Colorado Teacher of the Year on starting a new school year

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By Hilary Wimmer, Mountain Range High School (Westminster, CO) and Colorado Teacher of the Year

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classroom with mask on desk

I hear the concern of my fellow teachers about returning to school this year. I know the fear. I have lived it.

In April, as the world shut down, the disease swept through our house. A family member got COVID Toes, which we didn’t know existed. But soon we learned that it was a symptom of the disease.

My family members have been very careful during the pandemic. We’ve been wearing masks since the start of the virus outbreak. We didn’t think we would get seriously ill because we are athletic and eat very healthy. Thankfully we were teaching remotely when the virus infected both me and my husband Kyle, who is also a teacher.

COVID-19 hit Kyle especially hard. I first noticed his symptoms when I watched him walk up the stairs with a basket of laundry and noticed he was gasping for air when he reached the top. Two days later, we checked him into the emergency room because his oxygen levels had dropped below 90%.

Later that day, I started noticing pressure on my chest. At first, I tried to convince myself the symptoms were all in my head or some form of anxiety from all of the scary news stories. After a few days, I knew I was sick. The chest pressure continued to increase until it felt like someone had tied a bungee cord around my torso.

As a competitive swimmer who has always had strong lungs and high oxygenation readings, I watched with dread and fear as my oxygen levels plummeted. I felt like my lungs went from being able to expand into being cemented in place. The doctors prescribed me medications and an inhaler, which helped me begin to recover.

We isolated our household, and Kyle and I were able to continue teaching online. We both agreed we would not mention our illness to our students, because we didn’t want to scare them.

Over the course of the next several weeks, Kyle and I were both exhausted and experienced residual symptoms from the virus. The recovery process mirrored the process I had gone through trying to recover from childhood pneumonia. We focused on healing by eating nutritionally dense meals, turning off the news, and getting adequate rest.

Today, I am happy to report we both feel like we have fully recovered. We do not have any lingering symptoms and our energy has fully returned. We are both exercising six days a week and my husband has returned to running competitively. In fact, my husband has actually recorded new personal record running times after he healed from COVID-19.

I never thought I would live through a pandemic or that every member of my family would become ill. Like most teachers, I have spent most of my summer and many sleepless nights wondering what school will be like for my students and creating new lessons that will help me bring classroom lessons to life in any classroom setting -- in-person or virtual.

Ironically, one of my favorite lessons every year is when I throw my economics students into a make-believe pandemic. The zombie apocalypse occurs when the world is suddenly overrun with zombies, and business students must learn how to create and adapt with a new economic model. The project challenges my students to think critically and helps them realize that the skills they are learning can carry them through any scenario life may throw at them.

My students will tell you that those “in-person” classroom lessons, like the zombie apocalypse, are some of the most memorable experiences of their educational careers. I agree. The in-person classroom experience is the best part of teaching and is the reason I love going to work every single day. 

Because of this I desperately want to return to my normal classroom. I want to see my students every single day, but I am putting my trust in our school district leaders and our health officials to do everything possible to help us take precautions during the pandemic-- and to guide us on what to do as the situation evolves. 

Honestly, I cannot imagine the inner turmoil and struggle these decisions have created for district leaders. Our administrators are using unprecedented data that change daily to help direct what learning will look like for our students this year. Until a vaccine is available, we all have to do our part and allow officials to continue to use the data to make difficult decisions to help guide students, teachers, and parents.

Finally, I say this to all teachers, you must remember that your students are feeling the same apprehension, fear, and uncertainty that you are. Our jobs are to keep a positive attitude, honest perspective, and to teach them how to adapt, when necessary. We are the role models and will be the ones who help guide our students through the pandemic day by day.

Your students need you now more than they have ever needed you before. For a moment, stop and think about some of the thoughts that are going through the minds of our new kindergarteners, incoming sixth graders, or incoming freshmen. Can you imagine going through one of these major transitions and starting a new school during a pandemic?

Find ways to connect with your students, regardless of what type of learning structure your district leaders have implemented. Take the time to make sure each student is having his or her needs met.

Many of our students are struggling right now and you can be the connector to provide whatever resources they need to ensure their success now and in the future. Every single student should leave this school year feeling connected, valued, and empowered. You will be the person who can provide hope and something to look forward to every day for your students.

My advice to teachers this year is to listen to your district leaders and local health officials. Be safe. Help your students. And wear a mask!

A version of this blog post was published in “The Spark,” Colorado Department of Education’s newsletter for teachers.