On March 13, 2020, students, teachers and staff left for what they expected to be an extended spring break as the then-novel coronavirus made its way into the United States.
But they didn’t return.
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on April 18, 2020 that school campuses would remain closed for the remaining 2019-20 school year, as the virus surged in Florida and elsewhere in the nation. Some teachers, administrators and staff died during the pandemic.
For the one-year anniversary of the last “normal” day of school in Florida, the Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, brought teachers, school staff, and parents on a video conference to share their reflections on educating students during the pandemic.
The conference encompasses the events of March 2019-20 to March 2020-21.
What may seem like ages ago was the dramatic shift to online learning, so that students could continue their education while social distancing at home. State testing was postponed that year.
“It has been a rough and rocky year,” said Letonya Starks, a teacher in Lee County, on the video conference. “I think first on that time about how we transformed our curriculum, from what was in person to this digital platform.”
But learning from home brought its own problems. Some families do not have the same access to internet and technologies, in what’s known as the “digital divide.” Some didn’t have laptops. Teachers and parents worried over academic slide due to COVID and declining mental health among students in isolation were other concerns.
Prompting heavy controversy, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran released an emergency order to school districts over the summer which said that for the 2020-21 school year, all brick-and-mortar schools would have to open for in-person instruction for five days a week to provide every family the option to send their children back to school.
This decision led to an FEA lawsuit and questions over who has authority to decide when schools should open during a pandemic, as well as whether schools have been safe during the COVID-19 crisis. The FEA later dropped the lawsuit.
Families also had the option to continue with online learning, and many stuck with it. But others did not.
Sarah Frederick, a parent of a daughter who as special needs, said at the FEA conference that her child started the 2020-21 school year learning online.
“[Transitioning to learning online] was very scary for her. She didn’t really get or understand what was happening — why she couldn’t go to school and she couldn’t see her friends,” Frederick said.
The family later chose brick-and-mortar instruction after the first quarter of 2020-21 because Fedrick felt that her school was taking COVID safety precautions seriously. Now at this point, Frederick said that they are doing great, and that her daughter’s teachers are “phenomenal.”
But with schools opening for in-person instruction, some teachers and school personnel had to return to the classroom and take on additional responsibilities in order to teach in the safest environment possible.
Letonya Stark, the teacher from Lee County, described the emotional toll of working in the classroom — constantly disinfecting and still seeing some of her students absent from the classroom.
“I’ve had a continuous stream of students out for stretches of time,” she said. “I feel like I’m being a teacher and a custodian — and crying at night because I feel like I failed, because my students still got sick.”
There are still some complications of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the growing access to COVID vaccines is bringing some hope for a return to normalcy in the coming months. Teachers age 50 and older can now get the vaccines, under the schedule by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
And President Joe Biden is directing states to make all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, according to a White House memo.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said that a majority of the union’s members want the vaccine.
Spar wanted to highlight the work that educators and school staff have put into the learning environment, from having to learn how to use online learning platforms, adjusting curriculum to fit a distance learning and in-person learning environment, and doing what they can to ensure their students are getting a strong education.
But he also said that moving forward, they need to focus on the academics and well-being of students.
“Even when we get back to that sense of normal, our teachers know we have a lot of work to do to address the needs of our students – both emotionally and academically,” Spar said.