Angela Sargent shares her journey as a teacher navigating through the challenges caused by COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)

by Angela Sargent —

About noon March 13, 2020, the announcement came over the public address system:

“Teachers, please prepare students for dismissal. School will be closing early.”

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine what was in store for education, as I knew it, after that day. 

Students and teachers, not only of Shelby County, but globally, were sent home for what turned out to be the remainder of the 2019-2020 and most of the 2020-2021 school year. 

Teachers were instructed after spring break to creatively provide classwork to students. The wheels in my head began to turn. Something was happening. My capacity was being threatened.

Thus began my journey as a teacher navigating through the transition into virtual learning, caused by COVID-19.

My journey was a roller coaster of emotions and changes that challenged teaching as I knew it. There was the initial shock of the school closure, as well as the sigh of relief at the end of the school year. 

Beyond teachers, though, the impact the sudden change impacted children and families. 

Still, I am grateful for entire ordeal. The 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school years pushed me to level of flexibility, maturity and expertise that has made me a better equipped to serve our children.

I will never forget the day the schools closed, calling parents trying to explain something I knew nothing about. 

I was trying not to panic while still engaging my students. The fear of the unknown already had begun to brew. In my 22 years in education, this had never happened before.

Spring break goes by and we get an email, informing us that school will be closed indefinitely per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Teachers were instructed to use a virtual platform to deliver instruction, classwork and homework to students. 

Things had just gotten real.

There was a new Shelby County Schools superintendent in town (figuratively) and a highly contagious virus with no cure or antidote, COVID-19. 

I finished the rest of the 2019-2020 year by sending video messages via Class Dojo twice a day until May 22, 2020. 

The summer was isolated and filled with training on Microsoft Teams, a software platform we were instructed to use in order to make the process smoother. Educators jokingly call it “The Enforcer.”

The training was mundane, but necessary.

This was the new way of life, the new way of teaching. I had to be prepared. Driven by my passion for teaching and my childlike curiosity, I explored Microsoft Teams even more.

I consulted fellow educators for advice and short cuts on how to master this platform as quickly, yet effectively, as possible. My students and parents were going to be expecting instruction one way or the other. I had to be prepared.

As August 2020 rolled around, I had created over 20 virtual classroom settings, PowerPoint presentations and slideshows. 

I had attended all of the scheduled Microsoft Teams trainings. We were informed that all students would be issued a learning device, a basic iPad loaded only with software needed for instruction and assessments. 

I was ready, or so I thought. 

The school start date was pushed back until the first week of September. I was losing my mind. Isolated, I was aimlessly trying to prepare for the unknown all while keeping my cool. 

Pre-Service began in late August and teachers, along with parents were in a panic. There were a lot of questions about how, when and where learning was going to take place.

I held several meetings where I offered comfort and transparency to incoming parents and families. We walked through logging into the learning device. We discussed possible technical obstacles. We even discussed privacy concerns.

As I spoke to parents, surprisingly, I began to experience some sort of ease in knowing they were not expecting a miracle. They just wanted an understanding.

Finally, teachers were allowed into their buildings, still isolated to their classroom but at least in the building. 

The fear of catching the virus was at an all-time high. The water fountains were covered with plastic and hazard tape. Stickers were on the floor to ensure six feet of distance between all people.

Parents were not allowed in the building. All business had to be handled either on the phone or outside in the front of the building. 

The teachers’ lounge was totally off limits. Staff had to use the restroom closest to their classroom to ensure the virus could be traced to a specific location. The building was void of the chatter and laughter of children; it was quite solemn. 

Despite all that, my assistant and I hit the virtual world running. None of the slides, PowerPoints or virtual classrooms worked. What worked were routines and a concrete plan to combat the distractions in each home represented on the screen.  

As time went on, our days got easier. Learning truly was taking place. Students were showing up on time eager to participate and be heard.

Parents were our greatest asset in maintaining a calm flow during instruction. 

By March 11, 2021, when parents were given a choice whether to continue virtually or return their student to the physical building, I had gotten in the swing of things, yet it was time to adjust again. 

I have an even-split classroom, 10 students in person and 10 online. Everyone continued to use their devices, wear masks and practice strict safety precautions. 

I made it a priority to make sure that no matter the students’ locations, they would receive my undivided attention and felt valued. 

Was it an easy task? Absolutely not. However, my capacity as a teacher increased and strengthened. I committed and gave my all and made sure that they received the best I had to give.

(Angela Sargent is a pre-K teacher at Sea Isle Elementary School.)