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News >  Education

Difference Makers: As COVID-19 shifted how schools operate, educators needed to adapt

Dec. 22, 2020 Updated Tue., Jan. 5, 2021 at 9:33 a.m.

Becky Doughty saw it coming.

Weeks before schools closed because of COVID-19, the director of health services for Spokane Public Schools held a staff meeting and crafted a plan to meet the pandemic head-on.

“And we all got to work,” Doughty said. “That it’s been a challenge is the understatement of the year.”

With the move to distance learning, she and the district’s 41 registered nurses had to find ways to meet the needs of their students while managing the pandemic.

“It completely changed how we work, but they are resilient,” said Doughty, who also established a group to lead contact tracing.

Rebecca Doughty is the Health Services Director for Spokane Public Schools.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Rebecca Doughty is the Health Services Director for Spokane Public Schools. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Eight nurses – “amazing human beings,” Doughty calls them – stepped forward to work 80-hour weeks in contact tracing.

“It’s like solving a mystery, putting all the pieces together,” Doughty said.

When a staff member tests positive or suspects they may have been exposed, they reach out to a supervisor, just as they would with any illness.

Supervisors fill out a form, a spreadsheet of possible contacts, and the contact tracers take it from there, calling everyone who may have been exposed to the virus by being within 6 feet of the original staffer for at least 15 minutes.

“It’s the way we identify who might get COVID and ensure they are not in our schools if that should happen,” Doughty said. “We are being very aggressive – in a good way. I’d much rather have people in quarantine than risk more potential exposure.”

The nurses perform something akin to triage by phone, guiding people through any issues, and connect them with the district’s human resources department.

They also develop relationships based on trust, which is repaid when people call back as they remember other potential exposures.

“We are so dialed in right now,” Doughty said. “No one escapes these ladies.”

And just in case, Doughty established a 24/7 hotline, where staff can call with questions or concerns, their anonymity protected if they wish.

The district also has what Doughty calls the “COVID cruiser” a retrofitted van that can provide transportation for those who lack it.

Doughty also hasn’t lost sight of the big picture – immunizations, mental health counseling and outreach.

“We know that kids are falling behind, and we’ve tried to keep our eyes on those things,” Doughty said.

Doughty is but one of the hundreds of education professionals who are doing all they can to help students succeed during these times of remote learning, Zoom lectures and masked students in classrooms. Here are a few others from around the region.

Karina Hogan, biology teacher, Woodland Middle School, Coeur d’Alene

The timing of the COVID-19 outbreak was tough on everyone.

But in the world of middle school biology, spring is when the fun begins, the time when the lessons learned in the lab are taken outside.

“I was all prepared,” said Karina Hogan, who teaches life science to seventh-graders at Woodland Middle School in Coeur d’Alene.

Instead, COVID forced everyone to their homes and laptops.

Difference Maker Education Karina Hogan Woodland Middle School.   (Courtesy of Woodland Middle School)
Difference Maker Education Karina Hogan Woodland Middle School.  (Courtesy of Woodland Middle School)

“The end of the year was so anticlimactic, but we did our best to conduct Zoom meetings, but everyone was in such a weird place,” Hogan said.

In some ways, they still are. Since opening in a hybrid learning format (with in-person learning two days per week), Coeur d’Alene Public Schools moved to five days after coronavirus rates fell.

The district had to retreat as COVID rates rose, going to a four-day model before coming full-circle to hybrid at the middle and high schools. Half the students are in class on Monday and Tuesday while the other half learns remotely. Elementary students continue to attend in person four days.

After an all-remote session on Wednesday, the groups trade places.

Through all of that, Hogan and other science teachers in Coeur d’Alene have managed to teach in-person and remote lessons at the same time.

Hogan said she works hard to stay in constant contact with parents, some of whom struggled to navigate learning platforms.

“When the parents are acting as teachers at home, I recognize that they need to have the easiest way to find things for their kids,” said Hogan, who has taught at Woodland since moving to Idaho from Alaska in 2013.

“I’ve never worked this hard as a teacher, and I’ve never emailed parents more in my life to give them support,” Hogan said. “We are trying to help the students get through these experiences.”

One experience that hasn’t been lost: animal dissections. Thanks to the district’s hybrid model, everyone will get their chance.

This year it will be bullfrogs.

And after that, spring will be around the corner; so too, perhaps a chance to go outside and pick up where Hogan left off last year.

“It’s been interesting,” Hogan said. “I’ve had to save all those great interactions for when they’re back in class.”

Sue Dunfield, English teacher, Mt. Spokane High School

COVID-19 has robbed students of so much this year, included their spontaneity.

Masks help protect against the virus – they’re sanitary but also stifling.

“That’s been one of my biggest struggles,” said Sue Dunfield, who teaches English at Mt. Spokane High School. “Talking through masks, that’s a hard thing to deal with.”

“I’ve also had to give up some of those heart-to-heart talks,” said Dunfield, who still works hard to engage her students every period, every day.

Difference Maker Education Susan Dunfield, English teacher at Mt. Spokane High School.   (Courtesy of Mt.Spokane High School)
Difference Maker Education Susan Dunfield, English teacher at Mt. Spokane High School.  (Courtesy of Mt.Spokane High School)

“She has continually served her students in English with grace and sincere care,” said Mt. Spokane Principal Darren Nelson.

Mt. Spokane operates on a hybrid model with half the students attending twice a week in person and the rest remotely; then they switch.

That allows for smaller classrooms – only 12 to 16 students per class – which gives Dunfield more chances to engage each student.

“I tell my students that we’re meant to engage with people, and taking our learning out into the world,” said Dunfield, a teacher for 20 years overall, 15 at Mt. Spokane.

Dunfield helps her students do just that as adviser for Link Crew, a student group that tries to help new students adjust and others make those important connections.

COVID has also made that task more difficult, with social distancing required in the cafeteria and other gathering places.

In the past, Link Crew would be alerted about students who weren’t connecting. Then one of the Link Crew members would find the student and make them feel welcome. Not this year.

Fortunately, one of the students came up with the idea to assign pen pals to write students and make that connection.

Community outreach is still happening, though because of the virus it’s less hands-on, as the meals for needy students are prepackaged.

However, everyone’s pitching in – including Nelson, who delivers meals in his car.

Caitlynn Glenn, physical education teacher, Sacajawea Middle School

What P.E. teacher doesn’t want to hit the ground running when the new school year begins?

However, Caitlynn Glenn was stopped in her tracks by COVID-19.

After beginning her teaching career last year in Freeman, she filled a last-minute opening at Sacajawea Middle School in late August.

Then she had to sprint. By then it was clear that Spokane Public Schools would begin the year with distance learning only – but P.E.?

“It was interesting,” Glenn said. “It was quite a process of trying to figure out what I was going to be teaching, and engaging with the students.”

Difference Maker Education Caitlyn Glenn SPS, teacher at Sacajawea Middle School.   (Courtesy of Sacajewea Middle School)
Difference Maker Education Caitlyn Glenn SPS, teacher at Sacajawea Middle School.  (Courtesy of Sacajewea Middle School)

As it turned out, P.E. teachers are doing the same with parents, offering tips on healthy practices.

“I think for the parents it’s been important that they are trying to keep their kids as active as possible – that’s what they’ve highlighted the most,” said Glenn, who grew up in the Puget Sound area before earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Gonzaga.

Glenn said the life sciences teachers meet as a group, post different workouts and try to link families to activities that will complement the day.

“One of the biggest things that, as we have learned and adapted, we hear how important relationships are,” Glenn said.

That means tuning into the needs of not only each student, but their families.

“Sometimes that means we have to tap on the brakes a little bit and make sure that they’re doing OK,” Glenn said.

The payoff, when things get back to normal and students are back in school, will be more trust and a chance for kids to hit the ground running again.

“Teaching health and fitness online is very different than in person, so that has been a challenge, figuring how best to engage and teach students our content and getting them moving,” Glenn said.

Tigan Knauss, history and English teacher, Spokane Valley High School

There are few silver linings in the cloudy world of distance learning, but there will be some valuable lessons learned.

At Spokane Valley High School, teacher Tigan Knauss is already looking ahead to a time when kids are back and more eager than ever to learn.

He also sees distance learning as a transformative process that will pay off down the road.

“The kids have found that school isn’t so bad,” said Knauss, who teaches English and history at the project-based school, which is part of the West Valley School District.

Difference Maker Education Tigan Knauss, teacher at Spokane Valley High School.   (Courtesy of Spokane Valley High School)
Difference Maker Education Tigan Knauss, teacher at Spokane Valley High School.  (Courtesy of Spokane Valley High School)

“The kids who last year said they’re not a fan of school are saying ‘I wish I was in your class.’”

“I think our relationship is going to be brighter than ever when we come back,” Knauss said.

“Our students are incredibly resilient,” Knauss added. “I stopped hearing complaints about virtual learning in September. I know they would rather be in here with me, but I am super impressed.”

Much of the credit goes to Knauss, whose English lessons this year included an examination of the classic “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger.

In a nomination letter for this year’s Difference Makers series, one of his students commented that Knauss reads each character in a different voice, “and is always putting effort into making sure our schooling is as groundbreaking and wonderful, like before COVID.”

And this from another student: “He may be just a school teacher but his knowledge and insightful thinking has helped so many people succeed life after high school.”

That didn’t happen without some work.

After what Knauss called a “mad scramble” in March, he adjusted to teaching lessons on YouTube. The summer was “probably the most work I’ve had in 23 years,” Knauss said.

Last spring Knauss drew inspiration from a story in The Spokesman-Review about the Generation Alive outreach project in which students helped distribute food to needy families.

Now his students are doing similar community outreach projects, even during a period of distance learning.

Brian Asmus, director of safety and security, Central Valley School District

It’s been a year of adjustment for the Central Valley School District and Brian Asmus, its new director of safety and security.

On Sept. 1, the same day he retired as police chief in Liberty Lake, Asmus moved a few miles down Interstate 90 and into a transition that no one expected would be seamless.

By then, the district was committed to beginning the year with distance learning. That emptied the school hallways, but left Asmus and his resource officers with a new responsibility: community outreach.

“Not only are we providing a safe environment for our students and families, but to make sure that everyone is safe until we get back to in-person learning,” Asmus said.

The easy transition was no surprise to Superintendent Ben Small, the man who hired him.

“Brian is the type of individual that has hit the ground running and fits in as if he has been here all along,” Small said.

“He has a huge heart for not only our community, but for kids especially,” Small said.

Asmus and his team became liaisons, connecting hard-to-reach families with teachers and counselors.

Job one was to make sure that students had what they needed – laptops, internet and even food.

“The whole team really shifted our focus to get resources to families who are not engaged,” Asmus said.

They did even more, offering guidance for families who weren’t sure how to proceed as the district began to bring younger students back to class.

“We helped them understand what those options were,” Asmus said.

Asmus’ office also supervises contact tracing for the district of 15,000 students. Each school building has a supervisor who reports to the district – which in turn sends information to the Spokane Regional Health District and posts daily updates on the CVSD COVID-19 dashboard.

Asmus has done this before. In 2001, when the Liberty Lake Police Department took over law enforcement coverage from the sheriff’s office, there were four officers, including Asmus.

“That’s all we had and we were responsible for 24/7 police coverage,” he said. “So we had no days off, no holidays. Our initial team had our blood, sweat and tears into this.”

Almost two decades later, Asmus is embracing a new challenge.

“I want to make a positive difference in someone’s life,” Asmus said. “That was my goal in law enforcement and that’s my role today.”

Liberty Lake Chief of Police Brian Asmus is photographed at the station on Friday, August 14, 2020. He announced that he is retiring at the end of August.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Revie)
Liberty Lake Chief of Police Brian Asmus is photographed at the station on Friday, August 14, 2020. He announced that he is retiring at the end of August. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Revie)

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