Teaching in times of COVID

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the 4th largest school district in the country serving over 350,000 students. In order to  finish out the school year during the COVID crisis, the district–and teachers–had to adapt practically in real time to finish the school year while bridging the digital divide. Not to mention, making sure students there were no gaps for students who rely on school for healthy meals. For context, all students receive free breakfast and 73% of MDCPS students receive free or reduced price lunch.

We spoke via email to Monica Ramirez, a second-grade teacher at Key Biscayne Elementary, on her experience during the pandemic. She acknowledged that her school might not have the same challenges others do and why it was important for her to get involved with county-wide food distribution efforts. Plus, how technology that might have started as a challenge for some, came out on top.

TNT: Let’s start at the beginning. Would you say teaching is your life’s calling? What brought you to it?

Ramirez: “This sounds so cheesy, but I wouldn’t saying “teaching” is necessarily the calling. I think it’s the joy that children generally bring to any scenario that makes people want to become teachers. Add to that the amazing feeling it is to inspire others and be inspired by them in return! MAGIC!”

TNT: Did you select your grade level or always know you preferred elementary school? 

Ramirez: “So this year will actually be the end of my first decade of working in Miami-Dade Public Schools. The first five years I worked in middle school in special education, co-teaching with about 27 different educators over that time in every subject area. Looking back, I should’ve gone on ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’ and made some extra cash. Despite all the middle school stereotypes, I absolutely loved the age! They are just forming their personalities and even with some not-so-inspiring moments, everyday was a learning experience. I left middle school because of a commute issue, and just in time – as SnapChat was just becoming popular! LOL. Anyway, the next year I found myself teaching, wait for this – kindergarten. Hats off to all the teachers who make this grade level their life’s work. I lasted a year. Insert wine bottle to the face emoji.”

TNT: What are the pros and cons of the age group you teach?

Ramirez: “Now I am working with second grade. Many call it ‘the best grade to teach.’ Not just because they still love school, but they are also becoming independent! They are curious, sweet, and none of them have cell phones.”

TNT: Sounds like technology might be a blessing and a curse for teachers. How so?

Ramirez: “While it is useful, and yes, saved us during this time – it is still refreshing to have students that love the feeling of a bound book. During recess everyday, they would build things with these giant blocks, and then tore it down to do it all over again the next day. It’s such a contrast to everything else that surrounds us.”

TNT: What’s the most rewarding part?

Ramirez: “Sounds redundant, but really seeing the impact you make on them is worth it all. I love watching them present their work with such pride. Little do they know this is the beginning of a long life of presentations and ‘putting yourself out there’ moments.”

TNT: Give us the Cliff Notes on how the school closure process went. Was it overnight, hard and fast? Or ever-evolving, like it felt for most of us?

Ramirez: “Prior to the official closing of schools, we had been collecting hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and spray. We were making sure the kids were safe and washing their hands several times in the day. We talked to the students about the germs in general terms and how a virus spreads, but I think it was our main job to kind of settle the fear and panic some students were feeling based on tidbits they heard on the news or from their parents’ conversations. The closing definitely felt sudden but many teachers figured something was going to happen because of what was happening in Europe.”

TNT: What was the last day of in-person class like?

Ramirez: “Eerie is the only thing I can describe it as. Since it was literally on an hour-to-hour ‘new information’ basis, we had only heard some whispers that it might close. We had an emergency meeting on a Thursday, and schools were officially closed that following Friday afternoon after dismissal. I think it was a tough call for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.”

 

TNT: There were certainly state and county mandated instructions but how did it impact your classroom?

Ramirez:  “We are one of the largest school districts in the country, serving students of all ethnicities and socio-economic status. While every school, public and private, had challenges, I think one of the main stressors within public schools was that we sort of all had to be on the same page with what we demanded from teachers and families. Curriculum-wise, we all have the same books and resources, but how each school – and teachers within the school – chooses to implement the online component varies greatly. It also depends on the grade level. Many high schools and middle schools already use online platforms to communicate with their students normally. They had some familiarity with turning in assignments online. Younger students depend on their parents to help them get online and upload work. I am getting stressed just thinking about that first month.”

TNT:  As you moved into digital learning, how did you adapt your planning?

Ramirez: “I think we benefited from the fact that because we were expecting state testing in the months of quarantine (which were cancelled shortly after school closure), we had covered most of the new material for the year. I think had this happened in the fall, we would be singing a different tune. Programs like Microsoft Teams which uses video conferencing really made it easy to access students and their families for lessons and open discussions. I was able to post schedules with assignments on ClassDojo and students could upload their work for display. We were able to give presentations, give feedback, ask questions, just like in ‘real school.’ I think the biggest challenge of all was deciding the amount of work – what’s too much or too little work to give ? Screen time has already been a hot topic even before COVID times!  But some days, we would meet on Zoom just to talk. The social interaction is what these students missed, and rightfully so. I got to know more about them in these virtual meetings than I did in class!”

TNT: On a personal level, what has been the most challenging part of the shift into online learning because of COVID? What do you think the biggest challenges has been for students and parents? 

Ramirez: “I am so proud of our parents (and veteran teachers) who really stepped up and tried to learn the ins and outs of these new online education platforms. In my experience, they were patient and understood that this situation was new for everyone involved. Since this was a national issue, and many schools closed at the same time, these education platforms’ bandwidths were being totally overloaded at first and crashing at moments of high traffic, but again, shout out to these companies that corrected those issues quickly and allowed for us to communicate with our students efficiently. Also, I loved that almost all the educational resources that usually we (or the school)  would have to pay for offered free access to students and their families through the summer months to make sure students would have quality education while out of school! I know Miami-Dade Public Schools was able to grant a device to every student who needed one and pay for their family’s Wifi if they did not have the means to. This helped facilitate the transition into remote learning.”

It’s obvious to say no one was really ever planning for something like this to happen – so to convert to remote learning from one week to the next was pretty stressful at first but everyone together–we made it happen!”

TNT: At this point in the year, you typically see the countdown for summer for teachers and kids alike. Was that different this year morale-wise? 

Ramirez: “I do feel like that students with landmark moments like kindergarten promotion or senior prom and graduation are certainly feeling bummed out. I know my last semester of high school was certainly the one that stands out in my mind as ‘tHE BesTtTt Time EvErRRrR,’ but wow is this class is going to have the craziest senior year story to tell in history.”

 

TNT: Were there any gratifying moments with the kids as time has gone on? What have you learned about them?

Ramirez: “Believe it or not, yes. I feel like I have gotten more personal time with them than I had in the normal setting. Not only are you technically ‘invited into their homes’ daily with Zoom, but you are meeting their siblings, parents and even PETS! We get time to chat and talk about any concerns without being rushed because we can create a flexible schedule. Thanks to a shared screen, I can watch BrainPop videos with them and have them discuss it with me like if we were really in our classroom. Anything to ensure learning, but make them feel at ease about the situation.”

 

TNT: You’re also pretty active in the volunteer circuit. What are some of the things you noticed your kids needed most?

Ramirez: “I feel fortunate to work in a school where students aren’t going hungry on a daily basis, but I realize that is not the case for many students in this county. I started with Feeding South Florida during the very beginning of quarantine, which was our spring break, and I can’t tell you the need there was then – this has only grown exponentially since then due to widespread lay-offs and business closures.  During the school closures, Miami-Dade County Public Schools was giving out meals daily at various school sites. Now with schools closing for summer, this adds another layer of stress on parents to feed their kids. I am so proud of the many organizations that have helped feed our county in the last months. Nick and Teresa from Threefold Cafe, despite having had to close their own restaurants, answered the call to service. With help from the Coral Gables Community Foundation, they were giving meals out of their restaurant space to anyone in need daily. Also, the Marlins, in coordination with Farm Share and Deliver Learn, were distributing food by Marlins Park several times a week thanks to various food donors. I know currently, the Overtown Youth Center and Alonzo Mourning are handing out food in Overtown on weekdays, and the Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale is doing the same on Wednesdays. I mean, these are just a few of the many groups that really came together to help Miami in a time of need. This is one way that the media has played a very positive role during this time–keeping everyone informed of these opportunities for our citizens.

Might I add, volunteering has a way of getting you out of the funk we might all be feeling during this time that has been so devastating for so many families.”

TNT: It’s looking like plans are starting to solidify for what next year could tentatively look like. What do you hope carries through or gets solved before then?

Ramirez: “I think that because we were forced into using these remote learning platforms, no matter what happens I  think teachers will start using a more blended style of teaching where they use these platforms even while in the school classroom. For example, having a place to submit work and store it for students online, is not only more sanitary but also organized. And just in case we would need to quarantine again, these systems would already be in place for a smoother transition. Also, you’re surely going to see a change in the physical arrangement of the classrooms if we do go back to in-person school. Right now they are pushing for less students per classroom, but we are not sure at this point how schools will look come August.”

 

TNT: Lastly, what parting thought would you have for the community about teachers and their students during this completely unprecedented moment?

Ramirez: We did it, people! One for the books.