By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2021
ATHENS—Anna Conti could always call on all her students, the masked young people sitting in front of her, and those appearing on large screens in her classroom.
Conti wrapped up her fourth year in front of a classroom at Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School in Athens earlier this month. A handful of students all year attended classes remotely where she teaches Latin and is an advisor for the yearbook.
“I loved being able to see and interact with my students no matter where they were,” she said in an email. “They could hear me, their friends and see what I was teaching all from the safety of their homes”
Teachers like Conti were challenged when classrooms suddenly shut in the spring. They had to prepare packets for at-home learning, and then hurriedly took up online learning. It was a balancing act of leading students in the classroom and online.
After 12 months of improvising and adaptation, teachers and parents shared thoughts on the constraints of the school year, but also some of the bright spots of the year.
Conti said a positive side of teaching has been embracing technology forced by the circumstances. She joked that she’s more familiar with Google Classroom than ever before. Conti believes the uncertainty of the school year made her a better teacher.
“I have been much more proactive at making sure all materials and information are available online for students, and I have rethought several of my assignments to better fit the hybrid learning environment,” she said.
When school in the fall opened, it looked and felt different. Safety protocols were implemented. Parents answered daily health screenings. Students and teachers covered their faces with masks.
For one longtime educator, a stronger sense of community and resilience grew from the changing demands of teaching in the time of the virus.
“I’m just so ecstatic that we did it. We made this happen. We all came together as a community. We got the materials we needed, we got the supplies, we did it. It is not 100% normal, but it has been as close to normal as I think we possibly could have had in this situation,” said Melanie Ferguson, a second-grade teacher at St. Mary’s School, Rome.
Ferguson and Conti were honored by their peers and recognized as employees of the year during February’s Catholic Schools Week.
New class upended by virus
Ferguson has introduced school to the youngest boys and girls as a pre-K teacher for some 20 years. For this school year, she moved to the second-grade classroom. Instead of decorating the billboards, she spent time dismantling the room’s homey features such as removing the comfortable reading chairs for her early learners. The extra space was needed to ensure student desks were the required six feet apart from each other.
Relying on her ingenuity, Ferguson repurposed a music stand as a computer carrier so she was always available to any remote learners. There was one student who learned from home throughout the fall semester.
“I tried very hard not to leave her out. If we had it in the classroom, she had it at home,” from cupcakes to a Christmas book exchange, said Ferguson.
With the school year’s upheaval, Ferguson considered it a win as her students participated in a spiritual retreat and received first Communion. They were surrounded by a small number of family and classmates in the church for the sacrament, she said.
“We made adjustments but we still got to do the things we needed to, that we wanted to do, the things that make our school special,” Ferguson said.
Virus curbed parental involvement
For parents, the school year was just as unique.
Cathy Gable’s daughters balanced in-person learning and remote learning. The seventh grader at Marist School preferred going to campus because online learning bored her. The fifth grader at St. Thomas More School stayed home the whole year.
The younger one did fine academically and Gable applauded the Decatur school staff for making her daughter feel included. She was called on and the teacher was always available, she said.
However, she is looking forward to classroom learning next fall, said Gable.
“The bonus to virtual was more sleep and she could make her own lunch,” she said.
Jeff Pyron’s two children attend St. Thomas More School. They were in school all year, and he believes certain technology changes should stay. Video conferencing for school meetings is a new tool that should remain, he said.
The best part of the school year was how teachers and administration adapted in a safe way, while parent involvement had to be sacrificed because of the virus, he said. Overall, he said he viewed it as a great year for his children.
Marie Vilmont-Rhea, a nurse and mother of two, was cautious as the year began, but opted to send her 6-year-old to St. Joseph School, Marietta, as the detailed safety plans were adopted.
Overall, she said her kids have done better than expected with wearing masks. The children carried the burden of missing out on playing with friends, she said.
“I’m grateful the school took it seriously and did their best to follow CDC guidelines.”