VAUGHAN - Students at Vaughan Elementary School, home to pre-K through fifth grade, are rapidly approaching one year without in-school learning, with the 2020-21 school year scheduled to be completed entirely virtually because of COVID-19.

As vaccinations continue and a new presidential administration pushes for students to safely return to school, there is finally somewhat of an end in sight for an unprecedented and enlightening era in education that has left the staff at Vaughan Elementary with a new appreciation for the impact teachers can have on children’s lives.

Their students need them. And they need their students.

“I’m just now realizing how much we do as far as ... everything,” said Warren County native Amber Mills, who teaches first-grade reading.

Natoya Henry hails from the outskirts of the Jamaican capital of Kingston and found her way to Vaughan Elementary through a program that places foreign teachers at schools around the U.S.

“We are superheroes,” said Henry, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade reading. “We take on the mantle of flying a ship while it’s being built. We are learning along with them the platforms that they have to use and make sure they are able to use it effectively. We are on call all the time. Our school day never ends. We still make time even when we’re tired.”

Starting from scratch

Some degree of virtual learning had already become commonplace among older students before COVID-19 left online instruction the only option for schools. But for younger elementary students, particularly in areas like rural Warren County where internet connectivity or access to technology isn’t a guarantee, easing into virtual learning simply wasn’t a possibility.

Before teachers could actually venture into their curriculum, they had to teach their students the basics of learning remotely.

While some schools in Warren County were already designated to use Google platforms or programs for online supplements, Vaughan Elementary was not. The school, with an enrollment of 210 students, had only 88 Chromebooks when full-time virtual learning was implemented.

“Teaching them the process of how they turn their work in on the computer or something as simple as clicking and dragging,” Mills said. “Their motor skills are not there yet. At first, that was the biggest challenge, just getting them acclimated with the technology. And of course, it’s been really difficult with parents. It’s hard to give a 6 year old a zero because they didn’t complete an assignment, but really you know the parent did not log them onto the computer or help them do it.”

That’s another issue that makes elementary school teachers, especially, unique. They genuinely play a role in a child’s development. Students aren’t just learning a subject; they’re learning life basics like forming a line for bathroom or lunch breaks. Certain socialization skills like these can’t really be replicated online despite the teachers’ efforts to mimic a normal day of school as closely as possible.

“We cannot give the quality education they need when they’re at home,” said 10th-year Vaughan Elementary Principal Renee Mizelle. “We’ve got to have them back in the building. And I know for safety we need to be at home, but to give students what they need, I want them back in the building.”

Virtual obstacles

Kelly Allen, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade math, taught for more than 25 years in Roanoke Rapids before joining Vaughan a few years ago - yet the pandemic adjustments have left her feeling like a new teacher at times.

She goes to reach for her file cabinet and it’s not there.

“I can’t go to my normal resources,” Allen said. “I’m having to do research and find new ways so I can actually see the work the kids are producing and try to find where the need is or where the misunderstandings are so that I can provide help for them.”

And how do you teach math virtually, anyway?

Technology can be beneficial in that regard. Virtual interactive whiteboard platforms allow Allen to actually see her students working out a problem.

Still, Allen said it takes her about three times as long to plan a lesson for virtual learning as she searches for the tool that will best deliver her message.

The hardest part, Allen said, is having the students follow a schedule as if they were in the building.

Vaughan Elementary is only about 5 miles west of Littleton, but is remote in that there are no other schools nearby. Mizelle said the school was appreciative of frequent pre-COVID-19 donations from Littleton and Lake Gaston churches and businesses that supply the school with added resources.

“We’re in rural Warren County,” Allen said. “There’s some long dirt paths to get back to the house and there’s not internet back there.”

“The internet is the biggest challenge,” Mizelle added. “A child will get on and they can’t stay on because of the internet or they can’t complete an assignment. Or we can’t hear them or they can’t see us.”

Double duty

As if being a teacher during COVID-19 isn’t difficult enough, some Vaughan teachers like Mills, Henry and Jenny Leach also have young children at home to care for.

As teachers themselves, they know the vital roles parents have to play in their children’s virtual education. So in essence, they have double the work: teach their students and make sure their own children are following lesson plans.

“My son will be bringing me books to read him and I’m like, ‘No, not right now because I need to do this,’” Mills said.

“It has to be a calling, why we’re doing it, why we continue to do it,” Henry said. “I just hope that we will be more appreciated; we will be more supported.”

Leach, also a Warren County native, joined Vaughan after 14 years as a teacher on the North Carolina coast and now serves as the school’s instructional coach and multi-tiered system of supports and testing coordinator.

Her 9-year-old, third-grader Parker, is an example of an older elementary school student who did not struggle to adapt to virtual learning. He took the technology aspect in stride.

“It’s a big picture that a 9 year old doesn’t understand,” Leach said. “It has been really hard. So from a parent’s perspective, I’ve had to motivate in ways that I don’t think I’d have to do if he was in the building. His interaction with people in general is very limited. He has had no peer interaction other than with family.”

Missing out

Understanding the positive influences Vaughan Elementary accounts for in normal, non-COVID times can help illustrate some of the challenges online learning presents.

Vaughan Elementary is the only Global School, coordinated by Visiting International Faculty Education, in Warren County.

“When kids leave here, we want them to have the view that everybody is the same even though we’re not in the same place,” said Mizelle, who wants her students to be fluent in Spanish by the time they leave, “and that they are culturally aware of other places other than Littleton, North Carolina or Vaughan, North Carolina.”

International flags hang in the school’s hallway along with a world map, joined by South American fish and plants. In the library, clocks match with a corresponding continent’s time zone. Even Diane Colin’s music classes feature international flair.

Before COVID, the school hosted a sleepover so students could Skype with other children around the world.

These are the elements the Vaughan Elementary students miss the most; students that Mizelle believes are resilient. The school’s enrollment has only dropped by a few students in the pandemic and Vaughan has recorded an 80-percent success rate in completing online assignments.

The challenge when the students return, whenever that is, will be catching them up, particularly the young kindergarteners who never got to experience their first day of school.

“I hate that for them,” Mizelle said. “I wish they could have experienced coming to school for the first day, seeing your new classroom, seeing your new teacher, all the things that they get to do. The playing on the playground, going to lunch, getting your tray. They know nothing about any of that.”

And as much as the students have missed out, the teachers have too. Teachers like Mills have less time to teach reading and spend more time than they would like converting print worksheets to digital. Away from the classroom, they don’t get to experience the best part about being a teacher.

“I feel like when we’re in the building, our reward is being with the kids,” Mills said. “I can be having the most terrible day ever and the kids brighten your day. They make you smile. They help remind you of why you’re doing what you’re doing… I’ll just be glad to see them.”