one else was around. I’ve spent weeks away in the summertime, but it’s never been like this. Like walking back into a time capsule. The newspapers hanging on the rack sporting headlines like: “First Coronavirus death reported in KC area” and “Panic over Coronavirus empties shelves of sanitizer and toilet paper.”

I remember the chaos of the week leading up to our mid-March spring break. I spent the better part of that week in district-level meetings trying to determine how to shift to AMI (Alternate Methods of Instruction)—in a nutshell, to teach and learn virtually. And then the call came as spring break was wrapping up. School closed for at least three weeks. Then, as that three week date edged closer, the closure was extended to the remainder of the school year.

It was incredible, really, how quickly the shift from in-person instruction to online learning happened. We scrambled, we thought outside the proverbial box, we delivered instruction. We got it done.

One of the most profound insights I have garnered from my personal reflection during this unusual time is that it’s difficult to have a solid grasp on every angle, all the layers and the incredible complexity of education. It isn’t just about the lessons. It’s about the lunches, the careful observation of children who may be in dangerous situations when they’re not at school, and the lack of equity when it comes to access.

Each and every decision revealed another. Our leaders stepped up and guided us to meet the needs of our community as best we could. Our nutrition services staff provided lunches at several sites throughout the community—no need to “prove” need; children could just show up and grab a lunch. Our transportation department partnered with our tech staff to deliver mobile hotspots on school buses to areas of town with limited internet access. Special education adapted to meet the circumstances, occupational therapy partnered with parents to offer virtual services, and meetings about Individualized Education Programs were moved to a virtual space.

And of course our library department pivoted from physical resources to digital.

We’re fortunate that our district has been a one-to-one district for more than five years. The use of these devices is already integrated into our daily work. For everyone except my preschoolers, the tools for connection were already in their backpacks. Yet it still took a massive effort to “go digital” on all things.

First grade readers and writers had been gearing up to learn about the ways nonfiction writers use different conventions to make their meaning clear—captions, cutaways, photographs and more. Months ago, my assistant and I had gathered books full of examples for teachers to share in the classroom, which sat useless in teacher classrooms when the order to stay home hit. To pivot, we combed through e-book options for examples of those conventions, put them into a digital collection and shared them with the first grade team. Learning continued.

Third graders were ramping up for research on natural disasters. Again, hundreds of books had been gathered for the project, now sitting idle in classrooms. I dug into our electronic resources—e-books, databases and video streaming resources—and delivered a solid set of options that kept the research moving forward.

Kindergarten needed stories, fifth grade wanted novels and teachers needed guidance.

We’re in the winding down phase now, wrapping up a year that has been like no other.

Usually May is one of those times where I fly through the days like a red-headed tornado—reading parties, last minute virtual reality field trips, yearbook signings and lessons on avoiding the summer slide. It’s a bit of a frenzy, culminating in the last-day assembly, and the joyous (and yet at the same time teary) wave goodbye to the buses as they carry our kiddos home for the summer.

This year, it was me, alone in the library.

When we hurriedly left the building on that Friday in March, we had no idea what the future would hold. We had been asked to clear table tops and shelf tops for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting, so large chunks of the collection were hastily piled in baskets on the floor, displays were dismantled and books were left unshelved on book carts.

When I returned to put it all back, it felt very much like a teenager had packed his room for a move with no thought to what went in each box (trust me, I know this one from experience). To call it a jumbled mess is a bit of an understatement.

Fortunately, organizing chaos is one of the things I do best. Slowly and steadily, I put books back on shelves, and as my hands were busy, my mind calmed. But when it was time to lock the doors and head home, I felt a great sadness.

I know the library services won’t look the same next year. I know we will have to modify our teaching, our checkout processes, and our systems. As of right now, the district has not yet shared the plan for moving forward next year, but I know that life will not simply return to “normal.” While I cannot quite yet see what library service will look like, I’ve begun conversations at the district level and with my administrative teams at the building level to begin to revamp that vision.

I’m sure there will be social distancing during lessons, significant wait times to check in materials and it’s likely that self-checkout kiosks will be set aside. I envision that we won’t be gathering on the story carpet, snuggled up close, sharing a spooky story, and that standing side-by-side to share the best bits of a book will be forbidden. Perhaps only half a class comes to the library at a time. Or maybe I’ll bring a mini-library to the classroom on a cart once a week. Or maybe it’s some combination of ideas I haven’t even conceived of yet.

If teaching during the Coronavirus pandemic taught me nothing else, it’s this: teachers will teach with whatever tools we’re given, connection is paramount whether it’s through a screen or in a classroom, and it is not a matter of whether we move forward and teach, it is how.

The uncertainty is hard, but trying to envision life without my vocation is harder. One of the mantras of my life is “Either I will find a way, or I will make one.” The only way through is forward. One step, one story, one student at a time.

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