Most mornings this school year, Mike Moodry has come to work with a pit in his stomach. There were so many unknowns, and so much that could go wrong. Had all the desks been cleaned? Was everyone wearing masks? What if someone got infected with COVID-19 but was asymptomatic? How far might it spread before being caught? On any given day, he says, “you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Moodry is principal at Jefferson High School. He’s in charge of getting the day-to-day details of educating 278 students right. In the last 15 months, that’s been unusually challenging.

On March 15, 2020, Jefferson High and every other school in the state were ordered by then Governor Steve Bullock to shift to virtual instruction for the next two weeks – which would turn into the rest of the academic year. In just 72 hours, administrators, teachers, and staff rethought everything about the way they educated kids; in an instant, Jefferson High became an online academy.

It was a remarkable transition, and it worked — if not perfectly, at least well enough to get everyone to June. But as the weeks and months passed, and as the pandemic’s effects intensified in Montana, it became clear that this would not be a fleeting crisis: come September, Jefferson High would reinvent itself again.

* * *

Matt Bowman had a problem. Other schools were canceling classes for wind instruments and voice, concerned about spreading the coronavirus. Jefferson High didn’t want to take that measure – but how to ensure music students would stay safe?

Finding covers for the bells of wind instruments was straightforward; there was a booming cottage industry online. Bowman could split up his band classes into sections; it would mess with players’ timing, but it also would allow for distancing in the classroom. 

But what about masks? How could kids play through a mask?

The answer came from Bowman’s sister-in-law, Tina Price. She hand-sewed 200 masks for JHS. “She was very good to do that,” Bowman says. Her son plays in band, so he modeled different instruments: One vent for flute, a different one for tuba. “It took a bit of working with the students to wear the things,” Bowman says. “But I explained to them that other schools weren’t having programs right now, and to have a program we had to wear masks.”

Here was the biggest difference between March and September: With the new school year, everyone had time to prepare. Bowman researched instruments and talked to other music directors about their preparations. Moodry had weekly meetings with other principals in the area; Superintendent Tim Norbeck was online with his peers. Teachers had time to train in online instruction. “Really, when the governor said in May that school was virtual for the rest of the year, that allowed us to start planning for the next year,” Moodry says. “We knew then that remote learning was going to be a big part of the equation.”

The school had learned some important lessons during the spring’s “forced experiment,” as Moodry puts it. There were performance losses, but they were uneven: Students seen as high-risk in the first place turned out to be the most likely not to show up for online classes. And while online classes could be effective in conveying most material, it was difficult for teachers to have the more intimate interactions with students that drive real learning. 

So Jefferson High restructured its school day. It went from seven class periods a day to seven every two days – basically doubling the length of each session. That allowed for more sustained time with teachers and less starting and stopping. It also halved the number of times each day that students would move to a different class, a key preventive health measure. The time between classes was extended to ease crowding: freshman and sophomores went into the halls first, then juniors and seniors. (That worked for a while, Moodry says, but the discipline faded.) Lunchtimes likewise were staggered: Rather than joining together in the school’s cafeteria, students ate in shifts.

And the school’s custodial staff set to cleaning and disinfecting. In a way, last spring had been easier for them, since students weren’t in the school building. Now, every desk and every computer had to be cleaned daily. One custodian was moved to a day shift: Every hour, he sprayed door knobs, hand rails, “anything that could be touched,” according to Dan Sturdevant, who supervises the crew. The school has gone through over 100 gallons of disinfectant this year; normally, Sturdevant says, it uses four of five gallons in that time.

* * *

“The bottom line is the same,” says Mary Williams. “For me, it’s you are exposing these kids to new ideas and new information, but the trick is to get them to pay attention to it. You don’t just hear it, you get them to think about it, to apply it, to use it. So whether I’m in the classroom or online, I have to make sure they’re paying attention.

Williams has been teaching science for 40 years, nine of those at JHS, where she’s now part-time. She is widely cherished by students – which may help explain why they’ve always pulled their masks on when she’s asked. “I told them, we’re wearing masks in this classroom. I’m old, and I don’t want to get COVID, and that’s the school policy. I know some of them think it’s a crock, but they’ve been extremely respectful.”

She is comfortable, she says, with online instruction – “to tell the truth, I was into that more than the kids” at first. But she’s glad the high school returned to in-person classes. Everything takes longer online. The back-and-forth when someone gets stuck on a problem is more cumbersome. And “as a teacher, you want to see the kids. The energy, the little interactions, the things they say.”

Kelsey Voeller, an English teacher, missed that all the more. Because she’s immune-compromised, she taught virtually from her home through January, until she could be vaccinated. Mondays through Thursdays, she stayed online from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., her camera always on — and another on in her actual classroom — in case kids wanted to talk. Fridays were reserved for chatting with students on Microsoft Teams (a Zoom equivalent) or individual calls.

That worked, she says, up to a point. Students got comfortable with seeing her on a screen, and she used virtual break-out rooms to organize small-group or 1:1 discussions. “It was effective for instruction, but not as effective for building relationships with students. Working online we missed so many subtle nuances.” It was especially challenging for her to get to know freshmen, whom she didn’t already know.

Williams uses Peardeck, an online instruction platform to make sure her students still learning remotely are keeping up. If they’re not answering questions, she emails them to ask why. Standard-based grading, which makes clear to students what’s needed to achieve certain grades, helps establish a discipline. Even so, Williams has to stay mindful that she has some students who are experiencing the material differently from those in her classroom. “You have to remember they’re there.”

Norbeck thinks about these questions a lot: Will remote learning become the norm? He worries about the quality of relationships teachers have with their students. “When you’re in person with your class, you see those subtle clues, or you recognize there’s something up with a student. Sometimes, with remote, you’re not always going to see that. Or the ability of students to stop by after class and talk. You can talk online, but it’s still not that interaction that we as human beings need.”

* * *

The pit in the stomach. It returned for Moodry every time he got a call from Erin Ritchie, the county school nurse. “I just knew,” he says: A COVID case had surfaced. Thankfully, that didn’t happen often. JHS closed just eight times because of an infected student or staff member, and never for longer than a day. It never saw a cluster, Moodry’s biggest fear; at any given time, about 10 students were quarantined while the Health Department did contact tracing.

Sports gave Moodry a bigger pit than most things. He worried about kids playing in close contact, especially with athletes from other schools – worst of all, in tournaments where several schools gathered in the same place. 

Sturdevant, who doubles as the school’s athletic director, shared those concerns and more. He is charged with setting schedules for about 20 teams in eight sports over three seasons — and buses for all their travel — and scheduling amid the pandemic was a nightmare. 

It wasn’t clear until August that fall sports would happen, and then not every school fielded teams in every sport. Cross-country, where meets were limited in size, was especially perilous: “You’d get it scheduled, and it would change,” Sturdevant says. “I’d say it was double the normal work.”

In the end, the football squad dropped games from the schedule when non-conference play was ruled out for the fall. But the basketball teams played just one fewer game than usual — “pretty good, considering,” Sturdevant says.

And at every game, and every practice, every ball was cleaned and sprayed. Each player had her or his own ball, and a water bottle, and a hand towel. Balls that went into the stands and touched by fans were removed from play to be cleaned. In the fall and winter, fans were limited to two per player — although some skirted that rule.

And it mostly worked. The boys basketball squad shut down for a week during the season, and a few players on other teams were infected – but most of those, Moodry says, happened outside of school. “That’s when I started feeling a little bit of relief.”

* * *

There were times, Bowman admits, when the stress of teaching amid a crisis got to him. “This year has been draining. Sometimes I go home and think, am I doing the right thing? Are they getting something out of it? Do I still need to be there? This year has put questions in my mind like that.”

Norbeck and Moodry know their staff has been tested. “We knew that what we were asking of our teachers was extraordinary,” Moodry says. “It’s not something they trained for.”

Bowman says he has been energized by small things – a musical group that struggled with a piece, and then got it. A student who wrote a letter of appreciation. Kids playing instruments with greater confidence.

He’s already looking forward to next year — to the prospect of a big class for choir, perhaps a new orchestra class, maybe a student trip to Disney World. He’s planning two separate band classes for ninth graders to accommodate those who lost out on a year of performance. “I’m hoping for a lot of big things next year,” he says.

The school, like those everywhere, will have to confront the challenge of learning loss. Test scores in the fall were down from the school’s historical levels, according to Moodry, indicating that the disruption of the previous spring had, in fact, hurt students’ performance. More recent results were closer to those of 2019. But “there’s still some loss of knowledge that;’s going to have to be addressed,” Norbeck says.

No one has perfect visibility into next year. Most, though, are expecting an experience that looks more like normal but isn’t quite. Students may still need to distance; some may still chooser to learn virtually. There likely will still be restrictions on some sports like cross country. The school almost certainly will keep using a lot of disinfectant.

And as educators have learned more about how online instruction works, more of that may find its way permanently into curriculum. But everyone at Jefferson High agrees that, whatever its virtues, learning by screen won’t replace real-life human connections. “We’ve been able to modernize the way we approach instruction,” Voeller says, “But there’s still something to be said about being there in person and develop relationships. I think we can attempt to simulate those online, but we can’t replicate them.” 


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