With big workloads, teachers are making it through unprecedented school year
For hundreds of teachers and school staff working extra hours and in new ways to educate Eagle County students during the pandemic, Thanksgiving week offered a chance to get some much needed rest and relaxation.
But like seemingly everything else this year, even a welcome holiday break was not without worry. As coronavirus infections surge in Eagle County and across Colorado, the break left some wondering if people would take enough precautions to limit the virus’s spread during what is normally a time for family and friends to gather.
“This break was much needed, but also creates some anxiety,” said Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher at Gypsum Elementary School and president of the Eagle County Education Association.
Phil Qualman, superintendent of Eagle County Schools, echoed that view, adding that this break was not like past years. “We’re not having large family get-togethers, our travel is limited, our opportunities are different. There’s just this constant feeling throughout this entire calendar year where people feel like their foundations are rattled, and what we normally rely on for consistency and stability are in flux,” he said.
’A Herculean effort’
With holiday breaks raising worries, school days are challenging enough. Teachers and school employees have been putting in significant extra hours and rapidly adapting to new paradigms to keep schools open and students learning and safe.
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After abruptly transitioning to remote learning to conclude the 2019-2020 academic year because of the coronavirus, reopening schools for in-person instruction this year has required what Eagle County Schools spokesperson Dan Daugherty called a Herculean effort by all employees.
“This is the most challenging year of my career,” said Kolibaba, a teacher for 18 years. “I would say this is even more challenging than my first year. I can’t imagine what this is like for teachers in their first years who are not only learning to be teachers, but in this time when we’re having to adapt at the drop of a hat.”
Extra work and new strategies to teach students and keep everyone safe run the spectrum of nearly every school district operation.
There are new class sizes and schedules. There are student wellness and temperature checks to start each day, with lunch and recess protocols. Throughout the day, there is cleaning, mask wearing and social distancing. Teachers and students have had to accelerate their adoption of online learning platforms and technologies and navigate challenges with internet access and bandwidth. There is daily lesson planning and instruction for students who are learning in-person and remotely.
Teachers have also had to develop and fine-tune their methods to keep students in all grades and skill levels engaged and advancing, especially if they’re completing coursework at home or attending class from the other side of a computer screen.
“The workload is immense,” Kolibaba said of the school year. “When people ask me how I am, I say I’m surviving. That is my motto. I’ll survive and we’ll see.”
Exhaustion is a word many teachers around Colorado are using. “I am consistently hearing from teachers that this fall semester is one of the hardest, most demanding and challenging semesters educators have ever experienced,” said Aime Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.
“Many of our members report workloads doubling or tripling,” Baca-Oehlert said. “It was always very common for our teachers to be grading and planning on evenings or weekends, but now we’re hearing from teachers who are staying up until one or two in the morning preparing lessons.”
Growing workloads with additional subjects and lesson planning and instruction for both in-person and remote learning, sometimes shifting between the two or doing both, are only one cause of the fatigue many teachers are feeling. Some are also struggling with personal challenges the pandemic has caused for many workers: Financial strain because of the loss of a spouse’s job or a second job, day care and supervision for their own children, concern about the virus, and all the usual uncertainty around what comes next in a pandemic that has dragged on for most of the year.
’An unprecedented school year’
Eagle County Schools has not been immune to those education challenges, though the district has by and large been able to stick to its instruction model through the first few months of the school year.
In a major boost for students, working parents and the local economy, the district decided to offer four days a week of in-person instruction for elementary and middle school students and a hybrid model for high school students, with two days of in-person classes and two days of remote learning.
“What we’ve done has been unprecedented,” Qualman said about the work needed to get back to in-person instruction during the pandemic. “Generally speaking, it has been the most challenging and rewarding school year I’ve ever been engaged in. We’ve been asked to do new and different and more work than any of us have ever done.”
Teachers also said there are many silver linings to be found among the challenging and uncertain year.
Beth Cooney is teaching second grade this year at Edwards Elementary. Her class of 17 includes one student attending virtually. Cooney spends nearly all day with the students and teaches all their subjects. That’s meant there are generally a few extra hours of work to do at home each night. But it’s also meant that she’s gotten to know her students exceptionally well.
“Overall, we’ve been really lucky. We’re in a good place,” Cooney said. “I was just saying to someone today, I almost feel like we’re ready to soar. It’s been three or four months now and I feel like I really know the kids and we’re ready to take off. That’s a great place to be as a teacher.”
Kim Biniecki, an eighth grade math teacher at Homestake Peak School who is also teaching science this year, said “we’re all being pushed.”
“It’s not easy, but given the circumstances, I’m much happier being in school than being remote like half the country is and most of the districts around us are,” Biniecki said. “I feel like I know my kids really well this year and have had practically zero discipline issues. It’s been an exhausting year, but a really good year to teach, believe it or not.”
District-wide, elementary students seem to be thriving with middle school students on par with past years, Qualman said. The biggest concern is for high school students in class only two days a week.
“There are some students in our high schools who are thriving in our system, and some who are not at all. I think this instruction model has exacerbated achievement gaps we have been trying to improve in recent years. We’re really forcing kids to take on a new level of learning independence, saying you have to be independent, find a place, find a way, find a schedule that gets the work done for you,” Qualman said. “Some never expected to need that level of autonomy. They thought that might’ve come in college, but here they are 14 years old.”
Keeping it going
Eagle County Schools went into the Thanksgiving break with Eagle Valley High School temporarily in remote learning because of increasing numbers of students and staff in quarantine. Last week, the district had 20 people with coronavirus infections, which is only about 0.3% of the total organization, Qualman said.
Teachers and school employees should be proud of what they are achieving this year, Qualman said. “What we’ve done has been far more than many districts in the state and the nation … It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a thing we’ve accomplished.”
Kolibaba and other teachers said they feel parents and the community are genuinely appreciative of the work they are doing to keep students learning in school and safe. That appreciation was illustrated by voters this month approving a measure to help fund the district.
“For a system that was already strained and underfunded, to add this (pandemic) on, it has definitely been amazing to see them pulling this off,” said Tessa Kirchner, a former school board member and local education advocate. “I’ve never seen teachers working so hard.”
The school district will, however, transition back to full remote learning in all grades and schools if Eagle County’s coronavirus dashboard dial moves into level red. That dial moved up one notch into level orange two weeks ago, and one of the dial’s three main metrics, the two-week cumulative incidence of the virus, is in level red for that one category.
Kolibaba and other teachers said they hope the community will continue to help keep coronavirus infections in check so that the schools can continue to teach students in person. That is what’s best for students, for teachers instructing them, and for parents, they said.
“I think we’ve done a very nice job of mitigating the spread in the schools, but we’re seeing strain on the system as there seems to be more community spread in the last month to six weeks,” Kolibaba said. “We’re really hopeful the community can do their part to help mitigate that.”
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.