Miesha Medford didn’t become a teacher to make marshmallows fly. But the coronavirus pandemic forced her to improvise.
It was mid-spring, and Medford, a science instructor at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Lancaster, Texas, wanted to give her fifth-grade class a physics lesson. In normal circumstances, that would have happened in her classroom, where students forgo individual desks to sit together at lab tables, with access to specialized equipment including microscopes and triple-beam balances.
“It’s set up like a mini-lab,” says Medford, 41. “We have all the tools you would typically use when students are doing investigations—things they wouldn’t have at home. Science tools aren’t cheap.”
Because of COVID-19, however, both Medford and her students were stuck at home. To slow the spread of the virus, schools across the country had closed their campuses and pivoted to online instruction—a sweeping and unprecedented shift that has affected 55 million students, potentially interrupting their intellectual and emotional development and putting them at risk of falling behind.
But Medford was determined to keep her students on track. Sitting in her living room, she wondered how she would help housebound 10-year-olds understand force and motion.
The solution, Medford realized, could be found in her kitchen—and in the kitchens of her students.
“I had them design catapults that could make a marshmallow travel across their rooms,” she says. “All they needed were rubber bands and plastic spoons. Then they had to do trials and measure the distances. If they didn’t have a ruler at home, they could use string. If they didn’t have string, they could use their feet and walk in a line.
“I had to be creative with activities so they wouldn’t be bored. I wanted to keep their minds engaged.”
Medford isn’t alone in finding creative ways to teach and support her students despite COVID-19. Like other essential workers, educators have unexpectedly found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, asked to fulfill their mission of educating and caring for children under difficult and potentially risky conditions.
In response, committed teachers, administrators, and other school staffers across the country are setting up curbside school-lunch pickups, making surprise (and socially distant) house visits, and otherwise rising to the professional and personal challenges posed by the virus—drawing on a sense of passion and purpose that will be needed as schools enter an uncertain fall season and a new academic year shaped by the ongoing public health crisis.
“Teaching is not just a job,” says Janet Gray, 64, a middle-school English teacher in Springfield, New Jersey. “We do it with passion and love. We are not just conveyors of academic information. And we care deeply about the health and well-being of our kids and their families.”
“You have to MacGyver it.”
In Ron Grosinger’s classroom, students build electric cars. And robots. They learn about metals and woodworking, construction and engineering.
“We do welding—that’s super cool. It’s basically like gluing things together with lava,” says Grosinger, 42, a STEM instructor at Memorial High School in West New York, New Jersey. “But when COVID hit, we went home and stopped building stuff. That was a major shift.”
That shift has been felt across the U.S., with educators exchanging lectures and lesson plans for log-ins and laptops. The stakes are high: A recent study projects that U.S. students may suffer a shutdown-induced “COVID slide” and start the 2020–21 school year having made just 70 percent of the learning gains in reading and 50 percent of the learning gains in math that they would have made had schools remained open.
Grosinger initially struggled. So did many of his students, who stopped doing their assignments and responding to emails. “The first two weeks were terrible,” he says. “I felt like a substitute teacher. I would send my beginner class a video about how to use a saw. They would watch and answer multiple choice questions. It was lame.”
A fresh approach was in order. Using an online survey, Grosinger polled his students. They hated quizzes. And they missed the social, hands-on learning that took place in their 1,000-square-foot classroom, where they would work together to assemble circuit boards and take apart lawn-mower engines.
“So I decided to wake up every day and think of a project they could make in their homes,” he says. “Then I would test it, film myself doing it, put that online, and assign it for them to try.”
“You have to MacGyver it,” he says, referring to the 1980s television series in which the title character was known for building improvised devices.
One of Grosinger’s projects tasked students with building working battery testers using common household items. Another taught them how aluminum and steel conduct energy differently by having them use stopwatches to time how quickly ice cubes melted atop pots and pans made of each metal.
Students would send videos to Grosinger, who graded their efforts and shared them with the class. Participation picked up. So did student enthusiasm. “The basic elements of my class are creativity, community, and competition,” he says. “We had all three.”
By the end of the semester, Grosinger had made a surprising discovery. Some of his students—the ones who had struggled at school—were actually performing better at home.
“If you’ve forgotten what a classroom is like, go to Times Square before COVID,” he says. “There are announcements going off through the loudspeakers. Kids making jokes. There are lots of things to look at. It’s total chaos. But at home, some of my students now had plenty of time to focus and work. And they did.”
“We miss them and we love them.”
When Rolling Hills Elementary School shut down in March, its principal, Cherish Pipkins, worried about how her staff and students would adjust to distance learning.
But that wasn’t the only reason she felt a heavy weight on her shoulders.
“I knew some of our kids would be in really bad predicaments,” says Pipkins, whose school is located south of Dallas and serves roughly 500 students from a working-class community. “We have kids who depend on our free breakfast and lunch. Kids who look forward to our hugs and fist bumps every morning because they may not be getting that at their households.
“We provide our students with toiletries. We will wash their clothes. If a kid’s backpack is falling apart, we’ll go into a storage closet and get them a new one.”
Educators provide more than just academic instruction. Working as a team, they feed children who are food insecure. They provide social and emotional support and transform schools into safe places for children to develop and grow while their parents are at work.
“Our campus is pretty closely knit,” says Latonia Johnson, a third-grade social studies teacher at Rolling Hills. “Each day you go into the classroom, it’s like meeting your family. It’s very strange not to be able to do that.”
After Rolling Hills closed, the school’s staff worked together to meet students’ needs. Cafeteria workers prepared meals at a nearby high school, providing curbside pickup for families in need. Counselors held virtual office hours, created a website where parents and students could get in touch around the clock, and made personal check-in calls to those who were struggling.
Meanwhile, Pipkins did everything she could to maintain a sense of connection and community. She filmed and shared upbeat daily video messages, celebrating students’ birthdays and performing what she laughingly calls an “attendance rap.” She encouraged students and teachers to participate in social media challenges. She sponsored a virtual field day during which her school’s physical education teacher gave awards to students who made videos of exercises and activities they were doing at home.
“That was a lot of fun,” Pipkins says. “It’s very important just letting kids know that they are still a part of school and that we miss them and love them.”
Keonaka Brown, a first-grade teacher at Rolling Hills, took special care to emotionally engage her students. She started her weekly class video conferences with an emotional check-in for each child—How are you doing today?—and even recorded video bedtime stories, which she shared with her students a few nights a week.
“The students feed off our energy,” says Brown. “Once face-to-face learning was delayed indefinitely, I knew I had to change my goal toward meeting my students’ social and emotional needs as well as maintaining their academics.”
At one point during the spring, three of Brown’s students won the school’s virtual bingo contest. She surprised them by personally delivering T-shirts and goodie bags to their homes—and made sure to maintain social distance after knocking on their doors.
“They were so excited to see me, [saying], ‘Oh, my gosh, Miss Brown, I miss you so much!’” Brown says. “And it was what I needed too.”
Brown isn’t the only educator feeling a newfound sense of appreciation from others. During the spring, Gray, the New Jersey middle-school English teacher, received an email from the parents of one of her students titled Dear Mrs. Gray, You Are a Liar.
Concerned, Gray opened the message.
“It read, ‘You said my son is a delight to teach,’” Gray says with a laugh. “‘You said he loved doing his homework. None of that is true. I am having a hard time teaching him. I don’t know how you do it. We miss you and can’t wait to be back in the classroom.’”
“I’ve had a lot of late nights.”
Brandy Mickens, a Texas-based Retirement Planning Specialist with Equitable Advisors, LLC in Dallas, has gotten to personally know a number of teachers and school administrators through her work. She admires the adaptability and resilience that her friends have demonstrated during the pandemic—but also knows that adjusting to the new normal has been anything but easy.
“Most of them just jumped in and went to work with whatever their districts wanted them to do after schools basically shut down,” Mickens says. “But I can tell you that when summer came, a lot of them were just exhausted.”
Personal challenges are commonplace. Like working parents everywhere, Medford, the fifth-grade science teacher, has been balancing her job with her home life—being there for her students as well as her elementary-aged son and two daughters, all of whom are homebound and trying to keep up with their own remote learning.
“I know what it means to homeschool now,” Medford says with a laugh. “It’s crazy. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. I’ve had a lot of late nights.”
The virus itself is never far from educators’ minds. Pipkins’ mother-in-law was hospitalized for two months with COVID-19 before recovering. “That was hard,” Pipkins says. “She’s 76 and diabetic. The odds were stacked against her. It was a miracle that she came home to us.” Grosinger, the New Jersey high-school STEM teacher, says that his school’s community has been hit hard. “A lot of our kids had parents who got the virus, or knew people who were sick,” he says. “One of my students had her uncle die from it.”
Brown, the first-grade teacher, is married to a police officer for a Dallas-area hospital. On the job, her husband wears both a surgical mask and a plastic face shield. When he comes home, Brown says, “he changes clothes before he enters the house and then goes straight to the shower. And I’m still really nervous every day.”
Osley Cook, a 51-year-old music teacher and band director at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Dallas, can relate. A heart-transplant recipient and in the high-risk category for the disease, he worries about a possible return to campus, as many school districts are planning to resume some form of in-person instruction this fall. “The teachers in my age group, we are all very concerned,” he says.
Entering her 13th year as a teacher, Medford says that she has never experienced anything akin to the uncertainty created by the pandemic. “My anxiety is up and down,” she says. “Nobody knows what the future is going to bring.”
Nevertheless, Medford is preparing to teach this coming school year, creating new online lessons and learning how to use unfamiliar remote-learning programs and platforms. Grosinger, who hosts a weekly podcast for STEM teachers, is asking guests to share what they’ve learned about effective remote instruction. Cook has been giving guitar lessons via video. Brown is thinking through the best ways to teach her first graders outdoors.
Time will tell what school will look like in the COVID-19 era. Some districts expect to open their campuses. Others plan to remain virtual. Many are considering a hybrid model. Whatever happens, Medford says, she will be ready to adapt—because being an educator means being ready to meet and help your students wherever they are, even during a pandemic.
“It can be frustrating and overwhelming at times,” Medford says. “We hear it from students and from parents. But there isn’t time to get into a funk. This is the new normal, and our students are depending on us.”