After dealing with COVID-19, Springfield teachers find ‘blessings’ in life

Author: Steven Spearie – State Journal Register

Date: November 25, 2020

Corina Ousley said it was “a blessing” how she and her family got through bouts with COVID-19 this summer.

There were for Ousley, a fifth-grade teacher at Dubois Elementary School, days of agony, including chronic fatigue and a precarious loss of taste and smell.

Ousley lost a second cousin, with whom she was close, to COVID-19.

The experience helped re-orient Ousley, who is more intentional in her relationships with her husband, James, a security officer at HSHS St. John’s Hospital, and her children.

It also set her toward building a stronger relationship with her father.

“This is definitely a time,” Ousley said, “for me to give more thanks to God for sparing my life, my family’s life and just recognizing that every day you live is a precious moment.”

Ousley and others who suffered the effects of COVID-19, like Gina Ryan Romer of Springfield, are celebrating Thanksgiving in different ways this year.

Absent are houses full of people in Ousley’s case, they would rent out a church hall to accommodate crowds and far-flung travel. Both will celebrate the day with only immediate family.

Gratitude will be on the plate.

“I am so thankful, obviously for my family and my friends and my students and my job,” said Romer, who oversees the School Within A School, a program for students with behavioral problems or anxiety, at Grant Middle School. “It’s definitely going to be bittersweet, though, because of the coronavirus. While it makes me more thankful and appreciative for these things in my life, it’s keeping me from seeing some of those people and family in my life.”

Different symptoms Romer experienced, including severe fatigue, headaches, body aches, pain behind my eyes, a slight cough and loss of taste and smell, lasted about six weeks. Romer said she is still dealing with brain fog three months after being diagnosed.

Romer admitted she was upset and scared and resorted to making a video of herself describing her symptoms.

“I was thinking, what if I do end up in the hospital and I don’t come back out?” Romer said. “It was scary for awhile.”

For people to scoff at or downplay COVID-19 is reckless, Romer said. A friend of Romer’s is in the hospital on a ventilator with COVID-19. Another good friend lost her brother to the virus.

Several weeks ago when Romer and her husband, Mike, were eating at a restaurant, they both put their masks on when a server approached their table.

“She said, ‘You don’t need to put your masks on. It’s OK. I’m not worried about it. It’s nothing more than a cold anyway,’” Romer recalled. “I said, ‘actually, it is more than a cold for some people and I’ve had it.’ You could tell she was taken back.

“It might be just a cold for you, but if you contaminate someone else, it could be way worse than a cold for them.”

Like Romer, Ousley said multiple members of her household had the virus, although she said her husband and 11-year-old daughter’s cases were much milder.

Ousley also had MRSA, a staph infection, at the time she tested positive for COVID-19. That was about a week before school started, said Ousley, who had already signed up to teach students remotely.

“It wasn’t that, oh, we’re above this, we can’t catch it,” Ousley said. “We’re the type of people, pre-COVID, who were adamant about keeping things clean. I’ve always driven around with sanitizer, wipes, tissues and paper towels in the car. We did that anyway because I’m a mom.”

Ousley said the loss of her 52-year-old cousin in the Metro East area from COVID-19, just before she was diagnosed, was difficult.

Ousley called him “the optimistic one in the crowd, a happy, upbeat person.” Some 48 hours after he was released from the hospital, Ousley said her cousin was gone.

“People who say it’s a hoax will never truly understand the pain and the hurt that comes from not only having it and having to derail your own plans, but losing a family member,” Ousley said. “I’ll never get my cousin back.”

Ousley said she has always taught her students to live with a purpose, to plan, but ultimately to adapt and to be resilient in life.

She is following that same path.

“We all say we’re grateful for health and strength and life and family, but you see the numbers of people not coming home to their families because they were impacted by this very same virus that could have taken your life,” Ousley said. “It makes you grateful for having a purpose in life, understanding who you are and understanding that your life impacts not just the people you live with, but your sphere of influence in the community.

“Every moment I have an opportunity to wake up and be with my children and my husband and my family members and even teaching my students, it is an absolute pure blessing.”

Contact Steven Spearie at 622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com or twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

As district takes ‘test run,’ working parents search alternative places for students

By Steven Spearie
The State Journal-Register

Posted Aug 31, 2020 at 6:51 PM
Tiffany Mathis acknowledged that parents are having to make tough decisions, especially since the School District 186 board of education voted to start with an all-remote model, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We knew there would be a huge need for parents who are working or whatever their unique situation is to have a safe place for their kids to be,” said Mathis the CEO and executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois. “There’s a lot going on right now, so we’re just trying to best meet the needs of people in the community.”

Mathis said the Boys & Girls Clubs’ main facility at 300 South 15th Street is enrolling a maximum of 75 students from kindergarten through 12th grade for all-day learning.

Mathis said she hoped to see its eight other sites housed in District 186 schools around the city open up in the next couple of weeks, possibly for all-day learning.

Monday marked the first school day for District 186 students, though it was more of an opportunity to test drive some technology and have Zoom meetings with teachers.

There were orientation sessions for new sixth graders and and ninth graders, with Franklin Middle School reporting an 80 percent virtual turnout, according to Superintendent Jennifer Gill.

Gill, who tested positive for COVID-19, marked her last day of quarantine yesterday.

Monday marked the first day back to classrooms for Ball-Chatham students through eighth grade who chose the hybrid/blended model. Glenwood High School students are starting the academic year remotely.

The eight sites, Mathis said, were typically open after school for three to four hours last fall and enrolled between 900 and 1,300 students.

“We’re looking to set an opening date here shortly,” said Mathis, who is also the subdistrict 5 representative on the board of education. “We’re continuing to work with (District 186) about how we can best support students in the district and families by having our programs in the school buildings.

“Once they let us know how much space we actually have to work with, then we’ll be able to set enrollment numbers based on how much space we have so we can follow social distancing practices.”

Another day camp option, Children’s Corner, which was being run by the Springfield Park District, was postponed. The camp for kids ages five through 12 focused on “remote learning and creative play,” according to a description from its website.

An assistant director of recreation for the Park District didn’t immediately return inquiries from The State Journal-Register.

Gill characterized Monday as a bit of a test run for Tuesday when synchronous, or live remote learning begins.

“It was designed to be a check-in, to make sure we’re getting our technology glitches worked through and to make sure we had any questions family had answered,” Gill said.

The superintendent also praised district teachers “for the work they’ve done over the summer, but especially over the last two weeks intently to get prepared for today.”

Kevin Simonson of Springfield, whose daughter is a freshman at Springfield High School, said he thought some of the communication from teachers could have been clearer.

“People need lists, people need simple things, people need little breakdowns of this is what you need to do and this is where you need to do it and this is when you need to do it by,” Simonson said. “That said, we’re asked to temper all of this because none of us has really done this before.

“The level of organization that has to take place inside the entire hierarchy of the administration and support staff and teachers and parents is just a massive undertaking. By and large, things worked today. There was confusion and a little frustration, but I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to engage in some productive learning.”

Aaron Graves, president of the Springfield Education Association, said teachers still had plenty of questions over the weekend about how things were going to work and how well things were going to come together before Tuesday.

“Make no mistake, teachers are excited about being back with students, even if it is remotely,” Graves said. “But it’s like starting a marathon with your shoelaces not quite tied correctly.

“The telltale sign is how parents and students feel about it tomorrow.”

Mathis of the Boys & Girls Clubs said its summer program would usually attract about 125 students, but this time it was limited to about 30 students because of COVID-19, though operated with the same number of staff members, around 15.

The main facility can hold pods of students in the gym which is normally used for the summer session, so Mathis said she expected the 75 slots to be filled by next week.

“We already knew,” Mathis said, “the community voice was pretty loud about, hey, I work three jobs, I’ve got multiple kids in different schools. I can’t manage this. We knew we would have to step in like we always do and ease the burden on families.

“We want to as helpful to parents as possible. The need is real for families.”

Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/stevenspearie.

Commentary: Remote learning expectations rigid, unrealistic

By Emelie Cherrone
Posted at 1:30 PM
I write to you as a teacher with District 186, a family with a student in district, and a concerned citizen. The last semester was stressful and frustrating at times for everyone involved. We were (and still are) learning the ins-and-outs of “Remote Learning” together. Now, as we all prepare for returning to school, I beg of you to encourage the school board to reconsider the district’s plan concerning daily Zoom requirements for its classrooms. This expectation is too rigid and unrealistic for the teachers, students, and families.

Currently, for the first semester everyone will be learning remotely. I was very relieved at this decision, but I had already planned on being remote due to a childcare issue. Many district families are experiencing the same struggle. Affordable childcare was a crisis before COVID, and now it has only increased the issues. On a personal level, I worry about being able to handle constant Zooms, my children, and our household. As an advocate for my students, I am extremely worried that this will unfairly affect a large amount of our students on the lower half of the socioeconomic scale. Young students may find themselves in new, unfamiliar environments to their learning, such as in a daycare, with other family members, or friends. Our older students may find themselves the daily caregivers of younger siblings, having to balance their education with helping their siblings.

I also worry that this rigid schedule will punish our working students. Last year I have students on many occasions tell me that they missed school in order to go to work. Their families counted on their income. The pandemic has brought about some of the largest levels of unemployment our country has ever seen. A more flexible schedule (but still rigorous) would allow these students to keep up with their academics during the time they feel they can focus most.

Before learning of the required Zoom times, I had planned on a large amount of my lessons and discussions to be completed by my students asynchronously, or not at the same time. This would have been achieved mostly with a video message board app. This app gives me the capability to edit the video and film it at a convenient time without my kids interrupting. This also gives my students time to craft/edit their response back to me and each other. The feedback from my students last spring was that they didn’t feel as anxious working this way vs. live video sessions. I did plan on having Zoom office hours where I would be available to help anyone having issues on a more one-to-one basis.

This district has invested quite a sum of money into the professional development opportunities it has offered its teachers. I have been fortunate to attend some great workshops and learned valuable information to implement in my classroom. I implore our community to encourage the Board Members to give those of us teaching the flexibility needed to provide the best class environment for our student to reach their highest potential for the upcoming and unprecedented school year. We aren’t trying to get out of teaching our students, just making it accessible to all.

Emelie Cherrone lives in Springfield and teaches at Springfield High School.Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.51.48 PM

Twas the Night Before Remote

SEA Members,

Twenty six year old, Sri Lankan author Thisuri Wanniarachchi wisely said, “Life is at its best when everything has fallen out of place, and you decide that you’re going to fight to get them right, not when everything is going your way and everyone is praising you.”

On the eve of what will prove to be the most challenging educational year that any student, parent or educational professional may ever experience, many are undoubtedly feeling uncertain about the pathway that lies at our doorstep. The concepts and skills that we are grappling with, the information gaps that we are managing, and the tension and uncertainty of everything as you, our educational professionals, portray a picture of confidence and provide comfort for your students.

On the front page of the Sunday State Journal Register, yet another absolutely positive piece about our Springfield 186 professionals titled, Teachers, families prepare for remote learning with creativity; urge ‘latitude and grace’. It showcased Harvard Park Elementary first grade teacher, Allison Acker and the great lengths that she has gone to already to turn a year from tragedy into terrific. It provides a close up look at the manner in which she has connected with her parents and unique and exciting delivery of remote learning opportunities provided for her students. It also shone a positive light on Owen Marsh Elementary teacher, Nicolette Harris, who has shown particular electronic prowess helping guide students, parents and colleagues alike, saving many of us from our own fears and anxieties as our remote learning Joan of Arc. What a story of success and bonding between educational professionals and the community.

This week will be a story of success for your students too, with YOU as their hero once again. It may never reach the news desk of the local paper, or be immortalized in national news like grand stories around pajamas, but we know that you will be doing the work and doing it damn well. We will all assuredly make mistakes, hit hypothetical walls of resistance, or want to throw in the towel at some point. But remember, this has always been the burden that educators and professionals working in this arena have always carried. This year is just a little bit more. But we can do it.

On board with us this 2020-21 school year, nearly 60 new teachers and social workers in our ranks… many brand new to the profession. This year, more than ever, we need to pay particular attention and look out for them. In doing so, we look out for ourselves, and we empower our schools and make our organization stronger. As the old African proverb says, “It takes a village.” Let this year be the year that we make every new educator, educational professional and educational support professional feel welcome and part of our family.

Your SEA family members who have ground away at the impact bargaining table this summer have managed to negotiate a myriad of things to better support you, your students and your families, as we all begin this educational journey into the unknown. We know that you hoped negotiations to be complete to bring you improved assurance, however, we have not yet finished this arduous task. Know for a fact that nothing we are engaged in is preventing answers from being presented to you though. In fact it has been key in developing answers and solutions to help the District better navigate this uncertain summer and the road ahead this school year, and answers to some of your most pressing concerns and tentative contractual agreements are soon to materialize.

Finally, in the wake of a tragic, racially and politically charged summer, it must be acknowledged that things have changed for us and for our students. There is no looking back. We will have to engage in discussions around race with our colleagues, our students and our communities and they will be difficult. We will need to look carefully at candidates from school board to President and engage in discussions around which are truly aligned and best for public education. But through it, we will become healthier for each other and better for our students as we lean into it like the brave professionals that we are.

Through all of this, your union leadership is prepared to take the lead and to bear some of this weight, and to help you, your schools and your students as you need. You are not alone in this. We are together. We are strong. We are a union.

Aaron Graves
President – Springfield Education Association