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How the year has changed our lives

Students, educators, parents reflect on pandemic

By Beth Heinen Bell, Joanne Bailey-Boorsma

Editor’s note: It’s been one year since Michigan schools closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The stories of parents, teachers, students and administrators are both universal and personal. This week, School News Network interviews them about how the year has impacted their lives. This is the first of a three-part story.

‘Not seeing my students for six months made me miss them something terrible!’

— Emily Mann, Grandville special education teacher

Emily Mann, special education teacher 
Evan Mann, Central Elementary sixth-grader
Grandville Public Schools

Emily Mann has spent 21 years teaching special education in Grandville. She’s currently the teacher at the Region III Transition Program, serving young adults ages 19-21 who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Due to their unique learning needs, her students have been learning in person since their first day back to school last August. She and her son, Evan Mann, shared what the past year has been like for them.

SNN: What have you learned about being a teacher or student in the past year?

Emily: This past year has been filled with a wave of emotions, such as sadness, worry, anxiousness and even hope. The shutdown in March 2020 brought so much uncertainty as we all navigated a terrain uncharted. I’ve learned – and more importantly, honored – (the fact that) no decision a family or school administration makes is based on anything other than care and love. I also realized that not seeing my students for six months made me miss them something terrible! I need them as much as they need me.

Evan: When I first found out I was going to learn online, I was kind of excited for it. I could stay home, eat snacks during the day and sleep in. Sounds great. But it wasn’t all that great for me. I found out that it’s way more difficult to stay focused at home and learn all by yourself without any friends around. This experience taught me that I learn better in school with a teacher in front of me and classmates all around.

SNN: What has been the biggest challenge related to school in the past 12 months?

Emily: I wouldn’t call this a challenge but more of a new reality: keeping my beloved students, who already are in the high-risk population, healthy. We wear our masks all day, only taking mask breaks when we’re sitting 6 feet away from one another while we’re eating. We clean and clean and clean. I stay out of busy grocery stores, malls and other places where I could contract the virus. I clean and clean and clean at home. I would never forgive myself if I was the reason one of my students contracted COVID-19.

Evan: Sometimes it’s challenging when I’m doing a good job wearing my mask and washing my hands and others around me are not following the rules. 

SNN: What have you found inspiring or interesting through all these changes?

Emily: Because our curriculum focuses on job and life skills, in a normal year we have 12 job sites that the students get to work at. This year, to limit exposure, we have had to create our own job-site opportunities. We’re improvising a hotel cleaning job site by cleaning high-touchpoint areas at the nearby administration building. We’ve had group projects brought to us from Habitat for Humanity. It’s been incredibly inspiring that people are willing to help us continue to learn in-house when so much of our learning is (normally) done out in the community.

Evan: While learning online, I did enjoy that all I had to do was hit “submit” and my assignment was turned in on Google Classroom. No papers to keep track of. And a few times, if I got my independent work done early, my teacher would dismiss me earlier. You can’t really do that when you’re in a school building. Even though we have to wear masks and follow the safety rules, my school is doing a good job making this school year fun.

‘It’s been fun to be back in school and I learned that I am stronger when the times are tougher.’

— Larry Edwards III, Godwin Heights fourth-grader
North Godwin Elementary fourth grader Larry Edwards III

Larry Edwards III
Fourth-grader, North Godwin Elementary School 
Godwin Heights Public Schools 

What have you learned about being a student in the past year due to the pandemic?

It was my birthday (last March). I found out that there was a global pandemic because I was so excited about going to school and I woke up and I was still in bed. 

Then we were virtual. In fourth grade, we got to come back to school for a little while and then we had to go back to virtual. I had to stay with my dad because my mom had to work. My computer charger wouldn’t work so I had to use my dad’s. 

It’s been fun to be back in school and I learned that I am stronger when the times are tougher. 

What have been the biggest challenges?

That things just were not normal. My mom would say that this is the new normal. It was hard to adjust and now, I sometimes forget that I even have my mask on. I go home and my sister will say you can take the mask off now.

What have you found inspiring?

What I found inspiring was how people were willing and able to help others, especially the homeless since they don’t have the money to buy masks.

‘I learned that you should not take your mask off in public because you might get sick.’

— Abul Anyar, Godwin Heights third-grader
North Godwin Elementary third-grader Abul Anyar

Abul Anyar
Third-grader, North Godwin Elementary School
Godwin Heights Public Schools 

What have you learned about being a student in the past year due to the pandemic?

I learned that you should not take your mask off in public because you might get sick. I also learned that I am an at-school person because sometimes the computers would not work and the Wi-Fi was not always good.

What have been the biggest challenges?

It was hard not being in school. Your computer would have glitches and it would be hard to do your homework when the Wi-Fi would not work.

What have you found inspiring?

I would say the teachers because they would always tell you to try harder no matter what.

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