By John Macon Gillespie
COVID-19 has affected almost every industry and walk of life, but some of those most affected by the pandemic are those working in the education system. Even as vaccines become more readily available, school districts across Mississippi are not out of the woods just yet.
Throughout the pandemic, teachers in public secondary education in Mississippi have had to grapple with the challenge of virtual teaching with limited resources. Johnathon Huffman is a U.S. History teacher and head baseball coach at Houlka High School in New Houlka, Mississippi. Huffman, a graduate of Mississippi State University, is in his second year in the classroom and had his first year shortened due to the pandemic last spring.
“It’s really been as unexpected as it comes,” Huffman said. “I never thought it was possible to have my first year cut short the way it was, and year two has been insane as well. It’s been hard to stay focused on the content because of all the extra protocols.”
Huffman’s U.S. History class is state tested in the state of Mississippi, giving him extra pressure to perform in the midst of the pandemic challenges.
“Being state tested, I’ve had to double down on making sure I’m getting my standard across,” Huffman said. “The hybrid schedule has really been difficult to work with at times.”
In a bordering county, Sawyer Byars is an assistant baseball coach and teaches another state tested class in Algebra I at Calhoun City High School. Byars also saw difficulties transitioning to a hybrid teaching schedule, one that saw students attend on certain days and participate in online instruction on others. Byars is a second-year teacher and is in his first year at Calhoun City.
“It’s been weird, mostly starting with the hybrid schedule,” Byars said. “That was a big adjustment. Since we’ve gone back to a normal schedule, other than making videos daily, it’s a pretty normal school year, in my opinion.”
One of the difficulties a hybrid schedule presented for Byars is holding his students accountable when they aren’t physically present in the classroom.
“For me, personally, I have ninth and 10th graders pretty much exclusively,” Byars said, “and when they were not at school, they were not doing work. That was tough. So, getting them back in school was a big deal.”
Once the Calhoun County School District, of which Calhoun City High School is a part, came off of the hybrid schedule, Byars had another COVID-related challenge to overcome: a quarantine of his own due to contact tracing.
“It’s difficult just not seeing your kids every day because you get used to it after a while,” Byars said. “It’s kind of like starting a new semester.”
While in quarantine, Byars still had contact with his students and taught them online via Google Classroom, the platform of choice for most online high school instruction in the area during the pandemic.
“For me, I’m a huge proponent of answering questions,” Byars said. “I walk two-to-three miles a day exclusively in my classroom just answering questions. Not being able to give immediate feedback to those students, I know that they have questions sometimes. Sometimes, they don’t like to ask them if they’re not there. A lot of kids in class don’t like to ask questions. The biggest struggle to me is knowing whether or not they’re getting it on an everyday basis.”
Another teacher in a bordering county, Walker Winter of Pontotoc Jr. High, has another hurdle to overcome: he teaches a foreign language, something that can be difficult to grasp in the classroom, much less virtually. Winter, a Spanish teacher, is a first-year instructor and a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi.
“For me as a new teacher, I had no norm,” Winter said. “So the COVID changes were not something out of the ordinary for me. For the most part, I have been just trying to roll with the punches: take those temperatures, clean those desks, keep students six feet apart. After a while, I have realized these things aren’t normal, and they are a bit exhausting for all involved.”
Winter’s district, like other surrounding districts, has required certain measures for staff and students to ensure as much safety as possible in the midst of the pandemic.
“My school district has mandated masks, and we check temperatures every morning,” Winter said. “We have established seating arrangements in the cafeteria for lunch so we can track who is within six feet of one another.”
Winter, like Huffman and Byars, has had to grapple at times with teaching virtually as well.
“Teaching virtually has been quite a challenge,” Winter said. “I have never been trained to do this, nor have my students ever taken an online course. We are learning this aspect together.”
Teaching a foreign language remotely like Winter can present challenges unique from other instructors in the state.
“Remotely teaching a foreign language has been a challenge,” Winter said. “It’s like trying to talk to someone underwater: they don’t understand the words coming out of my mouth, while, at the same time, we are all trying to hold our breath and keep from drowning.”
Where Winter has the struggle of teaching a foreign language remotely, Huffman and Byars have their own unique challenge: they are coaches. The 2019 baseball season was cut short due to COVID-19, and the 2020 season, like many aspects of life, is up in the air as the situation surrounding the virus progresses.
Last season, Byars was an assistant coach at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, and was not prepared for the season being cut so abruptly.
“The biggest thing last year was that it was over in the blink of an eye,” Byars said. “There was no preparation for the season ending. This year, more of a fear than a concern is us having one kid test positive during the middle of our season and us miss six division games and possibly miss the playoffs with a team that most certainly should not miss the playoffs.”
Huffman, who last year was thrust in the role of head coach in his first year teaching, describes his team as a “rebuilding” program that needs all the game experience it can get moving forward.
“We played four games last year,” Huffman said. “We were showing improvement every game, but then we just stopped. It hurt us as a team and kind of knocked us back to square one of rebuilding. It just really feels like we lost any momentum we may have been developing as a team.”
After the abrupt end to last season, Huffman, perhaps more than other coaches around the state, needs a full season this spring to help build his team for the future.
“The biggest fear is obviously not playing,” Huffman said. “As a program that’s rebuilding, we need to play ball this spring. We got four games in last year in my first season, didn’t have a summer program at all, and haven’t gotten adequate time in the fall either. We don’t have the luxury of having a ton of raw talent, so practice and reps are everything to us.”
Even in the midst of these fears, Huffman knows, ultimately, the season is out of his hands.
“With the way the virus is up and down, you don’t know if you’ll play or how much you’ll play if you do,” Huffman said.