For teachers like Claudia Romeo, the roller coaster of the 2019-2020 school year has looked a lot different than she originally anticipated. Romeo, who is in her first year of teaching with Fairfax County Public Schools, was just starting to truly feel comfortable in the day-to-day workings of being an educator when the pandemic hit Northern Virginia. For example, she was establishing her “teacher voice” in her fourth grade classroom, and finally feeling like she was in charge as the only leading adult (without an additional mentor or teacher present).
But when the calendar flipped to March and Romeo was finishing up the third quarter of the year with her students, everything changed. Within days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Romeo went from an in-person teacher to a remote-learning, on-demand educator. “There are some things no college course or internship can prepare you for,” says Romeo.
We caught up with the Beech Tree Elementary teacher as she shelters in place with her family in New Jersey to discuss her experience, how her students are reacting and what she misses most about her classroom. Highlights from our conversation are below.
Before the pandemic hit, what was your classroom’s atmosphere like?
I was really enjoying our second half of the 2019-2020 school year. I felt like I finally had a better sense of what did and did not work in our class. No virtual learning can replicate the comfort of our classroom. It’s a shame that we had to cut our year being physically present in the school short. The kids were really getting in the swing of our routines, they felt comfortable with me and I was more comfortable with them. Day by day I was beginning to feel more confident as a teacher. I was told by many that the first year will always be your hardest and that there’s a big learning curve. Since I won’t get to finish out the school year the traditional way, I worry next year will be like my first year, part two.
As news of COVID-19 spread, what were other teachers around you and your peers saying, and how was it impacting you?
COVID-19 was a hot topic at Beech Tree Elementary, and at my own house, which I share with my roommates. It was unsettling in the beginning because there wasn’t much in the news, so I didn’t really know what to make of it all. I had friends who taught in other counties already beginning to prepare for digital learning before it was even mentioned at my school. Were they overreacting, or was I under-reacting? No one knew! Some teachers were certain schools would not close, while others were saying it would probably be just a matter of days.
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect. Our school sent emails out to families to remind them about the importance of staying home if you felt sick or had any symptoms, and different tips on staying healthy. You can ask anyone who knows me well, and they will probably tell you, I am one of the cleanest people they’ve ever met. I’m a bit of a germophobe, so I was already disinfecting my whole classroom twice a day (at the beginning and at the end; it was just part of my routine), but once people began to talk about COVID-19, we would also have a cleaning break in the middle of the day. I started to feel more and more anxious as I read the news and I really didn’t know what to expect. For the week leading up to Gov. Northam’s announcement that schools were closing, I brought home some of my personal items in my classroom home with me every night, just in case we weren’t given any warning, which ended up being the case.
How were your students responding?
The kids in my class were very curious about everything they were hearing about the coronavirus. We had to have a few class discussions about how our words and actions affect others, because some kids were inadvertently hurting feelings and saying things that weren’t true regarding the virus. Also, a lot of kids were afraid, and I could relate. Since disinfecting was a part of our routine, I tried to ease my kids’ concerns by telling them that our class is as safe as it can be. We also had hand sanitizer accessible at all times, and began to do hand-washing before lunch and added that to our routine. One of my students has a parent who works for Walgreens and he brought in hand sanitizer for the class, which was so kind, especially as it was getting harder and harder to get. Also, as sad as it was, I began to discourage hugs in my class. That sounds a bit silly, but I really tried to limit contact to hopefully prevent the spread of germs as much as I could. We started doing fist bumps in my class instead.
Once the remainder of the school year was canceled, what was the transition to online learning like for you and your students?
We got the news about schools closing around midnight on Thursday, March 12, so I did not see it until the next morning. In fact, I actually woke up and started to get ready for my day on Friday! I hadn’t checked my email, but my co-worker texted me and that’s when I found out. I knew that the closing meant things were probably pretty bad. Many kids rely on schools for basic needs, like everyday meals, so closing schools isn’t a decision that is made lightly.
At Beech Tree, March 16, was going to be a student holiday, where teachers would still go into work to learn about what to do in the event schools closed, and Tuesday would resume as normal. Schools were canceled the Friday before (without notice), so we never got the chance to prepare. Instead, what we began to do was have staff meetings online. Our principal and school-based technology specialist did not waste a minute. They began hosting live chats and tutorials online to help teachers learn how to set up our virtual classrooms, and we began training on March 14. Our principal was also great communicating with us, as things were changing daily. It was, and still is, really overwhelming. I was just starting to get the hang of things in person, being a first-year teacher, then everything got turned upside down! We’re making the most of it and doing the best we can.
Now with online learning, how are your students doing?
I have unfortunately not been able to contact everyone in my class. I’ve emailed, called, left voicemails and even sent letters in the mail, but still have not heard back from some of my students. We have started online learning, and luckily things have really begun to take shape. We now only use Blackboard for our video meets because it caused so many problems; a true headache. Fourth grade made the decision to switch over to Google Classroom and things are much better now.
Still, not everyone at our school has a device or Wi-Fi at home. I know that a lot of families are going to have to share one device with parents working and multiple children needing access to the internet for distance learning. They had a day for laptop distribution in Fairfax County, but just how I’m not able to contact all my families in my class, the same goes for other students in the school. They did the best they could and for any family without a computer, we will make those accommodations on a case-by-case basis. We are recording our lessons so students, if they are sharing laptops at home, have access to lessons at any time of the day. We’re doing that to accommodate families as best we can. It’s not realistic to expect everyone in my class to log on for the live lessons. Meal distribution is still taking place too, which is really important and great.
What do you worry about most when it comes to finishing this school year with your kids?
I worry most about the kids I haven’t been able to reach. My fear is they may not get any instruction from me for the remainder of the year, but it’s really out of my control. Our school district has begun sending weekly, grade-specific educational packets home to families in efforts to be more equitable for families who may not have access to technology, so I can only hope those reach them. I also know that school provides a sense of stability and safety for a lot of kids. Our class is a safe space that they enjoy coming to, so I feel sad that has been taken away and is out of our control. On a personal note, one of the things that makes me the most sad is that we won’t get to spend the rest of the year together in school. I don’t know the next time I’ll get to hug my kids. I’ll miss the little victories, like when one of my quieter students volunteers to explain a problem. I’ll miss the aha moments when something finally makes sense to a kid. You can’t get those experiences online. I’ve begun to film some of my virtual lessons and it’s like I’m Dora the Explorer because I ask questions, pause, then give the answer. It’s weird.
If you could tell your students and their parents anything during this time, what would it be?
I would tell them to prioritize their physical and mental health, and not sweat the small stuff. My principal said it best: “You cannot replicate school at home and teachers cannot replicate their classroom virtually. We each need to let that go and embrace the journey. When our children are grown, let us have created beautiful, creative and family-based memories for them. Let them feel safe, loved and understood. Some children will need more structure than others. Some will need more play time. It’s all good. Give yourself the same freedom.” Right now, everyone is fighting a different battle. We are all learning together. This is new for everybody! If one of my students misses a virtual lesson, I won’t be upset. Of course I will miss them and I wish things were easier, but right now some battles are bigger than others and I don’t know what all my families are going through. We need to be patient and caring.
As a local teacher, if there was something you would want readers to know about being a teacher during these times, what would it be?
In recent weeks, I’ve seen more than one disgruntled parent complaining about how schools are implementing distance learning from community members in my hometown (on social media). While I am teaching in a different district than I grew up, I imagine some parents from all parts of the country may be unhappy with the way things are going. I think it’s really important to know that everyone is trying their absolute best. Like my principal said, it is impossible to replicate the warmth of a classroom virtually, but we are trying. Teachers are juggling their own families and worries at home, and are doing their absolute best to balance work and home life, just like everybody else. Let’s all be patient and compassionate toward one another during these uncertain times.
What is giving you hope and keeping you motivated through the global pandemic?
I’m grateful to have a safe home to stay at, food on the table and, most importantly, the health of myself and my family. I limit how much I watch and read the news each day, otherwise I get overwhelmed. I try to unplug, go for walks without my phone and read when I can. It’s also really nice to catch up with old friends now that I have a little more time on my hands. And most of all, I try to think about how lucky I am to be able to work from home, while so many people still have to show up to work each day to selflessly provide for others.
What are you looking forward to most when we can all get back to “normal?”
I can’t wait to hug my students, family and friends. I also can’t wait to browse stores for fun and talk to people without worry. I’m also really looking forward to being able to go to Barre3 classes again; they were always one of my favorite parts of my day.
Is there anything else you would want readers to know?
Everyone is going through a difficult time right now, so really it is important now more than ever before to have patience and compassion for others. Although distance learning will be a challenge, we always teach our students to be resilient, so let’s practice what we preach! We are so lucky to have technology that gives us the option to continue our school year, so we will do the best with what we have.
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