Originally published Sept. 24, 2020 by The Greeley Tribune.
By Anne Delaney
As in-person schooling continues in Greeley-Evans School District 6 during the coronavirus pandemic, one effect is apparent: quarantines are difficult.
“If you’re following the rules of quarantine, your life stops,” said Prairie Heights Middle School physical education teacher Mike McNamara. “The things it impacts outside of the school day, I missed a funeral, a wedding. I slept in a different room for 14 days.”
McNamara, in his 24th year in District 6, was in a 14-day quarantine earlier this month with 19 students and four adults in an eighth-grade cohort after a Prairie Heights student had COVID-19 symptoms.
McNamara’s professional life didn’t stop with quarantine. He continued to teach at home. In-school learning at Prairie Heights and other District 6 and area schools also didn’t come to a halt with cohorts out of buildings. Cohorts are small groups of students and teachers who remain together as much as possible to limit their exposure to others. Cohorting, which has been effective in maintaining in-person learning in District 6 according to district and education officials, has created challenges when teachers and staff such as McNamara are out of their buildings.
“You take four or five adults out, and with the education system it’s difficult to continue in-person learning,” Greeley Education Association President Andi Lee said. “These adults might teach or they might fill in so a teacher can take some planning time or eat lunch. Especially in the middle and high schools, the cohorts are not pure, and with four or five adults out of the building, it’s difficult to get coverage in place.”
Within an hour of arriving home to start his quarantine, McNamara hooked into video conferences with students. He continued to teach and plan out lessons through his time at home, working with Prairie Heights students also on quarantine and students still in school.
McNamara gave the students exercises and workouts, and he engaged with the teachers and staffers covering his classes.
In the cohort system, McNamara also teaches art and music with help from his colleagues in those subjects. The idea is to have one teacher oversee electives such as art, music and physical education to maintain the purity of cohorts, and limit the amount of exposure among teachers and students.
McNamara said he more of a facilitator with art and music. The Prairie Heights art and music teachers give him videos for the students in his cohort, and he does the same for colleagues less familiar with physical education. McNamara also oversees student temperature checks in the morning, and he distributes boxed lunches for students to eat in their classrooms.
In his physical education classes, McNamara cleans and sanitizes equipment every day.
“Our jobs are nowhere near what they were like in the past,” McNamara said. “We’re parents in a lot of ways to these, and now we’re trying to prevent this virus from getting to their kids.”
Prairie Heights Principal Stephanie Knox said schools are able to continue through quarantines because of the adaptability of students, teachers and staff — many of whom are using technology and webcams to continue working from home.
“It can be difficult to cover all those classes, but our teachers and staff go above and beyond to ensure students come first,” Knox said in an email. “The staff at our schools are incredible, but it’s up to us to keep a pulse on what’s being asked of them, it’s critical that we are checking in and making sure they are getting the support they need, the success of this work is dependent on all of us taking care of one another.”
McNamara said cohorting also has a profound effect on the students. There’s a major social component to school. The students in many cases are separated from their friends.
“It’s interesting to see these kids just with their own group,” McNamara said. “They look over and see their friends and it’s kind of sad.”
Billie Martinez Elementary physical education teacher Emily DiMatteo also described a difficult experience with her current quarantine. Martinez has been closed for the last two weeks because of a high number of student absences not necessarily related to COVID-19.
DiMatteo’s home is not a place that allows her a refuge from the pandemic. She continues to wear a mask and to follow high-level sanitization practices at home to protect her husband. Brian McCandless has Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease characterized by a buildup of thick, sticky mucus that can damage organs and commonly attacks the respiratory and digestive systems.
COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, is a respiratory illness. For an individual like McCandless, who already has a weakened respiratory system, contracting COVID-19 is “life threatening,” DiMatteo explained.
She said she was relieved with the closure of Martinez, knowing she wouldn’t be bringing home any additional germs. She plans to return to school to resume in-person teaching early next week following a couple of days off and a teacher preparation day.
“It’s great for the kids,” said DiMatteo of in-person learning. “I get that. There is no ideal situation. Virtual is not ideal. Hybrid is not ideal. It’s scary. It’s truly scary.”
Lee said there is no easy fix or solution to ease the stressful effect of quarantine on adults in buildings.
“If I had an answer for that question, I’d probably be making $1 million a year,” Lee said. “This is a very mobile situation and I think every single person is doing the best job with the information they have.”
Lee said she’s considered issues or questions relating to the quarantine, questions such as: can teachers have a day on the way back into school following a quarantine to give them time prepare for the return to in-school learning — to clean and sanitize classrooms, to make phone calls or copies; and are changes needed to further protect against quarantines?
On the second item, Lee said she doesn’t know what could be or might be considered or is realistic.
“I don’t know what the right answer is,” Lee said. “Keeping schools open is hard and in a pandemic it’s really hard.”
Lee, a longtime District 6 teacher in between stints as GEA president, recently filled in at a school when staff numbers were in flux with a group going into quarantine. Lee spent time monitoring classes during recess.
Lee said she doesn’t think there is one solution to alleviate the stress or strain created by quarantines. As president of the GEA, Lee said in a normal year — without COVID-19 — she’d visit one or two schools a day. Now, it’s one or two a week.
“Having been at different schools, it’s amazing how well the kids and adults are doing,” Lee said. “They’re doing an incredible job. I don’t think there is one right answer or otherwise we’d all be doing the same thing.”