TUPELO • Students at Thomas Street Elementary packed their backpacks and exited the school for one last time as the Tupelo Public School District's 2020-21 school year concluded Friday afternoon.

Second graders Samantha Garner and Maggie Shepherd said they had a really good year with their teacher, Jeni Chandler.

Maggie had attended Thomas Street since kindergarten but was homeschooled from the time the pandemic began until she returned in January. She said coming back to Thomas Street "was a little hard" but also "kind of fun because I got to be with a new class."

Both Samantha and Maggie are excited about making new friends at a new school after wrapping up their time at the K-2 school.

The end of May marked the close of a tumultuous school year. It began with strict masking and social distancing mandates, frequent quarantines and isolated closures for schools across Northeast Mississippi. And yet, the year also highlighted the resilience of teachers, staff and students who persevered and made it successful.

Mark Garrett, an eighth grade Spanish teacher at Tupelo Middle School, said the school year went more smoothly than he had expected, as a result of strong support from school and district administration, along with an "awesome group of students" that made teaching enjoyable.

He entered the school year determined that everything would turn out OK. But challenges like managing a new learning platform, teaching distance learners for the first time and a change in class schedules were intimidating.

During his 19 years as a teacher, Garrett always placed students in groups in his classroom. But not this year. This year, students were seated 6 feet apart, with desks spread out from wall to wall.

The most difficult part of his year was simultaneously juggling classes for both traditional and distance learning students, Garrett said. He taught traditional classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and distance learners from 2 p.m. to 3:20 p.m.

But one positive he's taking away from the year is being better prepared to teach distance learners in the future.

"Now that I've got my foot in the door, so to speak, I can only get better and improve," he said.

Garrett’s hopeful that next year, he'll be able to put his students in groups again and make the class interactive like it's intended to be.

"I want all of my students to be in a classroom," Garrett said. "I want to see them. The distance learners that I had all year that never did become traditional learners, I didn't really get to know them personally. As a teacher, I regret that because I want to see their face, interact with them and get to know them."

Carole Elliott, a first grade teacher at Carver Elementary School, said she and her students had "the most amazing year."

"I've been doing this since 1994, and I have to say, this has probably been one of my favorite school years," Elliott said. "The children were just so happy to be back in the classroom at the beginning of the year, and they had such a desire to learn this year, more so than I've seen in the past."

Before school started, Elliot was nervous because there were so many unanswered questions. How do you safely socially distance first graders? How will group projects work?

"In first grade, building community, that's everything," Elliott said. "I knew, as a teacher, that it was in the best interest of the children that we had to get back in the classroom because they need that one-on-one instruction."

If someone would have told her at the beginning of the school year that the district would've made it to the end without a shutdown, she would have called them crazy.

But that's exactly what happened. Elliot credits Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou, the school board, administrators, parents and teachers for that success.

"Everybody worked together to make sure that we stayed in school and that everything worked," she said.

The most difficult part of Elliott's school year was the stress of trying to stay a few steps ahead at any given moment in an effort to ensure, in the event of a closure, students’ needs would be met.

TPSD's motto this year was "Better together." It's a message that Elliott emphasized in her classroom and hopes will continue next year.

Hannah Godown, an incoming senior at Tupelo High School, attended in-person classes the first day of school. She immediately noticed a lack of socializing among students, so "it didn't feel normal and it was kind of sad."

She decided to become a distance learner and completed her junior year virtually with the exception of one class, College Algebra, which she toon on-campus during the spring semester.

"I really liked the flexible schedule because I got to work more and kind of do my school work whenever," Godown said. "I didn't have a problem learning online."

The most difficult part was "not being able to see friends," Godown said.

Going into the year, she had expected the school to have to shut down for an extended amount of time again, as it did in March 2020, but was happy to see that wasn't necessary.

Tupelo High School was only forced to close its entire campus once during the 2020-21 school year, when an increase in COVID-19 cases on campus in November forced a weeklong closure to stop the spread.

Godown plans to return to in-person, traditional learning for her final year of high school. She said she's looking forward to senior activities and football games, and hopes things will be back to normal with no masks required.

Tom Henry Brister, another incoming senior at Tupelo High School, said his junior year of high school was "definitely very different" than the previous two.

He felt the 2020-21 school year "started out kind of iffy" and then improved. As time went on, he grew accustomed to the COVID-19 protocols like mask wearing and social distancing. Soon, it "all became a routine."

The most difficult part, Brister said, was having shorter class periods due to shortened school days.

"Fifteen minutes may not seem like a lot, but we needed 15 more minutes every day to cover the lesson," Brister said of one particular math class. "We never got to finish the lesson. It was very difficult to get used to."

On a personal level, if there’s one thing the pandemic revealed to Brister, it would be the importance of school, both academically and socially.

"It showed you what your current life would be without school," Brister said. "As much as people say they don't like school, you really need school in your life to help you with your education, your social life and everything.“

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