Teaching in the Midst of COVID-19 Pandemic
by Serena Gestring and Kaden Starkey, staff writers
FEBRUARY 2021 – Education is an essential part of our society, and it is the vital job of teachers to provide that to students. However, the current pandemic has been a devastating and strenuous experience for the entire world, including our community.
The Bio-Med Science Academy school district went to 100% virtual learning back in March of 2020. While Bio-Med normally implements a few “digital days” each school year, where students complete one assignment from each of their classes at home for the day, moving to being completely digital every day was a major change.
Ms. Brook is the 9th grade Integrated Math instructor. She has been teaching for 16 years, four of which have been spent here at Bio-Med. Overall, she says things were not too bad. The worst part for her was figuring out the technology, and once that happened, it got easier. From a curriculum perspective, however, it was much more difficult and strange because of the procedural way she taught math.
“I really struggled with how to not have questions that they can cheat on on a test knowing real well that they could just copy and paste it onto the test,” Brook said. “So trying to come up with ways to ask the questions was difficult last year.”
This year, Brook’s class switched to using a data science approach to teach 9th grade math. This approach involves group-based investigations and analyzing sets of data.
“My midterm this year was: What’d you learn from Unit 1? Use all the investigations and vocabulary to support your explanation,” said Brook. “So, how do you cheat on that? There’s no way you can cheat on that.”
Math is not the only subject that is challenging to teach in a virtual environment. Mr. McDonald is BMSA’s 9th grade Integrated English Language Arts instructor. He has been at Bio-Med for eight years, and has been teaching for a total of 15 years. He had many words to describe teaching in this new situation, such as suboptimal, frustrating, inconsistent, strange, annoying, and difficult. In short: “It is not good,” he said.
McDonald has been struggling to teach his subject in a way that resembles how he normally would. “We would read together in the class and we’d pause and stop and handle, like, nuances, and questions, and you could see where kids were struggling,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine reading on a Zoom or something, like reading chapters of a book like that. That sounds awful!”
Because of this, McDonald doesn’t know if he is going to have his students read any books this year. “I know if I select a book to read at the ninth grade level, and I expect students to read at home as homework, I just know that at least a fifth or a quarter of those students won’t do it. They just won’t do it, because no one is there making them do it,” he said. “It’s a motivation problem but it’s also a class management problem.”
Another major challenge of teaching virtually is being able to control the learning atmosphere. Students are in many different places, some with their siblings or other relatives around.
“There’s all these things happening that I have no control over, and it’s frustrating because I want to be able to control my learning atmosphere, and I can’t,” McDonald said. “I’m a believer that to get a good education, you need to first be comfortable in the classroom. That’s gotta come first, and it’s really hard to establish that when you don’t have control over the atmosphere.”
McDonald has also had problems with establishing relationships and human connections in his classes. “The team-building and community-building aspect of Bio-Med has almost completely vanished. We would do circles, we would go outside and we’d throw the ball around, or we would work with partners, we would have clock buddies,” he said. “You cannot do that now. We can’t, you just can’t.”
Experienced teachers are not the only ones grappling with the present situation. Ms. Tubbs is the 8th grade Math instructor. This is her second year teaching and her second year at Bio-Med. She describes teaching during this time as hectic and having a lot of moving parts. “Being a first-year teacher last year, I was already kind of learning how to teach and getting into the groove, and everything kind of flipped,” Tubbs said.
Tubbs also thinks her specific subject presents some challenges. “I think I’m struggling sometimes to teach math just because in the classroom I love to do more hands-on. I like to see the written work, and online sometimes that just doesn’t transfer as well,” she said.
However, there is some optimism. Ms. England is BMSA’s 7th grade Social Studies instructor. She has been teaching for ten years, and this is her fourth year at Bio-Med. She thinks that while this situation has been interesting and challenging, it is also workable. “You had to just be innovative in how you’re teaching and what you want to teach, and I think a little bit more selective in what you are presenting,” she said.
England thinks the technology-prominent aspect of Bio-Med has helped. “We were lucky that every student had their technology already and that we had already done those Digital Days. That really helped to flip that switch,” she said. “Canvas is the best thing we had throughout this thing also. Everything is housed all in one place.”
While trying to find what works best for everyone, the administration of Bio-Med Science Academy has been diligently working to enforce proper precautionary measures according to CDC guidelines. All students must wear a mask, and teachers are being offered air purifiers as well as KN-95 masks. The Academy enforces social distancing in the lunchroom and students are assigned to a cohort (a group of the same students following the same schedule everyday) that allows for any contact tracing to be easier.
The Academy created what they call the “COVID Committee” to help reinforce the rules and regulations to keep students and staff safe.
Ms. England is one of the teachers a part of the COVID Committee. She said that it is a group of teachers and staff members from all of Bio-Med’s buildings. Their function is to be, “the liaison between Stephanie Lammlein [Chief Administrative Officer of Bio-Med] and kind of the rest of the staff.” They make sure that all the staff understand the information given by the Portage County Health Board and that teachers and staff’s voices are heard by the admin and the same with the admin to them. The Committee also makes sure that the school days can be safe while still keeping Bio-Med’s core learning experiences, whether that be at home or in the classroom.
The Academy began the 2020-2021 school year as 100% digital. On September 28th, 2020 the school launched its blended learning program where students were given a choice to remain 100% virtual or return back to school. The students who opted to return go one week in person and the next virtual; they are divided into two groups by last name. One group is in-person while the other is digital for a week and the next week the groups will switch, so the in-person group goes virtual and the virtual goes in-person. This rotation continues throughout the year, unless Coronavirus cases exceed a level 3 threshold in the surrounding counties, where the school would return back to 100% virtual until it is safer to return.
The blended learning model allows for teachers to continue teaching all of their students, whether they are in the school building or online.
When asked about how she feels Bio-Med as a district is handling the pandemic, Tubbs said, “I think they’re doing a really great job, …. it’s the best that we can do given our situation.” She felt that “other districts are looking at what we are doing” due to Bio-Med’s Upper Academy location being on the Northeast Ohio Medical College (NEOMED) Campus. Tubbs added that there are “hand sanitizer stations everywhere” and “our admin has been really supportive.”
In the classroom, Tubbs felt that, “a huge positive of the hybrid or the blended learning is the smaller class sizes.” She said that, “we’re really getting to know some of my students in a way that is just not possible when there’s 20 or 30 kids in a room.” She added how the class size, “allows some deeper learning opportunities that wouldn’t always happen in a normal class size.”
Brook’s praise is about the schedule: “I really like how they’ve done the schedule, it’s completely manageable.” She said, “the block scheduling has made it so it’s not overwhelming to have all seven classes every single day,” and that “it’s allowing you to go deeper …. and taking the time to really understand what you’re doing before moving on.” She added, “ I love that they picked one schedule regardless of home or 100% virtual, blended, or 100% back, we’re gonna still keep the same schedule.”
However, there are some drawbacks. Brook commented that seeing students two times a week compared to the previous five times a week has given rise to a retention problem, where students have trouble remembering what they did the last time they had class. Brook also thinks she is not getting to know her students as well as she would have seeing them every day.
Brook, too, said that for in-person classes, “It’s nice having a smaller class size.” She sets up her classroom so that the students are “all doing the exact same thing at the same time, regardless of at home or in person,” Brook said.
Overall, Brook said the way Bio-Med Administration is handling the pandemic is, “Awesome. I fully support how admin has done this.” She continued, “From people I’ve talked to in other districts, I think our school has handled it really really well.”
England expressed similar sentiments. She felt the whole community had come together, from the teachers and students to the administration, to figure out how to be successful. “I think we did an amazing job,” she said.
She also likes the hybrid model as an alternative to 100% virtual for her students. “I think the hybrid is good because I see a big difference in the weeks that they’re here and their engagement to the weeks that their home and their engagement,” England said. “It has helped me become more organized because you have to have everything to go. There’s not that spur of the moment changing things up because it has to be ready for those kids at home, too.”
McDonald struggled to formulate words when asked his opinion on the subject matter, as he holds a high degree of hesitation and worry towards easing things back to “normal.”
“I appreciate the caution of the hybrid model,” McDonald started off. He then commented on the smaller class sizes, “the fact that we only have eight to ten kids in a class is, is safe.” Wrapping up his comments about the hybrid model he said, “it’s doable.”
McDonald went on to talk about the virtual learning that Bio-Med utilized previously.
“I appreciated when they went to the virtual [model] because that’s the safest model,” he said, adding that this model probably “saved a lot of people from getting this virus.”
On February 1st, 2021, the academy’s plan to resume full in-person attendance, aside from students who opted to be 100% virtual. This means that the two groups of students who were going in-person every other week will be in one group and attend school weekly, together.
McDonald said that he does not understand the rush to resume full attendance. He also shared that he is, “shy about going back to full attendance,” due to the potential risks involved. McDonald commented on his comfort level, saying, “I can’t imagine teaching twenty, twenty five students right now. I would not feel safe.”
From a healthcare side of things, Ohio is beginning to wrap up Phase 1A of COVID-19 vaccinations for frontline healthcare workers and people who work or live in residential facilities.
“I think for their peace of mind, they need it,” Brook said about the general public receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, the week of January 19th, Ohio is planned to begin administering the first round of phase 1B vaccinations. On February 1st, the third week into Phase 1B, the vaccination will be available for K-12 Educators to receive. Teachers Brook, Tubbs, and McDonald all said that they would receive the COVID-19 vaccine when the time comes.
Ms. Brook, who caught COVID following Thanksgiving, said, “I’m afraid of getting the vaccine too early when they really haven’t been tested.” Nevertheless, she would have gotten it even if she hadn’t already been infected.
“I’m looking forward to being vaccinated,” stated Ms. Tubbs. She mentioned how teachers are near the top of the vaccination list: “To know that we are valued, that we have the opportunity to receive the vaccine before the general public.” Tubbs said some of her friends, who are nurses, are receiving the vaccine as well.
Mr. McDonald firmly believes that, “all teachers should be mandated to get vaccines.” He brought up a requirement in order for Ohio educators to receive the vaccine: the school must resume in-person classes or be using an in-person/online hybrid system. McDonald shared his thoughts on this: “you’re mandating that these people put themselves in a dangerous situation in order for them to be eligible to get the thing that is going to save them from a dangerous situation.”
Ultimately, McDonald stated, “I want the vaccine!” He had been approaching the pandemic with caution as he fears for the health of his family; McDonald said that getting the vaccine is “going to help me and my family’s situation.”
England did advise that, “the biggest thing is everybody that is making the decision on the vaccine just needs to make sure they’ve done their research and talked to their primary healthcare physicians.”
She also ends on a note of gratitude, “I am glad that we’re able to be able to have the chance to be protected so we can focus on teaching and not that background worry of COVID.”
While the past several months have not been ideal, Ms. Brook believes being at Bio-Med has made it easier for her. She thought if she were still teaching in California or at the prison she previously taught at, she would be struggling much more.
Brook’s mother was an elementary teacher, and Brook thinks if she was still teaching she would have quit immediately after the start of this situation. “A lot of teachers I know would just not have ever been comfortable with it and so, the fact that I have been at Bio-Med for four years, I’m just grateful because this has pretty much been a seamless transition to just 100% virtual,” she said. “I’m so grateful I work at Bio-Med.”
Ms. England agrees, and believes teaching has gotten easier as time goes on. Attendance and working with technology has gotten better for her. “I think we’ve figured out how to still do Bio-Med schooling to a point, so that got better too,” she said.
Mr. McDonald thought this has been a learning experience for how to teach children who cannot come to school. He gave the example of a student who has a bad health condition, or one who needs to stay in the hospital for a long period of time. “It’s letting the light in on how we might do that for a kid who needs it,” he said.
Despite the hardships, Ms. Tubbs was glad to have students back in the classroom, as interacting with the kids is why she became a teacher. She also expressed gratitude that she is still working and teaching, even though it is not the same.
“I think teachers are really flexible people and we make it work when we have to,” Tubbs said. “We’re getting there. Eventually we’ll be all back and it’s just something that we have to get through.”