More than ever, parents, teachers rely on each other amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we interact with each other, especially so in school systems across the country.

More than ever before, parents and teachers are working together to form a unified front and provide the best learning environment for students given the circumstances.

“For me, one of my big concerns has always been to provide a safe space for students going back to before COVID,” said elementary school teacher Kristin Ausra. “Being able to guarantee that I can provide a safe space for them physically and mentally is important to me. I want them to be safe in a healthy atmosphere.”

Ausra teaches kindergarten at Justus Gage Elementary School in Dowagiac. On top of being a teacher, Ausra is also the parent of a fourth grader and one kindergartener.

“As a parent, deciding what was the best for my children and deciding what would make sense for our family lifestyle and our work schedules was very important,” Ausra said. “As a teacher in the district, [I have been] trying to reach all of my kids and meet families where they’re at with technology and skill sets.”

For Ausra, building relationships with parents before the school year even began was a change of pace, but a welcome one.

“We’re in our little bubbles and are able to make the class a safe space,” she said. “Being vulnerable with families and them seeing us be silly with our quirks in our atmosphere was a different experience. We have a lot more communication off the bat in terms of troubleshooting technology and academic problems.”

Helping parents understand students’ expectations was also a hurdle Ausra had to overcome early on.

“Some parents expect kindergarteners to sit still when that is not the case,” Ausra said. “We’re really trying to help parents understand what a typical class looks like and to stop them from being too hard on themselves.”

It is hard enough to teach and parent during these times, even more so when teachers and parents get sick. Kaley Flynn knows this all too well. A second-grade teacher at Brandywine Community Schools’ Merritt Elementary, Flynn is also the parent of three elementary schoolers and one preschooler.

One morning, Flynn woke up without the ability to taste or smell, a symptom of the COVID-19 virus. After testing positive, Flynn, her children and her students were forced to quarantine for nearly an entire month.

“My coworkers helped me get everything my students needed,” she said. “It was eye-opening for me.”

Balancing teaching her own class while making sure her children were on task was a challenge for Flynn.

“I praise all parents who did at-home learning,” Flynn said. “It was brutal. In some areas, I fell short. Meeting the needs of so many children was a huge demand on my part. Many times, I felt like I was failing as both a parent and a teacher.”

What struck Flynn about the virtual learning periods was how technologically savvy her students were. In some cases, students knew more about certain software than she did.

“When I first did live sharing, I tried to share my screen,” Flynn said. “My students said they couldn’t hear anything, and one of them walked me through the process of fixing it. They have learned a lot, and they have taught me a lot in terms of technology.”

According to Flynn, parents preferred Facebook messaging her questions instead of phone calls.

“If they can shoot you a message, they’d prefer to do that,” she said. “We stay in contact every day. If there was a student who didn’t attend Zoom class, I can send their parents a message and get a quick response.”

Ausra was also impressed with her students’ skills, so much so that she continues using distance learning software in the classroom.

“We are astonished by how quickly students have adapted,” she said. “Children are so pliable at this age. They’re able to change the way they’re doing things and be able to be successful. Students changed settings we didn’t even know about. They really are very quick learners, which has been exciting to watch. [It is] amazing to see how much they’ve continued to succeed in a short amount of time.”

Due to the rise of COVID-19 cases in Cass County, Ausra and her husband made the decision to homeschool their children.

“It has also been a learning curve,” she said. “I taught the two grades my two kids are currently in, but it’s taking a lot of planning and organization on my part and our family’s part. I can’t be with them all the time. They have their independent work, and when I get home in the evening, we do lesson-type work. My husband is able to do some instructional things with them in the morning. I think every family had to make the best decision for where they were mentally and physically, and that was the best decision for our family at this point.”

As well as their classes did with distance learning, Ausra and Flynn are glad to see their students in person again.

“Educators are excited to see students back in the classrooms,” Ausra said. “It’s nice to see their ‘a-ha!’ moments. As long as we’re able to do it in the safest way for the community, we want that as much as anyone else.”

“I was really excited when we got to go back to face to face instruction,” Flynn said. “I’m a very hands-on type of teacher, and a lot of that has been replaced with individual assignments and not a lot of group work.”

The biggest thing Ausra hopes that parents take away from this situation is that parents are their children’s first teachers.

“In partnering with parents, we try helping them understand that many teachers are parents themselves,” Ausra said. “We’re not there to criticize them. We’re trying to be a successful teacher for their child. We’re trying to help kids be as successful as they can be this year.”

“This year has been uncertain,” said Amanda Van De Putte, a parent of two children in the Niles Community Schools district. “The uncertainty stems both from the media and the ‘what ifs?’ What if I send my kids to school? Will they get sick and die? That weighed heavily on my mind. I knew they would learn the best from their teachers, so I try my best to keep them healthy and safe.”

“Our relationship with teachers has always been the same from the start, even before the pandemic,” Van De Putte added. “Our relationships consist of open communication and grace. Their job is not easy and can be very stressful.”

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