Behind the Screens

The People Who Made Education Possible This Year

May 3, 2021

WHS Principal Mary Asfendis (Photo by Jacob Wendler)

Tiles of faces stare back through the screen, their disinterest and boredom unapologetically on display. 70 minutes stretch into hours as the teacher’s jokes fall flat and smiles falter while attempting to re-engage and teach distracted students. Their anxiety skyrockets as technology fails and schedules are thrown off track. It’s an occurrence that has become all too common for teachers with online classes: a group of disengaged students who are practically strangers. 

In the midst of the pandemic, no aspect of life has gone unaffected, and school is no exception. The impact of online school and new concerns within education have replaced many experiences and opportunities for students with excessive stress. However, students are not the only ones suffering during online school. Teachers are being forced to learn how to teach in the new and foreign digital and hybrid classroom where many normal methods of teaching are unsuccessful, and it’s become increasingly difficult to personally connect with students on individual levels. 

With this in mind, Optic set out to showcase how COVID-19 has affected WHS teachers and staff by getting the stories of their lives behind the screens and masks. In interviews with over a dozen WHS staff and teachers, the new stresses and pressures faced by teachers this year shine through, as well as does their perseverance, dedication and passion for teaching in spite of the unprecedented challenges this year.

WHS Math Teacher Scott Rutherford (Photo by Jacob Wendler)

This year’s circumstances have proven difficult for a number of teachers, placing them at a crossroads as they decided whether to teach in person or to teach from home.

Science Teacher Valentino Scipioni, who has been teaching from home, pointed out that students are unlikely to ask questions while they’re in breakout rooms, making it more difficult to help them compared to when students worked in lab groups in person and asked questions as he walked around the room.

Spanish Teacher Bonnie Underwood agreed, saying, “It’s just not feasible to think, ‘Okay, let me spend 10 minutes between each question, moving around all of the breakout rooms.’ So that creative aspect has suffered a little bit, whereas in person we can just do a quick shuffle.”

Underwood also explained that all-remote scheduling is difficult for her family, as she and her husband are both teachers and have four young children; while she taught from home the first semester to accommodate for her children, Underwood has been able to teach in person this semester.

For some teachers who currently teach in person, the missing aspects of school imposed by virtual education were a driving force behind their decision to return to the building.

“I’m not judging anyone else,” Science Teacher Judith McLoughlin assured, acknowledging the various reasons why some of her colleagues have chosen to teach from home. “It’s just that I think that it’s [more] structured to be in the building if I can be here. And I do want to have the contact with students when they’re there.”

“It’s been really nice to see everybody, and it’s just different,” said Underwood. “I laugh at the number of times I’ve said to students, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize you’re so tall!’”

“Coming into the building, I feel like it separates my work and home life a little bit so that I could be a better dad and be a better teacher,” said Math Teacher Scott Rutherford. “I think it’s important for me personally to have that distinction between the two. I do well in routines, and I thrive under them. I’m a creature of habit.”

Underwood shared a similar sentiment. “It’s been nice to be able to compartmentalize a little bit. I think naturally when you surround yourself with distractions, you know you’re going to get distracted. So when I hear my baby’s crying, or I hear one of my kids needs help, naturally my brain is being pulled in that direction. But when I’m fully at work, it is nice to be able to just focus on that.”

For other teachers, choosing to stay home was a tough but necessary personal choice.

“The reason that I decided to stay home was that my doctor suggested it because I had some lung issues,” said Scipioni. “And he says, ‘If you get [COVID-19], you could possibly die.’ So I said, well, do I go to school?”

Ultimately, Scipioni had to make a difficult decision in order to protect his health. “I didn’t want to take the chance of getting it because I’d like to be around for a little bit longer,” he said.

Whether they’ve decided to stay home or resume in-person instruction, WHS teachers are working hard to ensure that their students get the best education possible in these unfortunate circumstances.

“My philosophy is: Are you going to remember every detail that we do in class? Absolutely not,” said McLoughlin. “But [if] you’ve learned how to be interested in something, how to find out more information about it, how to research it, and you’ve had some fun, then it’s so much better that way.”

Regardless of whether a teacher leads the class from home or from school, they’re forced to navigate the world of hybrid school — and with it, an abundance of adaptations. 

Many typical teaching tools and methods are difficult or ineffective when moved online. For instance, labs are particularly difficult for science teachers to conduct online. “Labs are a unique situation that you have in science,” said Scipioni. “With labs, I try to make up data, or I try to get data from somewhere else. Or I’ll look for a virtual lab.” That being said, Scipioni acknowledged that virtual labs come with certain limits. 

As a result of challenges such as virtual labs, Scipioni says, “It’s taken me about five times the amount of time to do things. So sometimes I find myself up at three in the morning, trying to finish work up.”

WHS Choir Teacher John Brzozowski (Photo by Jacob Wendler)

The arts have been particularly challenged by online school and the many safety regulations of COVID-19. “This year has been challenging just because of the nature of what we do to create sound, put sound waves into the air and create this experience with everybody together, working together, next to each other,” said WHS Choir Teacher John Brzozowski. 

Christopher Vitale, a WHS band teacher, spoke about the same challenge. Until recently, students were not allowed to play instruments in school, so there were “students in the building who signed up for bands that couldn’t play an instrument as part of their class. We had to come up with other things related to music for them to do while they were in school, and then when they were at home, we could focus on playing their instrument,” said Vitale. 

However, in online class, “Only one person can be heard at a time because of the internet latency. If we all unmuted and tried to play, it would just be kind of a giant mess, so the first half of the year, we really focused on individual skills,” said Vitale. 

“That was really all that we could do, and we did some virtual performances,” he added, alluding to a virtual performance that the Wind Ensemble created, employing video and sound editors to cut together individual recordings from each student.

With these unique challenges in mind, “The main thing has been just trying to get the kids enthused about singing or enthused about our class in this new way,” said Brzozowski. “I feel incredibly grateful to be teaching in Westfield in a pandemic, as opposed to some other schools that may not have supported the arts the way that our district has,” he added. 

Similarly, physical education classes are grappling with a unique set of challenges. “In a regular non-COVID-19 year, it would be awesome to have a 70-minute phys-ed class,” said Ashley Nitto, a WHS physical education teacher. “But by limiting the equipment and the number of people that are there, it was like, okay, what are we going to do for 70 minutes?” 

Luckily, due to more research on COVID-19, Nitto said they’ve been able to use more equipment with the implementation of new sanitizing equipment and as a result, are beginning to play a variety of sports again. 

No matter the subject they teach, the student-teacher relationship has suffered immensely because of the challenging environment created by COVID-19 regulations. “The environment that I’m given is kind of inhibiting me from being the best teacher that I can be,” said Rutherford. “I have to ask [the students] for feedback because [they’re] the ones that are listening to me every day. And if I’m doing a terrible job, I would hope someone would tell me that.” 

Rutherford went on to point out that the difficulties of online education center around forming personal connections among students and staff. He said, “Many teachers, including myself, rely on the ability to work one-on-one with kids and see what they’re doing and look over their shoulder and watch them do math, and not being able to do that has been a challenge.” 

The concern for a student’s wellbeing and disappointment of not being able to notice it as readily as they can in person is echoed by many teachers. “I worry so much about what I can’t see,” said Underwood.

Underwood added that she often sees smiles “plastered on all the students’ faces, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them are just counting down the minutes until they can close the computer and go do any number of things–get back in bed, cry. I mean, I’m an adult, and I miss seeing my colleagues, so I can’t imagine [what it’s like] for students.” 

She explained that in her mind, high school is the place students begin to figure out their social lives, but “it just must be so hard,” Underwood said, “so I do think about that piece a lot, and it weighs on me. It’s so easy to ask ‘How are you doing?’, but… unless you’re willing to say: ‘You know what, we’re gonna scrap this period,’ and just give everyone 10 minutes to really honestly say how they’re feeling, it’s tough to gauge how the students are really doing.”

“But while there are disappointments, and not being in the classroom [is hard], I often think about how fortunate we are to have the accessibility to be learning virtually, whereas, in some districts, that’s not even the case,” said McLoughlin. “Some districts are really struggling. And… I think we’ve done an excellent job in terms of being able to kind of work the kinks out of the system.”

WHS Substitute Frank Brown (Photo by Jacob Wendler)

While a lack of personal connection has been one of the greatest challenges for many WHS teachers this year, Principal Mary Asfendis has had a different experience working in her capacity as principal this year. “The school is so big, so it’s impossible for a principal to know every kid,” said Asfendis. “But because the numbers are really small, I feel like I really do know the names of so many more kids that are in the building.”

That being said, Asfendis explained that her role has changed “in every possible way. I don’t think there’s anybody you could talk to in Westfield High School that would say their job is not significantly different than it has been.”

However, she feels that everyone at the school has put in a great deal of effort into making this year as rewarding as possible for WHS students. “I think that the teachers are working really hard,” she said, adding that the custodial staff has been particularly diligent this year too.

Many WHS teachers reciprocated this appreciation for the collaboration between the staff and the administration this year. 

“I think that Mrs. Asfendis and Dr. Dolan have really worked with people to… help them find a balance,” Rutherford said, “whether it’s allowing people to work remotely for health reasons or looking at the structure of the schedule to modify it so that we could have an afternoon where you could work from home so you could help your kids if you needed that as well.”

Despite this, both Asfendis and Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan emphasized the challenging decisions they’ve had to make this year, many of which have provoked backlash from large portions of the school community. 

Earlier this year, unhappy parents started a private Facebook group titled “Westfield Community Group for the Safe Return of Learners to Public School,” which attracted over 1,700 members, although it’s unclear how many were parents of students currently enrolled in Westfield public schools. The group was home to many impassioned conversations — and often arguments — about the extent to which Westfield schools should open. However, the page has since been archived and is no longer active on Facebook.

In an interview with Optic, Dolan explained that, when faced with backlash, she tries to understand the numerous perspectives of different people involved, especially now. “Everybody wants this to be over. We all want to be back to five full days where everybody goes to school, the way it used to be. Everybody wants that — I do, the teachers, the students, the parents. Except we still have to follow the guidelines from the medical community,” said Dolan.

In addition, Dolan explained that Westfield is one of the only large school districts in the state that has maintained hybrid instruction for the majority of this school year.

“In general, the smaller districts have been able to open more, because they’re smaller, and they can bring in the students and still be spaced,” she said, explaining that many families might wonder why their students aren’t attending school in person while their friends from other towns are. “So we’re aware of that, and we’re trying to pay attention. But it is different for every district and that’s a real challenge.”

Dolan explained that a variety of factors have to be considered when making decisions about how each school should be operating. One of the most important voices, she said, is that of the medical community, which often comes from Megan Avallone, Director of the Westfield Regional Health Department. 

“We’re very fortunate we have a good Regional Health Director,” said Dolan, referring to Avallone. “She is extremely knowledgeable, and if at any point I asked a question that she wasn’t sure of, she never guesses.”

Avallone said that her advice is generally shaped by guidance from the NJ Department of Health and the CDC. “If there is a situation that is not straightforward, I talk through the specifics with the school, my staff and the subject matter experts at the NJ Department of Health to determine the best path forward,” she said, answering questions from Optic late on a Tuesday night.

“It’s been tough!” she explained. “I have two young daughters, so I have a full home life too. There is lots of working late into the night and waking up before the sun to try and get everything done. I’m very thankful to caffeine, and it definitely helps that I love what I do.”

In addition to local, state and federal health officials, Dolan and Asfendis recognized the custodial staff and substitute teachers as vital to the success of the WHS hybrid plan. 

“The custodian’s job is significantly different than it used to be,” said Asfendis. “They’re walking around spraying [sanitizer] and making sure there are wipes and cleaning products in every classroom.”

Werner Wolf, head custodian at WHS, explained the intensive process of making sure the school is safe for in-person learning. “The night crew comes in at one o’clock,” he said. “The first thing they do is they go through all their classrooms and do the regular everyday stuff: the garbage, wipe down the desks, dust the window sills, wipe down the doorknobs, clean the glass. And then, when they’re all finished with that, the other crew comes in with the disinfectant.” He said the responsibilities of the school custodians this year have been “a lot more work, for sure.”

In a different way, the role of substitute teachers at WHS has also been altered this year. Frank Brown, who has worked as a substitute teacher at WHS for many years, pointed to his apparel as the most visible indicator of his new role.

WHS Head Custodian Werner Wolf (Photo by Jacob Wendler)

“First of all, look how I’m dressed,” he said, wearing jeans and a quarter zip sweater. “I never dress this way. For 17 years, I’ve been wearing a shirt, tie and jacket. But I realized with what’s going on, everyone knows that it’s a more casual atmosphere, and you’ve got to try to get them more relaxed.”

Brown reflected on his time at WHS, pointing out that his job normally consists of significant student interaction. Now, silently supervising a room of students with headphones in, he admitted that, “After a while, it makes you stir-crazy.”

“It’s not easy, and it’s not rewarding,” he added. “But okay, who asked for a reward? Right now, we’re all in this together.”

James McDonald, another WHS substitute teacher this year, has had a similar experience. “What it used to be was that they would leave a lesson plan for me, and in some classes, I would actually teach this stuff,” he said. 

Now, however, “There’s really not much more for me to do except to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” That being said, McDonald said he’s “happy to do it.”

As for many people, almost every aspect of the WHS staff’s lives have been drastically changed by COVID-19, and many parts of “normal life” have been lost, but one thing that remains consistent is their passion for helping students and their determination to succeed in the midst of new changes and rising demands.

So even as the tiles of disengaged faces line teacher’s screens, teachers will continue to work to discover new ways to connect with students and make the best of the current situation. At the end of the day, both sides of the student-teacher relationship have had to face new struggles and challenges this year. But WHS is strong and will continue to persevere and grow through the challenges of the pandemic with the help of its dedicated teachers and staff. 

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