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After joining FCPS during pandemic, new teachers upbeat about futures in education

Amelia Carr’s first year working for Fairfax County Public Schools was miles apart from what she had imagined when she declared that she wanted to become a teacher in her sixth-grade yearbook.

The Bucknell Elementary School kindergarten teacher began her career as an educator in the unpredictable world of September 2020, when classes were confined to the computer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the virtual setting wasn’t ideal, especially for restless kindergarteners, Carr made an effort to encourage the same level of engagement and socializing that her students would’ve gotten in person, whether that meant creating a YouTube channel or sending materials in the mail.

“I did Lunch Buddies where we would eat lunch together. In kindergarten, playtime is really important, so we would still do ‘playdates’ on the computer,” Carr said. “…Because they had nothing to compare it to, they were just excited to meet new friends because they had been so lonely during the pandemic.”

Carr didn’t navigate the turbulence of school in a pandemic alone. Her best friend, roommate, and fellow “Outstanding Elementary New Teacher” award winner Shelby Press became a second-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary School in fall 2020.

Press credits the University of Mary Washington education program that they both attended and the shift online in the middle of their final semester with giving them the classroom experience, tools, and flexibility needed to handle that first year.

“We had a good sense of technology, a really strong background of how to apply lessons, make them virtually, how to make them engaging, and also, most importantly to us, making things culturally responsive to our students,” she told FFXnow. “Working at Title I schools, our students come from various different places, speaking many different languages, and it was important for us to really reach those students through the camera.”

Summer classes underway at FCPS

Now approaching their third year with FCPS, Press and Carr are among the many teachers supporting the school system’s ongoing summer learning programs, which have been significantly expanded over the past two years in response to the pandemic.

As of mid-July, FCPS had 33,500 students enrolled in its summer programs, according to spokesperson Jennifer Sellers. Options include enrichment activities as well as credit recovery and Extended School Year (ESY) services for students who need academic help.

Since registration was still underway, the number of teachers hired was in flux when Press and Carr’s programs — Summer Olympians Aspire and Reach (SOAR) for elementary school students below their grade level in math and reading and the Young Scholars advanced academic program — launched on July 11.

“But we are staffed enough so that no general education programs have been cancelled,” Sellers said, noting that the ESY program for students in special education — which got postponed last year due to a shortage of teachers — is 98% staffed.

Convincing exhausted educators to teach during the summer has been a struggle for many school districts this year, but Press and Carr say their classes have been relatively chill. Plus, with rent, car payments, student debt, and other bills to pay, the additional money doesn’t hurt.

“It’s actually very nice,” Carr said. “We get out early and it’s only a half-day, and the county provides us wonderful lessons. So, it’s very relaxed, and we have great kiddos.”

The highs and lows of teaching in a pandemic

Make no mistake, though: these initial years of teaching have required hard work and presented plenty of obstacles. Press and Carr agree that the concurrent model that FCPS experimented with in the fall of 2020, where they had in-person and online students at the same time, “was definitely challenging.”

They also observed some gaps in their students’ academic and social skills once fully in-person classes resumed last year. Carr says it was hard to monitor her kindergarteners’ handwriting from a computer, and they also had to learn how to share and take turns after more than a year of isolation.

Press saw differences in the readiness of students who had easy access to WiFi, libraries, and other resources and those who didn’t. She says they both prioritized classroom management and setting clear expectations for students’ behavior, while also trying to meet the kids where they are.

“If I taught them at an incredibly rigorous level where none of them are at, that’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to me. We’re not going to make the progress,” Press explained. “But if I teach the students in a way where they feel respected, they feel that they can make appropriate growth, they feel safe in their learning environment, that’s when they’re going to make the most progress.”

One thing that wasn’t an issue, contrary to the public furors raised by some parents and politicians, was universal masking. Press and Carr say their students were more than willing to wear masks and adhere to the other measures implemented by FCPS to limit the spread of COVID-19, since they wanted to stay in school and not get sick.

Teachers being among the first cohorts of Virginians eligible to get vaccinated was a relief for the two women, who were both living with their parents at the time.

“My students…they took Covid very seriously,” Carr said. “I never — knock on wood — in my two years teaching, had a Covid case in my classroom. They took it very seriously, and me and my coworkers did as well with masks and everything. So, I was very grateful.”

With the next school year starting on Aug. 22, Press and Carr remain as passionate as ever about teaching, energized by the memories and relationships they’ve built with their students and colleagues.

Press recalled having to coax students to leave when the last school year ended on June 10.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but I’ve never seen kids be so upset on the last day of school,” she said. “…We’re like, ‘It’s summer break, guys, come on,’ and they’re like, ‘We don’t want to leave’…Those memories, those nice words that the students share with us is really what helps us know…that we’re in the right place. We’re doing the right thing right now.”

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