Teaching has never been an easy profession. Budget cuts, achievement gaps, teacher shortages, dwindling resources, poverty: all of these factors and more make the task of educating today’s youth a daunting challenge. Add the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to the equation, and the task becomes almost overwhelming.

This is the reality for schools across the country and across the region.

Yet delivering quality education is a duty and an obligation to which educators and administrators in school districts large and small have dedicated their every resource during this challenging time.

The Aguilar School District can be viewed as a case study of the trials — and the successes — of education during a global pandemic.

School districts found themselves in an unprecedented situation this spring: with little-to-no-warning, they were ordered to close to in-person instruction, yet also tasked to continue to educate students.

Victoria Walk, Aguilar Elementary Vice Principal, Preschool Director, and grades 3-5 Literacy Instructor, explained the challenges elementary teachers faced when switching to online instruction during the spring shut-down, “Our students were beginning to understand how to complete some virtual work, but not in the manner that was required for them to do so 100 percent online at the end of March.”

The problems were compounded by the rural nature of the school, and remote locations in which many students live: “Some were lacking good internet service, so we had to do packets of work and help students over the phone. It is very difficult to explain information to a young child and not be able to see them,” said Walk.

“The parents and guardians did the best they could, but nothing will ever beat face-to-face education for elementary students,” Walk said. “They need visual and hands-on learning for many things, and it made some of us feel very helpless that we couldn’t provide that for them. We were able to have Zoom meetings with some students, but even that proved to be difficult for some of our students.”

Many secondary teachers also struggled with the transition to online learning. “When we closed in the spring, it was bam, we were closed. We had no plan as to how to teach online. So, instruction couldn’t be as vigorous as what I would have done in the classroom. The kids missed out on a lot of key concepts we would have touched upon during that time,” said Aguilar middle school teacher Marie Zamora, a 30-year veteran educator and PK-12 school counselor.

However, secondary students and teachers were more prepared, in general, than elementary to pivot to online instruction in the spring due to a greater level of experience with technology such as Chromebooks, Google Classroom, and Zoom. “When the closure happened, the majority of middle school and high school students were used to assignments being posted on Google Classroom,” said Elizabeth Jameson, Aguilar English/Language Arts teacher for grades 6-12 and Junior/High School Principal.

“I am lucky to have a middle school and high school staff that were innovative in what they could do to accommodate the ‘COVID times’ and get instructional material to students,” Jameson said.

“This was so new to teachers and students as well; I feel we did the best we could given the situation. We created packets for students who did not have internet access. We posted assignments on Google Classroom, and each week teachers kept a log of who they contacted daily. Superintendent Houser and I felt it was important that the teachers reach out to their students and parents, checking in on them. This piece was important because teachers were still reaching out to see who needed help and who wasn’t coping well with the new learning environment.”

The spring shut down hit extracurricular and vocational programs especially hard. “The spring closures affected my teaching by eliminating all of our spring FFA events,” said Future Farmers of America advisor, agriculture teacher, and Health and Wellness Coordinator Tamra Beard. “These events are something my students work for all year and really look forward to. These cancellations have continued into the foreseeable future. As a result, my students are losing excitement about our FFA program.”

“The closure also affected the contact I had with my students,” said Beard. “Gaining a student’s trust takes time, but it is what makes the difference in a child’s performance in the classroom.”

After struggling through a difficult spring, and with no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, teachers and administrators redesigned curriculum and acquired technology over the summer to prepare for the difficult school year ahead.

“We had many meetings over the summer about how to create cohorts of students, ensure we had enough teaching staff to cover the cohorts, and to allow for all the changes we would be facing,” said Walk.

Increasing student and staff access to technology has been key to keeping the doors of Aguilar schools open this fall, following a hybrid model of instruction for secondary students and ensuring preparedness for any additional school closures should they be required. “The technology piece was handled seamlessly with Micah Wheeler. He ordered what we needed, such as cameras for the classrooms,” said Jameson.

“We had the majority of students covered with a Chromebook already, as Aguilar has given Chromebooks to students for the past three to four years. This year, everyone in grades 3-12 has a Chromebook and the ability to get on Google Classroom and do virtual learning at any given time,” Jameson said. “Students take the Chromebooks home every night, so they are prepared to do what needs to be done. My staff has prepared students regarding what to do should we have to go virtual. I think just having that preparation has made a big difference.”

“In March, we were not prepared, and the students were not prepared either. One day we were in the classroom, and the next we were virtual learners. It is amazing working with educators who can quickly adapt and adjust for the sake of student learners,” said Jameson.

While teachers, staff, and students are more prepared for the new realities of school this fall, the challenges of social distancing and hybrid learning have still been daunting.

“We fog our rooms during each class break, and wipe down all areas,” said Walk. “Our students wash their hands anywhere from 6-10 times a day and do not complain. We do morning and midday temperature checks, and our parents have been wonderful at keeping any ill students’ home.”

“As far as academic challenges this fall, it has mostly been with the virtual component. We record live lessons for students who chose to school from home, but ensuring the work gets submitted is always difficult,” Walk said.

Social distancing has been tough for students and staff, socially and emotionally. “As a teacher, we miss being able to give our students hugs and handshakes because we know they need it as much as we do,” said Walk.

Social distancing has impacted students’ abilities to interact with one another during lessons as well, a factor that Zamora has found particularly challenging: “One really huge problem that I’ve come against is that kids learn best when they work together; but due to social distancing, I can’t group them. This has been difficult for me, because this is how I’ve taught for years and years.”

Jameson notes the financial impact the pandemic has had on Aguilar schools. “As with other districts, Aguilar received a 25 percent reduction in our budget. As a result, several things had to be adjusted. We had to move staff and reassign roles. Some staff chose not to return, and those positions were not filled at this time. Hopefully these staff cuts will be short term, as these positions are necessary for a successful high school experience,” said Jameson.

For Beard, the cancellation of many ‘normal’ aspects of her FFA programming has been especially daunting. “The real changes have been the loss of opportunities through our FFA program. For example, my FFA officer team has not been left with much in the way of responsibilities since there are no events, trips, or competitions to plan for our chapter. Their positions have been rather pointless.”

“My district officer is in the same boat,” said Beard. “She is labeled a ‘district officer,’ but with our district’s rigorous no-travel policy, her job has been pretty static.”

Still, Beard is teaching a key quality all students must master in these challenging times: resiliency. “We are trying to make the most of what we can through small acts of kindness for the student body,” said Beard. “For Halloween, we put together candy bags, since the elementary couldn’t have their Halloween parties. My shop class is working diligently to assemble the 3-5 grades playground equipment so they will have access to their own playground.”

Despite these challenges, Aguilar’s teachers, administrators, and students are seeing successes, not just setbacks. “The closure in the spring did hurt academically, but when our kids came back in the fall, our NWEA test scores were very surprising. The students did much better than we anticipated with having such a long time out of school. A lot of them worked very hard to continue their reading and basic math skills at home,” said Walk.

“At the same time, they were so happy to be back to some normalcy when they returned to school this fall. School is an escape for so many of them for multiple reasons, and we were just so happy to have them back,” Walk said. “While we are grateful that technology is available when we need it, we know our students and families appreciate that we opened as early as we did. Our students are doing extremely well because of it.”   

With the ability to pivot to online instruction whenever needed, Jameson pointed out another success: “With online learning, we realized that no longer when we call a ‘Snow Day’ will there be no learning taking place. Now when we have a ‘Snow Day,’ it is called a ‘Virtual Learning Snow Day.’”

“Our fall parent conferences at the secondary were also a success. Teachers contacted each parent ‘virtually,’ and we had a 97 percent success rate - something almost unheard of at the secondary level,” said Jameson.

Another silver lining Zamora sees is an increased appreciation for teachers and education. “There have been some kids who have really stepped up, who are doing way better now than they were last year before all this started,” said Zamora. “I don’t know why; maybe they value in-class instruction more now because they didn’t have it. I think because of the time the kids spent at home; parents are appreciating us more as well.”

“Teaching during a pandemic has definitely posed challenges, but I feel like Aguilar’s administration, teachers, and staff have really rallied together and have done a wonderful job meeting challenges head-on,” reflected Beard. “Everyone has been supportive of each other and understanding, even if it just allowing a fellow teacher to vent about how all this is making our job that day harder. I feel very proud to work for a school district that can stand together and hold each other up in what has been the most challenging experience in some of our careers. In the words of Shakespeare, ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce.’”

Update on Aguilar facing COVID-19

The Aguilar School District moved to 100 percent remote learning, effective Monday, Dec. 7 through the end of the fall semester.

The change was necessitated by rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

In a letter addressed to students and parents, Superintendent Dr. Stacy Houser explained, “We are making the decision to go to virtual learning out of an abundance of caution. Our primary consideration in these moments is for the safety of our students and staff.”

The district will provide to-go meals for students as it did in the spring, and thanks to ample practice and planning this fall, students from elementary through high school are prepared to utilize their Chromebooks for online instruction.

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