“Masks up!” has become the most commonly used phrase in Christale Tuck’s second grade classroom at Jim Pearson Elementary School in Alexander City this year as students and teachers alike learn to navigate the new normal of COVID-19. 

But masks are not the only change for classrooms in 2020. Hand sanitizer and Lysol have become must-have staples in the classroom, too. Schoolwork has been drastically reduced from paper and pencil to a completely virtual experience to cut down on the transmission of germs. And of course, in order to keep the classroom exciting, social distancing is a must. 

Due to the social distancing protocols, most classrooms have become self-contained, or at least it is so at the elementary level; however, teachers are doing their best to make sure students still have fun activities that foster and encourage engagement and learning at the highest level possible for students attending brick-and-mortar classes, as well as remote students. 

   “I am proud of our principals, our admin staff, and I am beyond proud of our teachers,” said Superintendent of Alexander City Schools Dr. Keith Lankford. “They have stepped up and persevered. They have taught from the classroom. They have taught from home. They have done everything we’ve asked of them and excelled at the task.” 

Teachers have learned to adjust, to become more innovative, and through this entire process, they have become better teachers.

“I’ve been teaching for 15 years at Jim Pearson Elementary, and we had a certain protocol, but we’ve had to shift our mindset,” said Tuck. “The students come in with masks, hand sanitizer, and they are made to social distance, but this is what we have to do to continue being able to have fun activities.”

When the kids came back to school after a long summer break that started during the last school year’s spring break – they were ready, and they have been resilient, she said. 

According to Lankford, teachers were prepared with many days of professional development geared at remote learning. 

“We contracted with the Southern Regional Education Board, and we frontloaded professional development before the kids ever walked in the doors,” said Lankford. “We did what we could to prepare our teachers.”

“At Horseshoe Bend, we use Zoom for IEP and counselor meetings, but everything else is going virtual,” said Guidance Counselor Cheryl Bynum. “The school has switched to a platform called Schoology and the students are able to access everything they need for all of their classes right there on the platform.”

Tallapoosa County is a 1 to 1 Chromebook initiative program, and every student has either a Chromebook or an ipad, depending on grade level, said Bynum. 

 “My main objective is and has been, ‘How am I going to do what’s best for the kids?’” said Lankford. “Every morning, I evaluate and prepare for the day. My morning routine has changed entirely. The first thing I do is visit the Alabama Department of Public Health website to determine the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Tallapoosa County. It’s been a while since we were in the red. That’s a good thing. I take those numbers and compare them to our school dashboard.”

Lankford and his team use these numbers every morning to make decisions about keeping schools open.

“It is easier to find five substitutes than it is to find 35 substitutes, and that is what those dashboards help us determine,” he said. “We may have to close during difficult times, but I’m going to be in constant communication with my team and the school board, and we will do what is right.”

Lankford has personal benchmarks that he has set for the school year. He wanted to make it to Oct. 1, which they did successfully. The second benchmark was to keep the doors open until Thanksgiving, but they had to close the doors seven days ahead of meeting that goal, Lankford said. Now, they are back; school is in full swing; and his new benchmark is Christmas.

“If we can keep schools open – that is the goal – even if we have to do it in two- to three-week intervals. We have to do what’s best for the kids,” said Lankford.

But 2020 hasn’t just been about COVID-19, Lankford said. This year also has been about a national teaching shortage. Finding and keeping great teachers has become far more urgent than it has been in the past, but those who are here are doing a phenomenal job.

Alexander City teachers understand the urgency and the importance of teaching in 2020, said Tuck.

Teachers have become more innovative then ever before. They have learned to adjust to each situation as it is presented and troubleshoot any issue that may arise within their brick-and-mortar classrooms, as well as with remote learners. The teachers are in the driver’s seat and their No. 1 initiative is to steer their students in the right direction towards success.

 “2020 has impacted teaching because it has changed the way we think, the way we teach and the way the students learn,” said Tuck. “Teachers now have to step back and look at how and what we teach.” 

While no one could ever be fully prepared for challenges like those that 2020 has presented, Tallapoosa County Schools have stepped up to the challenge to make sure students are the top priority and teachers have the knowledge they need to ensure learning takes place in the classroom and remotely.  

The biggest difference between brick-and-mortar and remote learning is that in the classroom the teachers are physically able to help with whatever a student may need. It is a socially distanced, hands on, masks up, face-to-face approach to learning. With remote learning, teachers create or assign videos and different activities for the students. 

“In the classroom, I can correct them instantaneously, but with remote learning, we have to watch our wording and make sure that the students are getting it. We want them to understand,” said Tuck.

According to Bynum and research that she procured for a classroom lesson on screen time, the average teenager is on the screen seven hours and 22 minutes a day. This average does not take into account schoolwork. 

Student’s lives have been interrupted and abruptly changed; teachers and administration are working diligently to ensure that the process is as painless for parents and students as possible.

“Everyone is learning to adapt. It’s just 2020,” said Bynum.