‘It’s starting to get scary’ — SMSD teachers share what it’s like teaching in JoCo’s COVID-19 surge

Shawnee Mission Teachers Genie Scruton (top left), Amanda Dirks (bottom left) and Jill Johnson spoke with Post editor Kyle Palmer about their experiences teaching during the pandemic. Screen shot Zoom.

Case counts of COVID-19 are rising rapidly in Johnson County and health officials have been giving increasingly urgent warnings about the need to slow down community transmission in order to preserve the area’s already strained hospital system. On Monday, Johnson County imposed new countywide restrictions that include earlier closing times for restaurants and bars and an extension of mask orders.

Schools have also played a central role in the debate over how best to tackle the pandemic in Johnson County.

County health officials say, so far, schools have done a good job of limiting transmission within their buildings. But rising community spread is still creating extreme stress on teachers and students. Dozens of teachers in Shawnee Mission Schools have either resigned, retired or gone on medical leave since the start of the year. More than 180 other teachers are also currently in isolation or quarantine after being diagnosed with COVID or being exposed to a positive case.

On Wednesday, East Antioch Elementary School was closed to in-person learning temporarily after multiple individuals connected to the school had been exposed to the coronavirus.

Shawnee Mission Schools this week announced that middle and high school students will return to remote learning after Thanksgiving and will stay in that mode through the end of the first semester. Meanwhile, elementary students in SMSD, at least for now, will continue to attend school in person, but Fulton suggested they could also be switched to remote if COVID conditions in Johnson County continue to worsen.

What has it been like in schools and classrooms over the past few weeks, as teachers and students have tried to carry out lessons and learning in these unprecedented times? Three Shawnee Mission teachers recently spoke with Post editor Kyle Palmer about their experiences teaching in a pandemic.

You can watch the entire interview at the Post’s Facebook page or in the embedded link below. And you can read some of their edited responses.

 On social distancing in schools

Genie Scruton (6th grade, Mill Creek Elementary): We kind of knew what was coming, but I agreed to teach in person. I want to see my kids, be with kids. Remote was hard. But being in person is not the same. I have 23 kids and they are three feet apart, that is pushing it. I have to take extra time out to make sure they wash their hands before and after leaving my room. We have this new vernacular: “Sanitize your hands! Sanitize your hands!”

Bins that a teacher at Pawnee Elementary uses to keep her students’ supplies separated from each other. Photo credit Rosalie Schard.

Amanda Dirks (1st grade, Crestview Elementary): I have 18 first graders. One went back to remote recently. I have one of the biggest classes at Crestview. My kids are also sitting three feet apart. We sometimes go to the carpet because kids can’t sit in a desk all day. My line [when the kids line up] is like a U shape. It goes down one wall and curves back around. It is a struggle. But I really enjoy teaching in person. Remote does not work well for six-year-olds. But it is hard keeping kids socially distance, and when we walk in the hall, the kids have to have their arms out so they know they are distanced.

Jill Johnson (math, Shawnee Mission North High School): I have a pretty small classroom. I have 15 students. My in-person classes have 30 but we’re in hybrid, so I have 15 one day and 15 the next. Still, with that, I can’t get them much further than four feet apart. Having to remind students to keep their masks up: sometimes, they try to get by with having it down below their nose. You have to monitor the hallway, make sure they take sanitizer when they come into your classroom and when they leave.

On hand washing and student behavior

Johnson: Just keeping the students six feet apart when they go from class to class. That’s such a hard thing to do. You can’t follow them to their next class. And North is a huge school, and we try to get them to separate. They’re not trying to be mean about it, they just forget. We say we’re socially distancing. Yeah, but it’s not always happening.

Dirks: The hand washing takes a long time. I’m very fortunate in that I have a bathroom in my classroom and have an additional sink. I can do all the hand washing in my room. That does take a good amount of our time. With 18 kids, I’ve been able to cut it down to 5 minutes for all kids to wash their hands. Sometimes, it’s more of a spot check, trusting that they’ve washed their hands. I went out and bought soap because the soap the district bought is not great.

Scruton: I bought a 20-second timer on Amazon so the kids could know and kind of train them. It’s longer than they think. This is a routine I never necessarily thought I’d do for sixth graders. My kids all have numbers, and it carries over to when they line up for lunch, where they sit and when they wash their hands. They go in order 1 to 23 when they’re called.

On teaching in person versus remote

Genie Scruton teaching a lesson to her sixth graders last year. Photo courtesy Genie Scruton.

Scruton: Starting the year remote was hard. Now that we’re back, it’s made things easier. As teachers we read the room a lot, and you can’t do that as well online. There has been some learning going on, but not as much as would be in a normal school year. They can’t work in groups, they can’t share supplies and that’s limited a lot of what we can do.

Johnson: For high school, we’re doing a block schedule. So, the kids who come in person, on Mondays they go to four classes, and then on Tuesdays they go to the other four. So I actually see my in-person students just one day a week in person for an hour-and-a-half. I actually end up teaching two lessons, but I almost feel like I’m seeing my hybrid [in-person] kids less. Learning is happening, but I wonder how much is happening versus the remote-only kids.

Dirks: Personally, I don’t want to go back to remote. Remote is hard for six-year-olds. I feel like we are getting a lot of work done. When I was doing remote it was frustrating. I had to keep my kids on mute while I taught because it was so loud, them talking or moving their laptops around. So, it felt like I was talking and teaching to a brick wall.

On whether they feel safe at school

Johnson: I have students who definitely seem nervous. They seem nervous to come into the room. I often walk around the room and when I pass, they sometimes tense up, and I try to tell them I’m just checking on their learning. I have colleagues who say they have kids show up with symptoms, multiple in one class. That doesn’t make me feel safe.

Scruton: I felt more safe earlier on than I have in the last couple of weeks. Now that cases are skyrocketing in the community, that worries me. We had a pretty good run before of not having kids out, but in the last week or two I’ve had multiple students out having to quarantine. And I have other students who have come and then left part way through the day. It’s starting to get scary, and I’m getting nervous. I travel to multiple classes a day, so I’m exposed to more kids. And our paraprofessionals and aides work with hundreds of kids a day, and they’re getting scared. It’s gotten to the point where kids are dropping like flies, and it’s making us nervous.

Dirks: The numbers are very scary, they’re terrifying. I haven’t had any issues in my class yet. ‘Yet’ being the keyword. No students have come with any symptoms. I and my kids are cleaning the room at the end of each day with Clorox wipes. I don’t feel unsafe right now. Nothing really has happened a lot where I teach, but that could change. Honestly, I’m more scared of going remote than I am of the numbers.

On parents’ support

Dirks: My parents, I met with all but two [for recent parent-teacher conferences] online. I felt supported by all the parents during those conferences. They’re very appreciative of everything. I did bring up the fact that there was a chance we would go back to remote. And the looks on their faces were one of terror. You know, the little [students] need someone next to them helping them. But my parents have been extremely supportive of everything that has been going on.

Scruton: We also had conferences. They were appreciative, thanking us for putting ourselves in this situation, though they also noted that maybe we didn’t have a lot of choice. But some have said we’re putting our lives at risk to teach their kids. I’ve had people drive by during dismissal, and say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’ And they say they’re very grateful. But we had the same conversations about possibly going remote and that hopefully it might be better this time. We know the kids better now, what kids need extra help. If we go remote, it should be easier.

On community spread

Scruton: I hear kids all the time talking about going out. You know, going to parties or hanging out our going to gymnastics practice or something like that. We’ve already had kids and families take vacations, travel and this is before Thanksgiving coming up. We can’t control what they’re doing outside of school. It’s tough to hear things like that. We’re already seeing kids being absent, you know, because they picked [COVID] up during a sport or extracurricular activity or a family member was exposed. But we’ve already heard of families leaving for break, missing days this week, and it’s worrisome that some people don’t seem to be taking it seriously.

Dirks: I’m really hoping people listen [to advice not to travel or have big gatherings for the holidays.] I’m worried we’re going to see a spike in cases. And our principal has already said that we should look at Dec. 10 as the window for when we might know [if community spread is getting worse.] Personally, I usually travel for Thanksgiving, but our family this year is keeping it very, very small. It will be just me and my two kids and husband and his parents.  That’s tough, but we need to do it.

Johnson: I do hope, too, that people and students listen to public health officials. If they are to get sick and can’t attend our class remotely, you miss one class on a block schedule is like missing two classes. And then it’s hard to get caught up when you’re learning remote [which middle and high schoolers will be doing after Thanksgiving.] I just hope I don’t have a lot of absences after the break.