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Hall and Gainesville teachers, principals, superintendents share biggest takeaways from pandemic school year
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C.W. Davis Middle School students say goodbye on the last day of school May 21, 2021. - photo by Shannon Casas

With the 2020-2021 school year coming to a close, teachers and administrators in both Hall County and Gainesville City Schools are taking a moment to breathe. For all of them, this was their first full year teaching during the pandemic. 

“I told my second graders there are certain years that will always stick out as a teacher, and this is one of them,” Jennifer LeSage of World Language Academy said. 

As a teacher, LeSage had to be ready to shift her lesson plans at the drop of a hat, switching to blended learning or accommodating those in quarantine.

If she learned one thing during this past school year, LeSage said above all she discovered how easily her students can adapt when faced with change. She added that her second graders handled the adjustments better than most teachers.

“This year, no matter what happens, the kids are so resilient,” she said. “I don’t think education will ever be the same after this, now that we see we can do these things and we can adapt.”

Lauren Niles, fifth grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy, said she was not only impressed with her students’ ability to succeed in an online classroom environment, but the perseverance of fellow teachers. 

“I think one of the hidden talents of teachers is getting it done no matter what,” she said. “I’m really proud of how we all just at the end of the day got it done, no matter how hard it was and how bad I wanted to cry. And, sometimes I did.”

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C.W. Davis Middle School staff wave goodbye as buses leave on the last day of school May 21, 2021. - photo by Shannon Casas

Niles said the 2020-2021 school year was her first time teaching fifth grade, and for the month of August she was only able to communicate with her students virtually. The teacher said she wanted to give her kids the experiences she had when she was their age, like a field trip and recess with the whole grade level. But, those activities weren’t possible. 

“Personally, it was a really hard time for me to teach, and not have kids in this room,” Niles said. 

Miguel Guisasola said he started as band director at Flowery Branch High School in the fall, knowing the job would pose many challenges. Recently, he was able to gather with parents of his students for a small meeting with his mask off. 

“I had a parent say to me, ‘You are a lot more of an emotional person than I thought you were because it’s the first time I’ve seen you with your mask off,’” Guisasola recounted. “I thought that was interesting and not something that had crossed my mind. These kids in this community don’t know who I am, so much of what you do is in your face.”

Now that the school year is over for students, Guisasola said the exhaustion of not having any downtime in the past 15 months still weighs heavily on him and other teachers. The band director said he is looking forward to finally having “somewhat normal” concerts with his students in the fall, ones that involve a live audience.

“We’re (teachers) finally getting to the point now of being able to really step away, which is not something we’ve been able to do for over a year,” he said. “I’m super excited about next year, and the progress we’re making as a band.”

Hall Superintendent Will Schofield, said his biggest takeaway from the past school year “is the truth that we were created for community.”

“People need people,” he said. “We will continue to do all that we can to keep boys and girls in schools, supported by caring adults who genuinely love working with students.”

Ley Hathcock, principal of West Hall High School, and Gwenell Brown, principal of Fair Street International Academy, both said communication has been key in facing the pandemic’s many obstacles in education. 

Brown said she made a lot of phone calls to parents, letting them know their children needed to be quarantined because they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. On several occasions, she said entire classrooms had to be shut down because of exposure to someone with the virus.

“We kept telling parents, if you have been exposed or someone in your family has been, please let us know,” she said. “To me, that made it easier when parents, families and teachers cooperated with us. Just having the information helped us to deal with everything.”

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Fair Street International Academy teachers squirt water bottles and water guns May 19, 2021, on the last day of school in the Gainesville city system. - photo by Shannon Casas

Among all of the negative outcomes of the pandemic, Hathcock said it’s easy to overlook the many positive lessons. 

“We’ve learned that the parents who have stayed on top of communication with their child’s teachers, typically those children are the most successful,” he said. 

Going into the next school year, Hathcock said he can envision maintaining certain pandemic protocols like heightened security at the school, one-way hallways that help with foot traffic flow and regularly using outdoor classrooms.

Hathcock added that one of the harder lessons he has learned involves replacing in-person school with online learning. 

“We can have all the technology in the world, but unless there’s a sound relationship and instruction behind it, it’s still not going to be effective,” he said. “The best place for kids to learn is in a school building.”

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Students switch buses May 19, 2021, at Fair Street International Academy on the last day of school in the Gainesville city system. - photo by Shannon Casas

Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said he thinks everyone in both districts deserves a little break this summer. He noted that he is grateful for the community’s willingness to work together across both school systems.

“I think we learned more than anything that change is not a bad thing,” Williams said. “In this case, we were forced to change schedules, instructional models, personnel, instructional assignments, how we communicated to people, how we served our kids. It’s a true testament to when we’re forced to do something, we can make that change and make things better.”

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