By Juanice Gray, Editor
It was Friday the 13th, also the week of a full moon, when life as we knew it was flipped upside down. That was the day Louisiana’s governor issued a stay at home order in light of the increasing threat of Covid-19.
Little did we know the changes it would bring. A curfew, checkpoints at state borders, hoarding of toilet paper and disinfectant, online ordering for essentials, face masks, drive through testing, curbside pickup for all goods and services, 6 feet of separation, missed gatherings at holidays, drive up and streamed church services, call in public meetings, and for seniors, graduation on hold.
If one looks closely enough, there are some silver linings to these changes, but for the seniors who anticipated prom and graduation and the teachers who thought they would see their students in a few weeks, the separation anxiety is real and is taking its toll.
Then just this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards made it official that classes are cancelled for the remainder of the year.
The Times reached out to several teachers and other school personnel to see if they wanted to send messages to their students and/or comment on the separation.
Their comments show the depth of devotion they have to their profession and to their students. One would think there would be cheers that school was dismissed early, however that was not the case.
What was heard was longing to be reunited, and the desire to hear the sound of school bells ringing in hallways filled with students.
This story is lengthy, but it’s worth taking the time to understand how the pandemic has affected students, teachers, cafeteria personnel, principals and others and how each is coping with what has become the new normal.
Dacayana Horn, a fourth grade teacher at Provencal said her initial response was shock and concern. “We were close to dismissal time for the day, and my co-teachers and I weren’t really sure what steps to take to prepare our students for this extended absence. I did have a few students who were concerned about missing school and not being prepared to take the LEAP assessment,” she said.
Emmella Walker, a second grade teacher at Goldonna said she wasn’t too concerned at first. “I felt like we would be going back to school this year. When I said good-bye to them that day, I didn’t feel like it would be good-bye for the entire year. My concerns about them getting behind, of course, have increased.”
Gabrielle Edwards is a senior at NCHS. She said of course she, as any student would be, was excited to get an unexpected break. “After I realized there was no definite date of return I immediately became upset and very overwhelmed. These last few months of school held many monumental moments for me in my life that were being taken away without any say so from me.”
Karis Cobb owns Cobblestones Child Development Center and says the closing of schools brought home the fact this was a serious situation. She said she stayed open a week or so to take care of the children but ultimately chose to close in fear of the children in her care or her workers contracting the virus.
Lesa Thompson is an English teacher at NCHS. She and the juniors in her classroom when the announcement was made had emotions ranging from sadness to anger. “My juniors and I have been together for three years, and we’ve become a family. Since we’re on block schedule, we won’t be together again until January 2021, and that has been a bitter pill to swallow.”
Joan Buswell, librarian at Lakeview High School said at first she was in a panic because this was all new. “When we were called in to sanitize the school and close everything down I realized the seriousness of it.”
Now that the separation is permanent, the concerns are multiplying.
“I am most concerned about my students’ safety and well-being,” Horn said. “We know that while they are at school they have the opportunity to eat at least twice a day and they are in a protected environment with our faculty, staff and resource officers. Because this was an unexpected school closure, working parents weren’t prepared to have to find childcare on such short notice. This could mean that older students are now responsible for taking care of younger siblings while their parents are away.”
“I’m concerned about my students falling behind because we’ve obviously lost a fairly substantial amount of class time. On the positive side though, this gives them time to study independently in the areas that they’re really interested in and also to have quality time with their families. I’ve talked to parents who told me their kids have been learning to play music, researching subjects they wanted to know more about and even reading various books to be better prepared for next school year. My kids are still learning. They’re just learning differently than they would be if we were still meeting strictly face to face. They have more time now to go in-depth on the things they care about, and that’s what they’ve been doing,” Thompson said.
Shari Supalo-Rogers is cafeteria manager at Fairview Alpha Elementary. “I was most concerned with everyone’s health. The few students that we got to see at Fairview (during the initial feeding program) seem well adjusted. We didn’t see many because a lot of the students didn’t have a way to come get the meals. I worry about so many of the students not receiving those two meals a day that they are used to getting when school is open. I look forward to us starting back the feeding. That will ease our minds and hearts a little.”
The Natchitoches Parish School Board reinstated the feeding program just this week.
Walker said her worries include the fact that her kids will not be ready for third grade since nine weeks of instruction was lost. “Every day of instruction is important.”
“I am concerned about the lack of socialization with friends at this age. I know it must be confusing for them,” Cobb said of her preschool clients.
A high school history, civics and social studies teacher at St. Mary’s for 34 years, Michael Landry is concerned for the students who need interaction to thrive. Students learn in different ways and for many, the projects he implements are the catalyst that brings the lessons home.
He said online learning is all well and good, but does not equal person to person instruction. “I’m an old fashioned lecturer,” he said. “The problem with online learning is they don’t get the little quirks that bring the lesson alive. They get the facts from the books, but don’t get the humanity, the idiosyncrasies that make history real. They don’t, and can’t get that just from a book. For those taking geography, I’ve travelled and picked up little things that make the story come alive. I know things, details you can’t get from a textbook or online. Students need this interaction.”
Paper activities as well as online resources are available to all public and private school students. For those with limited resources, the NPSB has installed free, public wi-fi access at schools across the parish.
While technology may not be an ideal learning environment for elementary and high school students, it certainly is making keeping in touch possible.
“I asked parents to send me pictures just so I could see their faces,” said Amy Fisher, kindergarten teacher at NSU Elementary Lab.
Teachers are utilizing apps such as Remind, JCampus Student Progress Center, Facebook, e-mail, texts and phone calls to keep the lines of communication open. “Paper packets will be provided (for students who need them),” Horn said. “It is important that we are available to answer any questions they might have and assist them in any way possible.”
Parents are working with teachers to keep their children on the right educational path. “We have such a great group of students this year and they were really enjoying what we were reading and learning in social studies. Many of them messaged me last week letting me know what they have been studying,” said Amelia Ferguson, fifth grade ELA and social studies teacher at Magnet.
“It has obviously been difficult to socially distance from my friends, but because we have Facetime and social media, we stay in touch. However, this was the time for important memories. All of my friends and I will be leading different lives after high school, so realistically, March 13 was the last time we were all together and we did not even know it. I am coping by keeping in touch with them,” Edwards said. “As a senior, I am very upset. I am a very prominent member of the NCHS orchestra. We had an Italy concert tour planned during spring break, but because of COVID-19 that life changing trip was cancelled. Our end of the year concert and my senior violin solo were cancelled. That concert was something I have been looking forward to since my freshman year. I am also very upset prom was cancelled. I had already picked out my dress, makeup and hair style. Lastly, and most certainly the biggest disappointment of all, is the cancellation of graduation. Graduation is a memory students look forward to forming throughout their school careers. The fact that such an important life event was cancelled was like a blow to the stomach. Our school has promised we will have one but no date has been discussed or set.”
Edwards and the teachers and other school workers are all dealing with missed opportunities and an uncertain future.
Every school year begins with assessments and next year will be no different. “During the summer students usually do forget a lot of material simply because they are busy doing all of the things that make summer so special, so with this extraordinary circumstance, I expect students to forget learned content. We know that stress plays an important role in memory, and it’s hard for me to fully understand the effect of this situation as it pertains to next year’s readiness for testing. I hope the stress of testing doesn’t put them further at risk academically,” Walker said.
“I feel like if we had been given a day’s notice before dismissing on March 13, we could have sent home more books and other materials that could have been used during this time,” Ferguson said.
“I foresee the upcoming school year being somewhat different than it has been in the past because of the changes that will need to be made to our scope and sequence, which is the plan we are required to follow to stay on track with our curriculum. Although it is unfortunate, I am somewhat relieved that this event did not occur earlier in the school year. The amount of instruction missed could have been detrimental to student progression if this would have happened before this time during the school year,” Horn said. “I feel that because this pandemic has quickly changed the way that students and teachers are forced to approach education, education departments will be forced to come up with new, innovative solutions to address the future educational needs of our students.”
“I’m pleased that the State and local officials are working hard to make sure students have what they need. Our Gators are resilient and can overcome any obstacles they face,” Buswell said.
“We have cleaned and sanitized the center from top to bottom, and we are ready to go back when the governor says it’s time,” Cobb said.
Walker summed up the broader impact of the virus on those in education and to parents whom have had to step up to become full time teachers as well. “In the midst of this pandemic, many parents are more stressed than ever. (We are just beginning) to understand the impact of this virus on not just our physical health, but our overall personal health of mind, body and soul.”
Teachers are missing their children and Fisher, as a kindergarten teacher, especially misses the hugs.
LP Vaughn principal Sandy Irchirl said in a recent social media post… “A parent asked me was I ready for the kids to come back to school, before I even saw who the parent was I said YES!!! She asked me if I was for real and I said I was. I miss the hugs, the hellos, the kids trying to be funny, the pictures and coloring sheets they give you and want you to put on your wall. I miss playing music in the mornings and watching them dance getting out of their cars and dance going down the halls. I miss seeing them running down the halls when they think no one is watching. I even miss them turning out the lights in the bathrooms and they know someone is in there using it.
I miss the high fives and playing with them in the gym. I miss hearing them say, ‘Mrs. I, my birthday is next week’ (and it’s really not). I even miss seeing some of them miss the bus (the same ones every time). I miss seeing them in the stores and coming to school saying, ‘Didn’t I see you in Wal-Mart.’ I hate they are missing out on skills, activities, experiences, and opportunities that will never be regained. I truly understand that missing school and work is needed but parents I want you to know. I MISS MY BABIES!!! All of them!”
Edwards’ perspective as a student is crystal clear, “I would like to thank every teacher who has ever taught me. I am a firm believer in the fact that experiences shape us tremendously as humans. If any small event would have gone differently in my life I would not be the person I am because of each experience I have had with them.”