Two Iowa teachers reflect on a year of pandemic schooling

Iowa teachers Brianna Herman (left) and Joe Link (right) discussed their experiences working at their respective schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. — photos courtesy of Brianna Herman and Joe Link

“Create a connection with the student [and] the work will come naturally, no matter how unusual the virtual format.” That’s the advice Jefferson High School teacher Joe Link would have given himself in March 2020.

More than one year ago, Iowa schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting education and changing how teachers interacted with their students. Gov. Kim Reynolds first recommended the state’s K-12 schools close on March 15, 2020. About a month later, on April 17, 2020, Reynolds announced that schools would not reopen during the 2019-20 academic year.

The governor was focused on getting students back in the classroom for the 2020-21 academic year. Last July, she ordered schools to prioritize in-person instruction, and earlier this year, Reynolds signed a bill requiring school districts to offer 100 percent in-person learning.

Teachers were not fully vaccinated when school districts were mandated to offer fully in-person learning, but nearly three months later, the districts in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids have completed the vaccination series for teachers.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District completed vaccinations for its teachers and staff last week. The Iowa City Community School District finished its vaccination of teachers and staff last month with more than 2,000 staff members vaccinated.

As classrooms slowly adjust to a new normal of safety guidelines and masks, teachers reflect on a less-than-ordinary school year.

Little Village interviewed two local teachers about their experience teaching throughout the pandemic, how the pandemic has changed the way they’ll teach in the future and who they are thankful for during this time.

Joe Link is a language arts and theater teacher at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids. Brianna Herman is a second grade teacher at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City.

Their responses have been edited for clarity.

Have you been vaccinated?

Brianna Herman: I am fully vaccinated. My second dose was March 19.

Joe Link: I am halfway through but should be vaccinated by the end of the month.

Do you feel supported as a teacher?

BH: I do. I feel like I’m fortunate because the building I work in is so amazing with the support of teachers. I have a really good guidance counselor and the principal is amazing. So yes, I feel like we have a good support system at school.

JL: Locally, yes. The Jefferson administration and the district superintendent have been thorough, thoughtful and solid listeners. The state government is a much harder situation. I realize they are a governing body with many concerns and too many people to please, but the inability to justify decisions with supporting research makes it hard to teach students to do the same. This undermines safety and, frankly, the concept of knowledge.

What are the main difficulties in teaching right now?

BH: Our main one right now is I was teaching hybrid and now in the past few weeks we are back to the 100 percent in-person, which has been difficult for students to readjust to a bigger class size again. Each of my groups had about seven or eight students on “A” days and “B” days, and now we are back to a class size of 19. That has been a really big adjustment for me and the kids.

I haven’t taught a group of 19 students in a long time, so obviously distancing has been hard. They were just really used to having their needs met on a smaller scale of students, so I could get to them all very easily and help out when I was needed. With a group of 19, it has been a little harder, so that’s been an adjustment for them.

Academically, I have been very impressed. My class as a whole benefited individually from smaller class sizes, so I didn’t really see as big an impact on their learning, but I know that’s not the case with every teacher. My class just really thrived in that environment so I feel like their academic outcome has been somewhat similar.

JL: Accountability. A virtual student is incredibly susceptible to going off the radar at any time. Simply by standing in the room and making eye contact with a student, I used to be able to check-in and keep them engaged, if not on topic. Now it is a series of warnings, reminders and internet-based observation programs that nag them into staying awake, on task or even in the room by their laptop after they logged in.

How has the requirement of in-person learning impacted you?

BH: The biggest impact was the preparation time to get ready for [class]. When the decision was made to go to 100 percent in-person, parents then had to be given time to make that decision for their family and because they needed time to do that after they made their decision, teachers had time to know how many students they were going to have and make changes to their classroom. So that was somewhat difficult to do in a short amount of time.

Another difficulty that came with it was that you sort of have to start the year over in a way to bring your class together when they were two separate groups. You have to build those relationships within their class and make them into a new team. They all knew each other from Zoom, but it was very different to have them together again and having social distance and not doing the typical get-to-know-you activities made it a little bit different. We had to reteach routines and expectations and just get to know each other in a new way in February, which is very different from a normal school year.

Franklin Middle School after the Aug. 10 derecho — photo from Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Facebook page

JL: The thought of a classroom full of students possibly carrying a dangerous virus was more than I could handle, especially since my family has made choices that render us all but perfectly safe, isolated at home. If the virus hits my family, it is because I brought it home. That was a lot of weight to carry. But due to the damage of the derecho, Jefferson had been virtual for months before we opened our doors. Students got used to not attending in person, so even after the doors opened, many chose to simply stay at home. On an average day I may see 10 to 15 in-person students. I am still ultra-cautious. I actually teach from my office and there is a window between me and my students. Yes, I come into the classroom and help them one on one, but only after adding a shield to my already mask-covered face and then sanitizing after I return to my office. To date, I have had only one confirmed case of COVID in my classroom, but that one occurred two days before my first vaccine shot. The stress is daily, constant and takes its toll.

How has the pandemic impacted the way you will teach moving forward?

BH: I think something that I really liked about it that is helpful is I have been able to connect with parents and students in a different way and get to know them in a new light. Students have been able to show me their dog, and they love that part of it. I have had some good turnouts for conferences that I haven’t had in the past. Being able to hold virtual conferences that has taken away a transportation barrier for families. To offer things like Zoom meetings to meet with parents and have conversations about students has been helpful. I will also say to new ways to use technology in my classroom, I haven’t known so many resources in the past that I can utilize and that has been eye-opening for me as well and engaging for students. I’ve been amazed at what my second graders can do with Zoom.

JL: I will happily go back to books, but I will never go back to paper assignments again. The ability to see my student’s work in process at any stage of its completion, to never have them lose it, and to be able to send feedback to them any time in any place has been thoroughly liberating.

If you could go back to March 2020 and give yourself some advice, what would it be?

BH: It would be to really slow down and take in the positive things that are happening with our students and not get so hung up with all the things I had to do. I know with me I am very type A and want to make sure that everything goes smoothly the first time so obviously it wasn’t going to be that way. So just kind of taking a step back and knowing that the kids and their emotional and social wellbeing is the most important in building those relationships and helping them feel comfortable in an uncertain time would be what I need to put first. I have gotten to that point but knowing that ahead of time, to make sure I don’t push academics so hard right away is something to remember.

JL: Create a connection with the student, the work will come naturally no matter how unusual the virtual format.

What are you looking forward to for in-person learning?

BH: I am just so happy to be able to see them every single day. It’s given me the ability to slow down some instruction, because I was trying to double up on some things when the kids were in person and hybrid when kids did not log in on Zoom meetings or online on a portal, so I’ve been able to slow down math instructions which has been helpful.

JL: Laughter. Students usually only unmute themselves to speak. So I never get to hear their responses to what I say, which is more than half of communication. Laughter and purposeful silence are the feedback that let you know if you are getting through to a student.

Who are you thankful for during this time?

BH: I just want to say that I have been super impressed by the teachers and their families. They have been very understanding and worked so hard to help their students at home and keep them up to date on everything going on and helping with their academics, and it really shows in my classroom. I definitely could not have done it without them. So I want to give them a nod because I know it’s definitely not easy being a parent right now. We definitely had to work together and be a team, so it’s been really nice to have some awesome families.

JL: I am thankful for the students. Imagine one-fourth of your favorite high school memories gone. That isn’t quite accurate because some of your high school memories may have been negative. To get a full picture to imagine one-fourth of your high school opportunities never happened — that year to make a new friend, get that big role, dance with that crush, try that thing. This year zapped away most of the things I remember liking most about high school, but kept the term papers and quizzes. But even through that, they didn’t give up.

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