We Made it: A Year of In-Person Learning Amidst COVID

Wow! It’s been quite a year.  The school year isn’t quite over, but it’s hard to resist taking a moment to reflect on the school year. 

Construction in the middle of a pandemic was anything but easy, and I would have certainly thought that building this school would be my “great accomplishment” of the year.  I dreamt of building this school for more than a decade before finally starting construction, so, how could it not be the defining moment of the year? Yet, I find that I’m more proud of making it through the entire year of in-person learning with no COVID closures or interruptions than anything else.  

We made it!  We still have about four weekends of classes until this school year comes to an end, and we haven’t had to close once!  With zero COVID exposures of incidents in our school, we upheld the promise we made to our parents last summer.   

The Unexpected Beginning

When the school year started, I still didn’t know where I’d put our students!  We’d moved out of our last location, and our new location wasn’t quite ready to move into.  At the beginning of September, I still didn’t have electricity, running water, or walls in this school! To say it wasn’t quite ready is an understatement to say the least.

I’m so incredibly grateful to my contractor, Al Sodano, for lending us space in his buildings so that we could open for in-person classes amidst the pandemic.  After spending months contemplating and writing policies to run COVID compliant in-person classes, I had to completely overhaul those policies for a new location.  But, we did it! 

We spent a little over a month in the temporary location.  At first, I was concerned that the minimalist design of our classes would be difficult.  I wasn’t sure how the students would react to this classroom setup.  Would they still LOVE coming to class?  Games, activities, and manipulatives are such a key component to our curriculum.  With everything still in boxes, we were forced to make-do with minimal resources: a printer set up in a storage container on our property, tables, chairs, a Wi-Fi hotspot, write and wipe bulletin board “paper.”  

The first day of classes was perfect.  We were exhausted, but I couldn’t have asked for a better first weekend. It certainly wasn’t the “back to school” I’d imagined for the year, yet I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing first weekend of classes.  After an online-only spring semester and a mostly isolated summer break, everyone was thrilled to be in a “real” classroom with in-person interaction.  

The Big Move

As September came and went, construction on our school still wasn’t completed.  COVID was causing delays in every regard, and I felt as if I’d never pass all of my inspections.  We finally received our Certificate of Occupancy at the end of October, and we didn’t waste a second moving in.  I promised everyone that we’d move in to the new building as soon as possible.  I kept that promise.  Everyone thought that I was crazy, but we had students in the door two days later.  

We celebrated our second “back to school” event in conjunction with Halloween!  Our classrooms were ready-to-go — aside from the still unpacked boxes we’d tucked away in different corners and storage spaces — but again, none of that really seemed to matter.


A School Year to Remember

When I dreamed of building this school, I never imagined that I’d need to restrict access to my building.  Some of our parents haven’t even been inside of our school yet.  I certainly didn’t imagine plexi-glass shields on my desks, hand sanitizer at every turn, masks on my students, and socially distanced desks.  And yet, this year has been everything I could have asked for and more.  

Last summer, I fretted over health screening procedures and temperature checks.  These procedures were surprisingly easy to implement and stand by.  I was concerned that I’d spend most of my class “policing” proper mask wearing.  I didn’t.  It quickly became a part of the “new normal,” and mask compliance was a breeze.  I was terrified that I’d need to rewrite all of my curriculum to suit social distancing requirements — that I wouldn’t be able to do so without stripping my lessons of all the engaging activities that students love.  And yet, we found a way.  We re-imagined activities and stretched our imaginations to come up with new activities that have enhanced our curriculum for the years to come.  

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.  I found that students struggled to complete and submit homework on time more than in years prior.  Many of our students use extra class time in their regular schools to complete homework, but this year, students report that they’re required to sit at attention in their virtual classes even if they’ve completed all of the work.  No “off screen” work permitted.  Normally avid readers report difficulties finding enough time to read.  Whereas these students would normally read after completing their work early, in-between class periods, on car rides to activities, and on the bus ride to school, this year students found they had to dedicate specific time to reading as these opportunities to “read on the go” rarely presented themselves.  Parents found themselves overwhelmed — trying to manage your child’s distance learning at home plus all the other activities while still attempting to productively work from home is a difficult task to say the least.  But, we made it.  

And now, it’s time to look to the future.  What will next year hold for our students?  It’s difficult if not impossible to predict what this virus will do between now and September.  In fact, I’ve entirely quit trying to predict the future of this virus and the regulations that accompany it.  Last summer, I felt compelled to try to predict the future — to try to determine what the medical professionals could not in order to design policy that I wouldn’t need to change over and over as the year went on.  I simply cannot know, and I will no longer attempt to figure this out.  

My policies and procedures regarding COVID will remain unchanged for the time being.  With only a few weeks left to the school year, I see no reason to change them now.  What we’ve been doing is working; we haven’t had any COVID closures or exposures in our school.  I’ll leave the policies alone for the summer.  It doesn’t make much difference; we don’t offer summer classes.  I will revisit the policies and procedures at the end of August when we have a better idea of what the health climate will be like in September and beyond.  

Policies aside, I know that next year will be a great one.  It will be our first full year in our new location. No temporary locations, stressful inspections, or rushed construction to start off the year.  Having made it through this year, I can confidently say that we will continue to be 100% in-person for the 2021 – 2022 Academic Year. 

Coming soon: An Analysis of the academic impacts of COVID on our students: Past, Present, and Future

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