Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Gates Elementary successfully completed the first semester of in-person learning Friday.
Principal Joe Eckerman said the semester was “pretty fantastic” and that kids and teachers alike were excited to be back in school this year after finishing the last school year via remote learning.
“I don’t think you get quite the impact with virtual learning as you do with face-to-face learning,” Eckerman said.
“We obviously just want what is best for the kids, so if we can get them face-to-face and keep them here for as long as possible by doing a little extra things like cleaning and wearing masks, we will do those to keep them here in-person. We think that is where they are going to have the best outcome.”
He said that things have gone “really well” this semester and that despite all of the hurdles the pandemic has caused, his staff has come together and stepped up to do what is needed to ensure students can stay safe while learning in school.
“The staff really came together and covered each other’s duties. They went above and beyond to make sure that our kids still had the same educational experience,” Eckerman said.
“It was a very cool experience seeing the whole building come around a very common goal of making sure that kids are in the building and that they are getting the best education possible. Seeing every staff member step up to ensure that that happened was really touching.”
Physical education teacher Leah Michel said that while school has been different this semester, she is happy that the doors still are open for in-person learning.
Michel said she has had to change “everything” in her PE classes as a result of the pandemic.
“We are used to doing big group activities or whole group games and really focusing on teamwork and good sportsmanship; we can’t do that,” she said. “Now, we have to focus on the smaller groups, spread out more and do things with just one or two partners, rather than having a whole team.”
Michel said the additional cleaning measures also have presented challenges. She has to clean the equipment after each class and “have it ready for the next class that comes in in five minutes.”
“Most classes come in back-to-back,” she said. “Every once in a while, there is a little bit of a gap. I have to make sure that I have enough time to do that and that I have something for the kids to do because another class is usually coming in right after that.”
Michel said she often has to determine what equipment she can use for her small group activities.
“In the past, it was always the same flow to a lesson — what we started with, what is in the middle and what we end with,” she said. “This year, we might have to mix that up a little bit so that the equipment has enough time to dry in between or I have enough time to clean it. All the kids still get the same lessons and the same education; it is just the way we go about it where we have to get a little bit more inventive this year.”
Kindergarten teacher Tammy Verba said despite some initial concerns about how her students would adjust to school given the COVID-19 protocols Grand Island Public Schools has implemented, the first month of school was “really awesome.”
“The kids did a great job because they didn’t know school without masks,” Verba said. “So the first month, they were right on target with it. Then, you started to do that reminding and reteaching like not having it (mask) slip past the nose. We talk about why we do it because it is important to let the kids know why there is a ‘why’ and not just ‘because I said so.’”
She said she implemented additional cleaning measures in her classroom, such as cleaning tables a few times a day, vacuuming daily and doing more frequent hand washing.
“Everyone washing their hands at kindergarten is a chore,” Verba said. “You teach them to wash their hands using the ABC song and when you do that 17 times it is like, ‘OK, math should have probably started 20 minutes ago.’ So that whole time issue has probably been the biggest obstacle.”
With all of her students wearing face masks, she said one of the biggest difficulties is to teach them letter sounds and “how to put them all together to read.”
“When they cannot see my mouth and see what my mouth is doing, it is difficult,” Verba said. “When I cannot see their mouth to know how to correct that sound, it is difficult. So I am leaning in closer and really trying to hear what they are saying.”
She said she often will have quiet time where she has taught her students to be as quiet as possible to allow her to listen to her students sounding out letters and words.
“I am leaning in, really listening and asking them to repeat those sounds,” Verba said. “I am using words to describe what my mouth is doing and using lots of pictures, too, to go with those sounds.”
As a speech language pathologist, Katie Shafer said, she also knows the challenge of having to work with students when everyone is wearing masks.
“It has made it challenging, especially when working with students who have a speech impairment or with students who have social and emotional deficits,” Shafer said. “A lot of the time, what we are focusing on is teaching them emotions. When we teach that, we teach them to look at people’s faces. You cannot see that, so it does create a challenge, but we get creative and we will use pictures or something like that.”
She said that her students are resilient and have adapted well to the changes that have occurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. She added it has caused her and her students to be more aware of their space.
“I have a very small room, so sometimes I would have six kids in here,” Shafer said. “We try to keep the social distancing and keep the space.”
She said she “100%” wants to stay in school, despite the pandemic.
“I want to be here, the students want to be here and parents want them to be here,” Shafer said.
Michel said she “feels good” going into the spring semester. While she hopes to get “a little bit back to our norm,” Gates students still are thriving and adapting well to the changes this school year has brought.
Verba said she also feels confident going into next semester and emphasized she will do whatever it takes to remain in school.
“I am not going home; we are staying in school. Are masks a pain? Yes, but I will do whatever I need to do to be here with the kids,” she said.
“I think it is important to have kids in school. Even after having that little taste of at-home and virtual learning, they need to be here. I need them to be here because this is why I teach. I want that interaction with the kids and I need it.”