Following the very challenging 2020 school year, the professionals of Prescott Unified School District are gearing up to bring their students back to school, armed with new strategies and insight into how to keep kids safe and learning.
With the pandemic disruptions last year, school routines were largely thrown out the window, leaving teachers and families to try to accommodate parents and students of all ages working from home, and older kids often having to help take care of younger ones. Teachers scrambled not just to learn how to use Google Classroom and other unfamiliar tech, but how to best serve the variety of new and unexpected needs that arose as well. Principals toiled daily to ensure that kids and teachers had the needed resources, while working with the District to identify the best ways to keep students and staff as safe as possible. Many of us outside the system, even those of us with children in school, did not see the challenges that those working inside the schools faced.
I was able to sit down and talk with a few PUSD employees and learn some of what they went through over the last year. They shared the ups, downs and surprises that everyone involved with PUSD went through, and how they hope to overcome the challenges ahead.
A common theme was how important it is to our teachers and administrators to personally connect with students and families. Across the board, those connections have been greatly missed, seen as vital to good teaching.
I was touched by the the great support that everyone mentioned giving one another, from learning to navigate a new website to adjusting a curriculum for online teaching. Words like teamwork, camaraderie and collaboration came up frequently.
Andy Binder, Principal, Mile High Middle School
Toward the end of the 2019-20 school year, when students were first told to stay home, Binder and other principals knew that the virus would not be going away quickly, and they’d have to alter their plans to deal with the unknown and unprecedented.
In addition to the normal regime of preparations they face every year, they had to include work to find all the places clear barriers would be needed for safety and put those installations into their summer schedules.
“PUSD had formed many committees so they could do their best to ensure everyone’s safety and still meet the students’ educational needs. These committees worked nonstop through the year on top of their regular jobs,” said Binder.
He chuckled: “Everyone kept saying it’s a year-long of professional development, where they kept getting things thrown at them and they had to figure it out quickly. Sometimes as quickly as the next day!”
“We learned about some great technology, like Google Classroom. Some used it pre-Covid, but I think we’ll make better use of it moving forward.”
“What really got us through was collaboration. When someone didn’t understand how to do something, someone else was right there jumping in to help. This was true with teachers, principals, and the district as a whole.”
He continued, “As far as curriculum, we had to look at what was the most essential things that the students needed to take with them to next year, focus on those and maybe touch on the others, just not as in depth.
“One thing I noticed as kids were coming back last year, they forgot how to be a student. We’re going to have to help them learn school skills again. Kids are quick and they’ll learn.
“Considering the craziness that was happening, kids were amazing about keeping up the best they could. Some families had multiple school-age children in different grades and only one computer to go around. There were those families that couldn’t all stream at once.
“Teachers would be at home trying to teach on the computer with their kids home too, some of them have toddlers or younger, or the dog running around behind them.
“One of the biggest things that helped was being flexible. The staff were amazing. Each time we’d think we were getting a handle on one structure, things changed and we’d have to figure something else out. It was so draining, and yet they stayed so positive and they did it. Their ability to keep going despite every challenge imaginable being thrown at them, plus their own families, and their own health, they still made it happen. Some classes are harder to teach online than others — band, industrial arts, art, and choir are hands-on subjects, yet the teachers adapted and figured it out.”
Alexa Scholl, District Health and Safety Coordinator, PUSD
Last school year, Prescott Councilwoman Scholl coordinated with PUSD’s nursing staff on pandemic safety. “It was important that we operate as a team because a lot of families have siblings, so it effects a lot of schools when one sibling breaks out.”
“Each situation is so different, and we have to take everything into consideration and do the best we can with the information we have. “When students were out sick, nurses would keep in contact with the family to see how the student was doing.
When someone did have Covid, the nurse would guide them through how to take care of the sick, where to get vaccines, and encourage them to go to the emergency room as needed. This was done in addition to all their other nursing duties, such as if a student needs medication at a specific time, vision screenings, entering vaccination information into the database, along with a whole host of other things they are constantly dealing with.
“Last year was a very challenging year, especially for our educators. I’m so proud of our District and how we were able to move through that and still provide our students with quality learning.
Paul Helmken, Fifth-Grade Teacher, Granite Mountain Middle School
“I have other strengths, but technology isn’t one of them! I had to learn how to work the various websites I needed to keep classes going. It was challenging, but we figured it out. The administration and academic coaches were real helpful.”
He chuckles as he recalls being online in the beginning, “At first, it was tough trying to engage the kids through a screen. You know, the kids wouldn’t be focused, getting up to go to the bathroom, going to the kitchen, petting the dog, the screen is off so I can’t see them, or a hoodie is over their eyes.”
He smiles as he continued, “I had to understand what I can and can’t control. I tried to not beat myself up. I had to come to the conclusion that I was going to teach, give assignments through Google Classroom, if kids need my help, of course, I’m available. I had to let go of the idea of getting them all to pay attention the way I want them to.
“I have two high-school kids and a wife who’s also a teacher. She'd work in the kitchen and I would go to my classroom so we weren’t in the way of each other through the day.
“It was eerie being at school with no kids. So much of what we do is based on interconnectedness and seeing each other, and we didn’t have that, which was challenging for all of us, kids and teachers.
“Hybrid wasn’t that hard for me ('hybrid' is where some kids would go to school on Mondays and Wednesdays and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday was stay at home and work on assignments). I taught 15 kids face-to-face, which made it fairly easy. When everyone came back, that was more challenging because we were still supposed to social-distance.
“I’ve always had a focus on the relationship piece of teaching, but I think as I move forward, while being age-appropriate, I want to focus even more on how we treat each other, how we talk, debate, and disagree with each other. Teaching being curious about what someone thinks, respecting others’ opinions, and how we can respectfully disagree with others in our community is crucial. “The students were amazingly resilient and the persistence they showed throughout the year when dealing with a difficult situation was incredible. They had to adapt constantly as things changed. District support was top-notch and students rose to the occasion. I’m very proud of the fifth-graders.”
Amanda Chartier, Visual-Arts Coordinator and Art Instructor Prescott High School
Chartier and her husband contracted Covid at the beginning of January 2021. She was down for three weeks. It took another two months for her to start feeling like she was getting some of her energy back.
“It was interesting when we got back to class because between everyone still wearing masks and with the acrylic barriers on desks, it was really limited talking. The art room was completely silent! It was weird. I’ve never had that before.
“When I look back at this year, I think of Charles Dickens’ opening line of A Tale of Two Cities; ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ That quote represents radical opposites happening at the same time. Looking back at the school year, I think the circumstances really drew out the best of who the students were.”
“I’m a teacher who teaches my children first and then the subject matter. For me, I like connecting with the students. My ‘how is it going today, how can I help you, what are you rejoicing about, or struggling with?’ changed to ‘are you safe, do you need food, what can I do for you emotionally or physically?’ because I had glimpses of their home life while working with them online.
“Joe Howard said, ‘We’re building the airplane while flying it.’ That’s exactly how it felt! “We moved a visual-arts curriculum, which is very hands-on, to a virtual platform. Our administration was adamant about not asking the students to purchase anything. A lot of students don’t have art paper or any art supplies at home, so they used what they could. It was challenging, but it was also creative problem-solving.
“At Covid’s height, I easily put in 16-18 hours a day! It would be a full day of teaching, then another full day of teaching myself how to do something for the next day’s lesson or a conference so all of us would be on the same plane, and researching what will work in the different platform and what won’t. It was crazy!
“When we did come together at school, one of the challenges was the lack of respect for peoples’ differences of opinion regarding how things should be handled. It was discouraging at times to see the lack of respect the students had toward each other in this area.
“When we were face-to-face, we really had to rethink how to hand out supplies. Everything that was touched had to be disinfected before the next class. Once we got a system, it wasn’t very time-consuming and the kids knew what to do. They were very cooperative.
“As a school, we really had to look at how we do things. We’ve always done things a certain way, but when Covid came along, we had to streamline anything we could. I feel like things are more efficient now.
“Last year was like being a first-year teacher again, times a thousand!”
Talking with these people really opened my eyes to how things were from their perspectives. It’s helped me develop more compassion and empathy for the positions they were put in. It has also raised my admiration even higher of everyone who works in a school system. They truly are heroes.