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South Jordan Journal

Welby teacher grateful to return to classroom, feels safe with new COVID-19 procedures

Sep 23, 2020 02:26PM ● By Julie Slama

Welby third grade teacher Carolyn Smith instructs her students while wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Aaron Ichimura/Welby Elementary)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

Carolyn Smith said, “I’m part of the furniture.”

That’s because she’s been around Welby Elementary for 30 years—14 years as a parent to her children who attended the South Jordan school and the past 16 as a general education classroom teacher.

But none of those years prepared Smith for these past six months of her educational career when schools were put on soft closure, a shutdown that lasted through the end of the school year.

“I’m not a tech person,” she said, but that didn’t stop her from ensuring students were learning online last spring, and she is preparing them for the possible return to virtual learning. “I have, from day one this year, tried to get my kids online as much as possible so they are prepared. I was surprised in March. I’ll never forget it. It was Thursday; I remember because we had parent-teacher conferences. I told my students, ‘I am planning on being here on Monday. You will hear some districts are not coming back, but I will be here Monday.’ Then, Monday never happened. I never saw some of those kids again. That haunts me.”

While Smith admits she was “blindsided” by the soft closure, she now realizes having it online is advantageous.

“It was crazy changing from the curriculum I’ve taught for 1 million years to making it be online and having [it be available in] one day because they needed to pick up Chromebooks the next day,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ll be going back online; I hope not. But it is good for the students to be online with those activities so they’re up with the 21st century.”

In Jordan School District, every student and every elementary teacher were given the option of returning to school physically or being online. While many expected teachers who are compromised or have family members who are compromised to teach virtually, that wasn’t always the case. At Welby, some who have longer commutes or are more tech-savvy chose the online option, Smith said.

“I really felt confident that the state, the district and our school put enough rules and regulations to make us as absolutely safe as possible,” she said. “When you’re sanitizing as much as you should be, when you’re masking as much as you should be; when you’re social distancing as much as you should be, then I feel comfortable.” 

But Smith has had to make adjustments. Before COVID-19, Smith would make it a point every morning to shake hands with her students and welcome them to school. On the way out, they would answer a question and she would give them a high-five.

“I wanted to personally have interactions with every student,” she said. “It kills me. Now it’s sanitize on your way in and welcome to school with a squirt of hand sanitizer, and maybe an elbow bump on the way out as they answer my question. I miss that personal interaction more, but you just do it in a different way.” 

Students are assigned seats, and desks are spread out, taking up every inch of the classroom. Excess furniture is removed, mostly stored in Welby’s music room. In some classrooms, the desks must remain on colored dots to maintain schoolchildren’s social distancing.

Everything students need in Smith’s classroom is at their desks as she purchased more scissors, glue, pencils, pencil sharpeners and other items instead of allowing them to share. Books also are assigned to students.

Students no longer travel to a computer lab. Instead, Chromebooks are assigned for use in the classroom. The music instructor comes with a set of instruments to their portable, and there’s no singing allowed.

“That kills me; I’m a singer, but I’d rather be on the side of conservative and not sing,” she said. 

School field trips, choir, First Lego League and all extracurricular activities are on hold. While she isn’t ruling out a class party, she admits she doesn’t know what Halloween in school will look like this year.

Parent volunteers, presenters and others have limited access. Even if a parent were to bring a lunch for a child, it would be labeled and placed in the lobby—not even in the office.

“No one comes in from the outside,” Smith said. “We want to keep the kids as safe as possible.”

Students travel to the library, often with “zombie arms” to keep themselves distanced. They aren’t allowed to flip through books because if they touch it, then that’s the book they’ve selected for check out. Once books are returned, they sit 72 hours before they are re-shelved, she said.

Even as they move around the school, they follow signs on the walls directing them how to be safe and signs on the doors direct them where to enter or exit.

“We have rules in the halls: in one way, out the other,” Smith said. “Everything is organized in a way that makes it as safe as possible.” 

Gym is outside, as students are using the full multi-purpose room for lunch. They sit socially distanced at tables and are allowed to eat without their masks.

“Most of them don’t love the masks, but it’s working,” she said. “It’s less of a distraction than I thought it would be. I thought the masks would be flinging in the air and that they’re going to be playing with them. I’ve had to say ‘mask up’ very few times. We’ve explained how to say ‘hi’ in a safe way; we’ve practiced elbow bumps and air hugs. We’ve talked about why we have sanitizer. We’ve talked about it enough they’re really not questioning things; they get it.” 

Sometimes, however, the kids just need a break. 

“We have a big field and we spread way out from everybody and take a mask break,” she said. “To be quite honest, my kids look completely different. I don’t recognize some of them when they take their mask off. It was hard to learn their names at the beginning. You only see their eyes and some of their faces look completely different with their masks off.” 

But as they are return to the classroom, masked up, they sanitize their hands.

“They don’t leave this room or come into this room where they don’t sanitize or hand wash,” she said. “That makes me feel comfortable. I am sanitizing all day, every day. I am washing. Everything is being cleaned. I have [Plexiglass] shields on my desk. I have shields on my table. They don’t touch anything anyone else touches.” 

Before school began, Jordan School District gave teachers $500 to use for supplies they feel are needed in their classrooms this year. While district officials gave faculty and staff masks, put in paper towel dispensers and provided wipes, hand sanitizer and disinfectant cleanser, Smith bought more—plus disposable masks in case her students’ masks break. 

She also purchased an online literacy program that could be useful past COVID-19.

“I felt like it’s something I needed for more online,” Smith said. “I used it when I was online before, I discovered it goes right along with our reading curriculum so I can download the vocabulary words, I have leveled spelling lists that I can put in and then there’s online activities.”

By introducing more online material, she realizes it has updated her teaching.

“I used to look at my plan book and just plug things in,” Smith said. “This year, instead of doing a math worksheet, we’re doing math activities online. In some ways, it’s more work because I’m bridging the gap; but that’s just because it’s taking some more time to do things differently.”

Smith also said she’s learning how to adjust her “do not mess with my schedule” attitude during COVID-19 and follow the school theme of ABCs: Always Be Cool.

“I have to be more flexible and adjust,” she said. “It takes longer to wash their hands before lunch, and you just have to get used to the ‘new normal. It’s been an adjustment for me, but I really think things have gone well. We have a good attitude and patience. I think my students who chose to be face-to-face appreciate being in school more than ever and teachers appreciate the opportunity to be in school the way it was before it had been yanked from us. When you have something taken away, you realize how precious it was.”