The global pandemic challenged every aspect of life as we knew it. For first year teachers, their years of training could not have prepared them for the daunting task of navigating virtual learning. (Courtesy of unsplash)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

The training Titia Dunn received when she entered the teaching profession at the start of the 2019-2020 school year included many aspects of the art. 

The principles of teaching were covered. Socio-emotional development was crucial and classroom management was key. Professional roles and responsibilities were established and culturally responsive instruction was the goal. 

Nowhere did the training prepare for what would become one of the most daunting tasks of the year: teaching during a global pandemic.

“Going into this pandemic and teaching was very hard,” said Dunn, who earned a degree in journalism and communications before switching careers. “It took a lot of patience, persistence, determination and hard work.”

As part of the Urban Teachers program in Baltimore, Dunn was required to train in the classroom for a full year before being released to teach with a co-teacher. 

She was only halfway through her year as an intern in a kindergarten classroom when the coronavirus began to batter the East Coast. In Maryland, students were told after dismissal on Mar. 12, 2020 that they wouldn’t come back for another two weeks. 

“We were all sent home and forced to go online. Our training was incomplete, which made it even more of a challenge,” said Dunn.

Two weeks turned to four. Four weeks turned into three months.

One school year ended and another began.

At one of the most uncertain times of the decade, Dunn had become a first grade teacher.

Sheer fortitude pushed her ahead.

“I had to learn a lot of technical skills that I had never used before,” she said. “I had to learn different platforms. I was not familiar with Google Classroom and I had to learn how to use Cami, a program that allows you to create assignments virtually.” 

Dunn has mastered virtual white boards and homework, Zoom, and a host of “fun interactive ways to reach the kids- some of whom have never even typed on the computer before.”

Though the hurdles stand tall, educators have stepped up to the plate with purpose.

Many teachers are having to come to terms with the fact that most students are facing the harsh realities of surviving a pandemic, which involves coping with death and loss. (Courtesy of unsplash)

After working at an institution dedicated to students with developmental disabilities, Shakiera Allen was eager to help with inclusion efforts for special needs students in public schools.

She decided to leave the Kennedy Krieger Institute to serve the students of Baltimore County Public Schools in August of 2020.

Questions are sure to abound the night before any first day of school- but this was different.

“Did I do this at the wrong time? Am I capable of doing this?,” Allen asked herself. “With the pandemic, a lot of things were crazy. There were a lot of unknowns last August and I was very nervous because I didn’t know what to expect.”

Eventually, Allen’s devotion to special education students triumphed over her doubts.

“People place them in a box and it feels like they can only learn a certain amount but they will surprise you,” Allen said of her first and third grade students. “The resilience these kids have is one of the most rewarding things I’ve seen throughout this year.”

Allen’s own resilience is certainly a shining example. 

If the school year didn’t have enough obstacles built in, hackers made sure to pick up the slack last Fall with a November ransomware attack that rocked the district and further complicated an already stressful school year. 

She lost months worth of data and lesson plans.

“It was very frustrating. It made me feel like I was up against the wall. My students are the ones who kept me going,” she said. 

Both Dunn and Allen have returned to their classrooms to teach. 

While Dunn says her administration has gone above and beyond to follow every safety measure, Allen says there could be more done to keep coronavirus at bay in County Schools.

“Student temperatures should be taken before they enter the building. It shouldn’t be an honor system,” said Allen. “Since we’ve been back in school, I’ve had to send a lot of students to the nurse because they aren’t feeling well or have fevers.” 

As the pandemic continues, Dunn said it’s important to remember school is about much more than academics. Teachers are responsible for the emotional well-being of their students at a time where anxiety and depression have spiked in children and adults.

At least five families at her school have lost both parents in the coronavirus pandemic. 

“To have a child come online and tell you something like that and you’re still trying to teach- and make sure that they’re okay- is definitely a challenge,” said Dunn. “Yes, you have to teach, but you also have to be aware of what is happening in the house as a result of COVID.”

“They need to know that we care about them first.” 

Both Dunn and Allen say they are eager to teach a full class of students in their own classrooms.

“I’m looking forward to touching a real paper and writing a grade on it,” said Dunn. “I’m looking forward to things getting back to normal. I’ve never seen what it looks like on my own.”

City Schools will be fully in person for the 2021-2022 school year.

Baltimore County Schools will return in-person with the option to remain virtual.

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Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer