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Farrior Shockley arrives at school each day around 7 a.m., before the halls are filled with masked students. She answers emails from concerned parents with technology questions and coworkers planning curriculum two-weeks out. She makes sure her daily lesson is prepared and that screen-sharing works and opens the necessary browser tabs on her computer.

Once the students arrive, it’s a nonstop whirlwind of lessons, hand washing, cleaning, troubleshooting tech issues, and balancing in-person lessons with the needs and engagement of her remote students.

“It’s putting on a full Broadway show, or a sitcom depending on the day,” she said with a laugh.

Shockley, a first grade teacher at Emily Dickinson Elementary School, has taught for 23 years.

But never quite like this.

“I’m singing and running from spot to spot, trying to keep the kids’ attention, both in person and virtual,” she said. “It’s more draining when I’m done. When I log-off from the kids, shut the computer down, I’m just sweating, and doing it all with a mask on too. It is hard work.”

The Chronicle spoke with teachers and principals from each school level to understand how educators are experiencing teaching during the pandemic and the Bozeman School District’s blended model — half of the students are in the classroom Monday and Tuesday, then the second half are in-person Thursday and Friday.

Many schools in the district opted to have synchronized learning periods, when the virtual students learn live alongside their in-person companions. It has led to a balancing act for classrooms, with many teachers saying they had to learn a whole new system, which feels like two jobs — teaching in person while also providing for their remote students.

“It’s been an adjustment both for the students and the teachers,” said Danny Waldo, a seventh grade teacher at Sacajawea Middle School. “When we’re in the classroom with the kids it’s overwhelmingly positive. I’ve heard more kids say ‘I want to go to school’ than I’ve heard before. That part’s been nice to hear.”

Consistently, teachers and administrators focused on the positives of having students in the classroom and the joy of seeing them in person.

“It’s been really nice to be able to connect with them, even if its only two days a week,” said Jessica Amende, a sixth grade teacher at Sacajawea Middle School. “I feel like I know my kids better.”

While the daily in-person interactions with students have been positive, teachers still feel the pressure of a higher workload and the stressors of navigating a pandemic.

Double workload

Waldo and many of the teachers said there’s an added pressure of feeling like they need to be available in their off-hours to answer questions students or parents might have.

“That’s been a conversation we’ve had a lot, trying to protect your personal time,” he said. “I’m a parent of four, and trying to make sure I have boundaries and when I need to spend time with my family and my kids. But teachers, by nature, aren’t going to ignore a student who needs help.”

Amende, who has a child of her own, said there are 79 kids on her team, and if she asks them to respond to a reading prompt in one minute, that’s at least 80 minutes just to listen to them. She said it feels like she “needs to be cloned” to keep up with the online learners and the in-person lessons.

“It’s really challenging to find time to manage and respond to all of the online learners. For me, it takes place in the off-hours in the evenings,” she said “I don’t have enough minutes in my day to be able to give thoughtful feedback while also teaching four days a week.”

Shockley said being a teacher has always been busy, but this year feels even busier with the added element of online learning and the always-looming presence of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I really feel like I’m working nonstop, and when we’re there it feels like I don’t have time to even go to the bathroom,” Shockley said. “If I sit too long, I’m afraid I can’t get back up because I’m so exhausted.”

Waldo, who has taught for 17 years, said the stress level of his students felt higher at the beginning of the year, but as the classes have settled into a routine their stress level has dipped.

“Personally for me, my stress level is higher now than it’s ever been in teaching,” he said. “Trying to manage the new teacher work load, manage my family at home, ensuring they’re safe and I’m not bringing anything home to them.”

Waldo is also the activities coordinator at the middle school, and said the stress of making sure he was doing the right things to ensure the safety of the students and staff involved in the extracurricular activities is high.

“I think for teachers it feels overwhelming because there’s so many unknowns and teaching in two different capacities at once is more work and more stressful,” Amende said.

Transition to full in-person learning

Despite the recent surge in virus cases, the Bozeman School Board is moving forward with its approved transition dates to full in-person learning for the three school levels.

Prekindergarten to fifth grades are scheduled to open fully to in-person learning on Nov. 2. Middle schools will join at the start of the second trimester, or Nov. 23, and high schools will transition the start of the second semester, or Jan. 25.

Bob Connors, superintendent of the district, said it has been a hard time on teachers and administrators, especially now as they move toward the next phase of reopening.

“We’re trying to not only alleviate our teachers fears but we have to acknowledge that when we go into a situation that’s unknown, we’re going to have those fears,” Connors said.

He said helping students keep up with the work during mandatory quarantines is another level the district is working out and if it would “add that layer to the teachers work load.”

“It’s very stressful,” Connors said. “It’s very anxiety producing as we move into the next phase.”

Most of the teachers declined to comment on whether or not they preferred the blended model of learning, continuing with the transition plan or going 100% remote, instead focusing on how important it is to have students in classes no matter the length of time.

But all of them stressed how crucial Wednesdays — when all students learn remotely — have become for their class planning and student support.

“I do love having this time on Wednesday to work with the kids who need the support,” said Cara Evans, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Sacajawea Middle School. “It’s allowing me to prepare, get kids graded, give feedback, with my team, and answer parent and student questions.”

Evans, who is teaching middle school for the first time this year, said it’s been a challenging couple of months. She previously taught a few years at the elementary-level.

“I’m enjoying the year and the small class sizes give me the opportunity to really give feedback to each student and understand where they’re at, what their challenges are,” she said. “It allows me more time to be able to support them in ways that when you have a class size of 30 kids, it doesn’t work.”

An added complication for teachers is learning how to teach from mandatory quarantine to students in the classroom and remote, while navigating substitute teacher shortages across the district.

Amende, who was in quarantine when reached earlier this month, said the shortage of substitutes means she has a half-day sub in the afternoon and a fellow teacher helps to cover the morning classes.

“I have all the pieces they need and load lessons and content into Canvas,” she said. Canvas is the online learning management system the district rolled out in August.

Tami Phillippi, president of Bozeman Teachers Association, declined to be interviewed for this story but did provide a short written statement.

“The only thing I know for sure about all teachers right now is that they are working extremely hard and are trying to meet the needs of all their students,” Phillippi wrote to the Chronicle.

New contract negotiations are expected to begin in January between the school district and the teachers association, as the collective bargaining agreement will expire soon.

Shockley, who has three kids of her own, said teachers have high expectations of themselves, and despite the high stress level, she’s proud of how her fellow teachers across the district have handled the challenges and changes.

“I just hope parents know that teachers are working really, really hard for their children because we love them and we want the best for them,” she said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.