Northern New York teachers promote teamwork, social skills while confronted with pandemic hurdles

For roughly two years, teachers nationwide have been forced to restructure their classroom dynamic and educational approaches in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers at Mannsville Elementary School in Northern New York are among the many experienced educators who have been forced to adapt their ways of instructing since the start of the pandemic. However, changing conditions like the relaxation of the mask mandate have begun to show a light at the end of the tunnel for them. 

As with other schools, businesses and public areas, Mannsville has been required to enforce social distancing among students. Initially set at a distance of six-feet-apart, teachers like Donna Stuckey were forced to alter their style of educating. 

“I’m very hands-on and very group-oriented,” Stuckey said. “We’re no longer supposed to be working in groups.”

According to Stuckey, promoting student collaboration makes up an important part of their education, especially at a young age. Thus, the loss of group work has been detrimental to students’ education.

“One of the big things they say in education is ‘Kids learn a lot through teaching other kids,’” she said. “When COVID happened, we kind of took that away, and they were no longer allowed, really, to teach other kids because they weren’t allowed to have that group experience.”

However, a change in social distancing requirements and some innovations have allowed Stuckey to salvage the crucial part of her students’ education.

“I was happy when we changed social distancing to three feet because that was a little easier to kinda navigate,” Stuckey said. “We found ways to work around that a little bit.”

Though schools are now running fully in-person, remote learning has had a lasting effect on students’ ability to cooperate with one another. Fifth grade teacher Jonathan Abbott observed some of his students have had difficulty getting along in a classroom setting.

“I found more kids having issues, just interpersonal-type issues, with one another getting along, knowing how to cooperate, knowing how to, you know, take some direction as a group,” Abbott said. “When you’re in front of a screen the whole time, it’s just you [they interact with].”

The relaxation of social distancing has given Abbott a greater opportunity to try and remedy this issue.

“We’ve started to do more and more stuff where they’re working together,” he said. “Getting along and learning how to do that is probably the stuff that’s going to last them a lot longer than, adding fractions, I guess.”

Another major barrier for educators has been teaching while wearing masks. In an elementary school setting, Stuckey said younger students have had difficulty grasping and recognizing different expressions when watching teachers instruct with masks on.

“It’s really hard for kids to learn and understand expressions, anyways,” Stuckey said. “They’re only hearing them, and they’re hearing them through muffled voices, so not being able to read someone’s expressions and see how they’re feeling [is hard for them].” 

Students’ inability to recognize expressions through masks prompted Stuckey to be more careful with how she speaks during lessons.

 “I’m kind of a sarcastic person and a lot is said through my face,” she said. “It was a learning curve for me because I had to be a little more careful with how I spoke because the kids couldn’t see me, so they weren’t able to read my expression and figure that part out.”

On a social level, Abbott says the recent relaxation of the mask mandate in schools has contributed to a renewed degree of comfort in his classroom. Students’ ability to see their teachers’ and peers’ faces have allowed for them to develop a greater sense of relief in school.

“There’s a comfort level that we’ve kind of hit back on,” Abbott said. “They don’t have to listen to us trying to remind kids to keep their masks on.”

Despite the mandate’s relaxation, Abbott said some students may still wear masks during the school day. He and other teachers have taken the opportunity to remind students to be respectful of those who choose to do so. 

“They’ve been kind,” he said. “[We wanted] to remind them that it’s a choice and that we need to respect that, and so far, so good.”

Although some pandemic changes seem to be fading away, Stuckey said some may stick, perhaps for the better. Institutional changes promoting hygiene may remain an important part of students’ routine in the future.

“We are handwashing and sanitizing like crazy,” Stuckey said. “I don’t think we were as good [about it]. We’ve definitely had our eyes opened to that, a lot more.”