At the 2-year mark of pandemic, Park City teachers say they’ve overcome coronavirus challenges
‘Out of sheer necessity, we had to master technological skills we never dreamed of’
For The Park Record
In March 2020, when the emergence of COVID-19 spurred then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to order the closure of public schools throughout the state, the jobs of Park City School District teachers changed drastically.
The stress level went up immediately and adding to the difficulty was a 5.7-magnitude earthquake that struck Magna and shook the Wasatch Front and Back on March 18, 2020, the first day of remote teaching.
“We basically turned teaching around on a dime and we taught using several modalities, including meeting students in person and online,” said Renee Pinkney, a Park City High School social studies teacher. “Out of sheer necessity, we had to master technological skills we never dreamed of.”
It was challenging to teach both the students sitting in front of her and others who were at home on Zoom at the same time, she said, and teachers had to be more flexible in their teaching.
Then there was the concern about the deadly virus that has now taken the lives of 23 Summit County residents and nearly 1 million people in the United States. Pinkney said people have been in a state of “fight-or-flight” for two years because no one knew what was coming around the corner, including how the coronavirus would affect them personally.
“I don’t say that just about teachers but for everyone worrying about getting COVID or exposing family members or having co-morbidities or being high risk,” she said.
At the two-year mark of the pandemic, life is starting to get back to normal for teachers — or at least a new normal — but getting to this point has been tough.
After the pandemic struck, schools in the Park City School District switched to online teaching for the rest of the spring semester until they reopened in August 2020. Students at that point could to go to school in person, opt for remote learning or take some classes in person and others online. Teachers sometimes taught from their homes if they needed to quarantine or take care of family members who were sick.
“The uncertainty of what each day was going to bring was really stressful,” said Sam Thompson, a fifth-grade teacher at Trailside Elementary. “The continual changing of the conditions, mandates and things like that were really difficult.”
Teaching was the least effective during the weeks that the schools were closed because online learning is challenging for a lot of students, especially children in the elementary grades, he said.
Once in-person classes resumed, teachers had to implement new protocols, such as keeping track of where kids sat and wearing masks during the period when they were required, Thompson said. It was hard at first to get used to having a mask but he wore one gladly.
“I think I speak for a lot of teachers that we would much rather wear the mask and be with the kids in person than have to do the remote thing, and I think their parents would agree with that, as well,” Thompson said.
He said it’s starting to feel as if the schools are a little bit back to normal.
“I’m impressed by the intelligent people who have been able to come up with a plan to keep the train on the tracks and keep us going forward,” Thompson said.
Mary Morgan, who teaches choir and band at Ecker Hill Middle School, said the mask mandate made teaching difficult because she couldn’t hear the children sing.
Other challenges have been helping students who get behind because they got COVID or have difficulties at home and filling in for teachers who are out sick, Morgan said. There is a shortage of substitutes in the Park City School District, which adds to teachers’ workloads, she said.
“The Park City Education Association has been working closely with the School District and the board to allow teachers some extra time without having to fill up their days with meetings,” said Morgan, who is co-president of the teachers union. “That’s already in place right now. We’re working on some things to alleviate some stress for teachers.”
Morgan has firsthand experience with coronavirus — she got COVID in September and was out from work for 10 days. Because she had been vaccinated, her case was mild, she said.
Mary Sue Purzycki, who teaches anatomy and physiology at Park City High School, said this academic year has been a little less stressful “because it’s not so much on the fly.”
She prefers teaching in person because a lot of students do not like learning online and it can be hard to get them to engage.
“Last year was really hard. I lost probably a good third of my kids that were remote,” Purzycki said.
She added that there were students who missed some developmental milestones because of the pandemic. Some ninth-graders who were learning remotely when they made the transition from Treasure Mountain Junior High to the 10th grade at the high school lack the socialization they would have gotten if they had been attending classes in person, Purzycki said.
Some forgot how to “do school” and missed deadlines and didn’t turn in assignments, she said.
One of the biggest problems was that although every student had a computer, not all of them had good reliable internet, she said.
“Not knowing whether you’re going to have a good internet day or a bad internet day was hard for a lot of kids,” Purzycki said.
There were some positives, including learning how to teach and deliver content in a different way, she said.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in education and COVID just gave us another reason to change,” Purzycki said.
The teachers said the students motivated them to keep going.
Morgan said students need them now more than ever, and not just for academics but for mental health reasons as well.
Pinkney, president-elect of the Utah Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union, said her other job is to advocate for strong public schools and to make sure they meet the needs of a diverse student population.
“I truly believe in the promise of public education and I knew how important it was for our students to have role models who were resilient and doing everything that we humanly could to make sure that they could continue learning despite the fact that we were teaching during a pandemic and having to readjust continually,” she said.
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