Editors’ note: In August, SNN spoke with educators at several districts concerning their thoughts on starting the school year with full classrooms once again. Our reporters checked back in with them to see how they are doing months into the school year with the coronavirus surging once again.
Morgan Jarema contributed to this story. Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Grand Rapids, Forest Hills — If Innovation Central High School is like a ship, and Principal Jason McGhee its captain, he is doing his best to steer his students and crew through the stormy seas of COVID-19.
“We are surviving,” says the first-year head principal of the historic Grand Rapids Public high school. “We’re finding ways to make sure we’re being as consistent as possible. Helping each other out and making sure our ship doesn’t sink.”
McGhee’s vision of steering a ship helps him conceptualize how Innovation Central has navigated rough waters so far this year, as giant waves of the virus’ delta and omicron variants have rocked local schools.
He’s proud of how his staff of 60 has been “all hands on deck,” often canceling planning periods to substitute-teach for up to 25% of their colleagues who have been out sick or quarantined some days. McGhee himself has subbed for his teachers and also helped out in the lunchroom.
Ready to Pivot if Necessary
When the school year began, McGhee emphasized to SNN the need to embrace change and be ready for anything. Now he says with a chuckle, “Maybe I jumped the gun a little bit,” before he knew just how much change was in store.
Still, he reminds his staff of the need to be prepared for whatever further changes the pandemic throws at schools, even if it means going back to hybrid or virtual learning.
“If we went there, are we ready?” he said, contemplating a major jump in absent teachers and students. “Are we ready if it happens tomorrow, next week? (I’m) trying to equip them to start thinking and planning that way, instead of the way we’re running the ship now.”
“One minute, students are happy and doing well; the next minute, they realize they have a family member that has COVID, is on a breathing machine, and they can’t go see them.”– Innovation Central High School Principal Jason McGhee
It’s also been an emotionally challenging year, he says, for students, staff and himself.
“The emotional state of people is really like a roller coaster,” McGhee said. “One minute, students are happy and doing well; the next minute they realize they have a family member that has COVID, is on a breathing machine, and they can’t go see them.”
He himself contracted the virus over holiday break, and says his naturally optimistic nature has been put to the test by the resurgent pandemic — as well as by the Nov. 30 mass shooting at Oxford High School.
“(The shooting) really hit home with me. I’m working through that. I didn’t realize how much of a trigger that was for me,” nor how much he was suppressing thoughts of facing such a scenario as a principal, he said.
On the plus side, McGhee has seen encouraging signs from the return to in-school student learning (compared to last year’s virtual and hybrid modes), with more consistency as well as better social and emotional experiences: “You’re starting to see students engage a little bit more as they’re more and more comfortable being in such a structured environment.”
He’s also seeing a can-do attitude among teachers and other staff, despite the continuing ravages of a virulent virus, the volatile issue of masking and the unending challenges of helping students learn under such stressful conditions.
“We’re able to shift and move, because every day is a new day. Every day I’m saying, ‘Hey, I need you here, can you do it?’ ‘Yes,’ and they make it happen.”
She’s There for Her ‘Littles’
After teaching virtually all last school year, Lana Tran is in her regular classroom with 20 first-graders at Knapp Forest Elementary in Forest Hills for her 27th year as an educator.
In August, Tran told SNN, “There’s just nothing better than in-person connection with them.” She still feels that way.
“It’s such a joy for me to be back in the classroom,” she said. “And they just love being in school.”
For now, students still eat lunch in their classrooms, and specials such as music and art take place less often to minimize interactions. But as a glass-half-full type, Tran sees that as one more opportunity to connect with her “littles,” as she calls them.
“When something is hard, what do we do? We continue to practice and learn. COVID or not, we teach kids to keep trying their best. And that’s our job, to keep teaching.”– Forest Hills first grade teacher Lana Tran
She said she’s noticed there’s less interaction with co-workers this year, because staff are focused on meeting student needs.
“When kids aren’t in our rooms, we all seem to be working on our next day or getting materials to a student in quarantine. … I feel like I’m getting used to it. Am I more exhausted this year? Maybe, but probably because I’m a year older.”
She has not noticed an overwhelming number of student or staff absences, but said classroom parapros have had to step to the front of classrooms on occasion: “It’s just like whatever (circumstances) throw at us, we just make it work.” She has a year’s worth of activity slides from her time teaching virtually, so is prepared if that happens again.
Tran said she’s grateful the district is requiring masks in K-6 buildings at least until this Friday, Jan. 21.
“We’re doing what (Superintendent) Dan Behm wants us to do to keep each other safe. And I don’t think I ever have had to remind them to keep (masks) on.”
A self-described germaphobe since before the pandemic, Tran said her students know to wash their hands once they come into her classroom and when they return from specials and recess.
But she’s also a realist. Despite going next to nowhere because she is immunocompromised, she and her husband contracted COVID-19 before vaccinations were available. She still has not regained a full sense of taste or smell.
‘Kids Deserve the Best of Us’
Once again she returns to the positives, her littles.
“First-graders, they need you at all times. I know there’s a lot happening out there, but these kids deserve the best of us.
“Sometimes I have said I live for them. Sometimes I ask, ‘Why am I working so late at night?’ And then I think about this week: Our morning social-emotional lesson is about perseverance. They did ‘turn-and-talks’ to share what has been challenging and how they can meet those challenges. They talked about, when something is hard, what do we do? We continue to practice and learn. COVID or not, we teach kids to keep trying their best. And that’s our job, to keep teaching.
“If we don’t believe it, they’re not going to believe it.”