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What teaching during a global pandemic looks like in this Tucson classroom
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What teaching during a global pandemic looks like in this Tucson classroom

Mari Katherine Scruggs, a language arts teacher at Rincon Vista Middle School, says, “We’re all here for the kids.”

Mari Katherine Scruggs carries her laptop as she walks around her classroom, peeking over her students’ shoulders as they work on their own laptops at their desks.

She reminds a couple of the eighth graders — for a second time — to take off their hats. One student demonstrates his annoyance, tossing it on the desk in front of him.

Janelle Edmonds, a teacher at Marana High School, creates the best-possible learning experience for her students as she navigates both remote and in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021. Video by: Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Scruggs’ classroom on Tucson’s southeast side is decorated to her tastes, with classic rock posters and inspirational quotes. A fresh bouquet of flowers sits in a vase at the front of the room near a picture of three teenage girls stuck in the side of a larger frame, smiling with their arms around each other.

The scene is just typical enough, one could almost forget that everyone is wearing a mask or that only half the students are there in person while the other half learn remotely, online.

The Rincon Vista Middle School language arts teacher is teaching a lesson about bias.

She asks the kids to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether the statement “we see what we want to see” has positive or negative connotations. The students weigh in silently online, and a discussion begins, half of it popping up in a chat on the computer and half of it coming from student voices in the classroom.

Mari Katherine Scruggs, a teacher at Rincon Vista Middle School, creates the best-possible learning experience for her students as she navigates both remote and in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021. Video by: Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

A student in the classroom speaks up. You can pretend everything is great, but it’s not, he says from behind his mask.

Although wearing masks seemed such a strange and even annoying undertaking less than a year ago, most of these young teens don’t seem to mind.

Scruggs speaks into a microphone, which was already her practice before the coronavirus pandemic but came in handy when trying to project with a layer of cloth over her face.

Scruggs has been teaching since the ’90s, and she has seen many changes in the classroom over the decades. So, despite the fact that nothing in her career could have prepared her for teaching during a global pandemic, she makes it look easy.

“I mean, it’s like anything else. With any job, with anything that you’re doing, if you get enough time with it, you get used to it, and you get more comfortable with it. … But this is by far the biggest change because it also happened overnight,” she says.

Schools throughout Arizona closed last March, with many school districts including Vail Unified opening for limited in-person learning in the fall, and taking another hiatus from the classroom as COVID-19 numbers rose over the holidays.

Teaching students remotely and those in the classroom simultaneously, Scruggs reads the comments from her online students, who type in the chat rather than turn on their microphones. She responds by speaking to them out loud. At the same time, students inside her classroom raise their actual hands — rather than virtual hands — to join the conversation.

Although an onlooker may be a bit lost without seeing what’s happening in the online forum, the students who are physically in the classroom all have their laptops open and jump back and forth between interacting with classmates on the computer and the ones in the classroom.

Throughout the class period, Scruggs says hello to students just signing on. When her students sign on late, it’s often because of connectivity or technology issues.

Scruggs says both groups of students have an equal opportunity to learn but that neither group gets 100% of her attention as they would if everyone could be in a classroom together. Whether a student does well depends on the child and their circumstances more than the mode of instruction, she says.

As the lesson wraps up, Scruggs reminds her kids that picture day is coming up. She says goodbye to each of her online students as they sign off. And she reminds her classroom students to walk to the right as they leave — a COVID precaution to cut down on people passing each other.

Scruggs then goes around with a sanitizer and sprays every chair and desk where a student had been sitting. Once the kids are gone, she takes her mask off for a breather. She has slight marks on her face from where the mask rests all day.

Like Vail, most of Tucson’s school districts are offering some kind of in-person learning, whether it’s part-time hybrid or full days. Tucson’s second-largest school district, Sunnyside is set to reopen classrooms Monday, March 1, after being closed since the winter break in December. And TUSD, serving 40,000 students, is set to open the week of March 22, after a year of closure.

Many teachers in TUSD continue to express concerns about returning to the classroom. Although many are at least partially vaccinated, they worry about their students and also being able to still transmit the virus to their own family members, who may not be vaccinated. Some have resigned or retired early rather than go into a situation they feel threatens their lives or that of their loved ones.

Scruggs understands this concern. She is diabetic and at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19. Having received her first vaccine against the virus and with an appointment for her second, she is starting to feel better about being in the classroom, but not really because she feels safer but rather because she’s taking all the precautions she can.

“There are days when I am more uncomfortable than others, just depending on how I feel when I wake up that morning,” she says.

Some days she might wake up with a touch of allergies and be worried what it could be while other days she feels the same as a normal year, trying not to catch the flu from her students.

“I do think that we do need to follow CDC guidelines and follow those metrics and do what’s best practice,” she says. “We’re all here for the kids. Our job is a front-line job. People don’t realize how essential educators are until there’s a possibility that they might lose educators.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara


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