TUPELO • For Tupelo Public School District’s teachers and students last week, swapping to virtual instruction at a moment’s notice wasn’t out of the norm. The only difference this time was that it was due to winter weather rather than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elizabeth Autry, 11th grade American literature and composition teacher at Tupelo High School, said working with students online throughout the week has “really been just the same because we’ve been doing virtual teaching all year.”
Around half her students were virtual last semester. While most of them have returned to the classroom now, she still has several virtual and hybrid students at any given time.
“We’re always set up and always prepared for situations like this,” Autry said.
She offered live Google Meet classes for students on Monday and Tuesday during class times for students who wanted that option, but her plans for the rest of the week were derailed when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Wednesday. She canceled live meetings for the rest of the week and had students learn using their physical textbooks and materials she’d uploaded online.
“I’m trying to give myself some time so that next week while I’m out for COVID, then I can have my strength back to do more instruction via Google Meet for them,” Autry said.
Daytra Riley, a first grade teacher at Carver Elementary School, said the virtual week went well for her students, thanks to staff members who prepared them for using learning management platforms like Canvas.
She used most of the week to review while throwing a few new lessons into the mix, which will be reviewed when school resumes in-person on Monday. Her class met virtually on Friday morning via Google Meet to play a game of Kahoot! while reviewing skills for an upcoming assessment.
“That was fun for them to bring that element from class to doing it virtually,” Riley said.
Anna Hamilton, a fifth grade math teacher at Rankin Elementary School, was quarantined on the week of Feb. 8 after coming into close contact with a person who had tested positive for COVID-19, but she “had no worries” about delivering lessons to her students online.
That first week of quarantine helped her prepare for the week of winter weather. She taught virtually during that first week of quarantine, talking with students via Google Meet, but opted to have students review lessons they’d previously learned via i-Ready during the weeklong snow closures.
“It was just a really good week for me to stop, reflect, and assign skills that I had just previously taught, so that’s what I did,” Hamilton said.
She feels the week of review lessons was encouraging for both herself and students and will allow her to hand-pick students she needs to work with one-on-one when they return in-person on Monday.
Hamilton is thankful to Rankin’s principal, Heather Cartwright, and assistant principal, Taylor Sparks, for being available to answer teacher questions and encourage students.
“All the resources the Tupelo Public School District has provided for us has set us up for a win-win situation,” Hamilton said.
For teachers, the week was reminiscent of the monthslong lockdown and school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.
During those initial closures, most districts in Northeast Mississippi were ill-prepared for teaching students virtually. This time, when schools closed due to winter weather rather than a virus, everyone was prepared.
Autry recalled an analogy used by school administrators in 2020 comparing educators figuring out virtual learning to “building a plane while we fly it.”
“But now teachers have had some experience with preparing lessons and teaching in this way,” Autry said. “We’ve been doing it for a year now basically, and last spring that expectation wasn’t there. Everything was up in the air. We didn’t know what to expect.”
Teachers now know that they, along with their students, will be held accountable and that everybody has a part to play, she said.
Hamilton already puts assignments on Canvas each day, so students know exactly where and how to access the resources they need even when they aren’t physically at school.
“I feel no anxiety, I feel no stress,” Hamilton said of transitioning to virtual learning. “I feel completely prepared and set up to win, and my students are set up to win because of what Tupelo Public Schools have provided for us. I did not feel in any way that I did not have the resources or the means to be able to teach them.”
Her main goal for the week was to have students feel successful at home and “that’s what we got for the most part,” she said.
Last spring, Hamilton was able to communicate exclusively with parents, but the district’s new online resources like Canvas, Google Meet and i-Ready allow her to communicate directly with students as well.
“The communication is much better from teacher to student,” Hamilton said. “I want to talk to the parent, but I feel much more excited to talk to the student and get to encourage them, to tell them ‘I need you to redo that lesson’ and ‘Let’s see what you can do this time.’”
She believes that simply hearing from their teacher encourages students to give their best effort while completing assignments.
While Riley said at least one parent of a child in her class had to reassure their first grader that the closure was only because of the weather and would only last for a week, her students have handled the temporary transition very well.
“Training we’ve been able to give our students has made all the difference in making this weather shutdown very successful,” Riley said. “The main difference is our teachers having more training, students having more training.”