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'How much more can we take?': Pandemic and politics takes a toll on Bloomington-Normal teachers

District 87 school board member Elizabeth Fox Anvick said the constant barrage of insults and misinformation delivered at school board meetings has worn her down emotionally.
Emily Bollinger
District 87 school board member Elizabeth Fox Anvick said the constant barrage of insults and misinformation delivered at school board meetings has worn her down emotionally.

The McLean County League of Women Voters hosted a virtual discussion Wednesday focused on the challenges facing educators during the pandemic.

Panelists described how the isolation caused by the pandemic has delayed children's social and emotional learning, leading to so many more fights. The vice president for the Bloomington-Normal chapter of the NAACP, Carla Campbell-Jackson, said the agency is working with Bloomington High School administrators to develop a conflict resolution mentoring group in response to fighting that has occasionally erupted.

At least one conservative radio station has posted videos of those fights as part of an effort to back a nationwide messaging campaign to attack local school boards for pitting students against each other by teaching critical race theory. (CRT is an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in American institutions.)

Suzie Hutton, a Bloomington Junior High School teacher, said she is proud of the mature way students attending school board meetings have advocated for their needs in the face of loud adults who seemed more focused on repeating the talking points of some national campaign. She believes those protests represent a vocal minority.

“The district is being very supportive of the work we’re doing with identity and diversity and being culturally responsive, and the community by and large is supportive of it too because I’ve been very open about everything we’re doing. I keep reminding our teachers: We can’t stop representing the voices of our students, the experiences of our students, because of a few people at board meetings who don’t want that.”

Adjusting to being back in the world

The lack of civility is something so many children and adults are re-learning as they adjust to being back in community with others, and Hutton says that reality is not only impacting schools, but every sector of public life where civility seems the exception to the norm. Hutton said this year, she is struggling with so many students who are in and then out of the classroom, and more often out, due to the need to isolate due to a COVID-19 exposure, or for a variety of reasons.

“All the things that worked with Google Classroom last year when we were remote are not working when kids are in and out. When they’re out, they’re out. So they’ll come back after a 10-20 day absence and say, ‘So what did I miss?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh boy’ and I try to highlight the big stuff.”

Social media is also having a much bigger impact on the way kids act in school, according to Hutton.

“I’m really trying to help kids who are very interactive with social media and they come back into community and they are very, very agitated and animated about that. I’m trying to give them spaces to talk. That’s something I think about.”

She and other teachers are grateful school administrators haven’t focused on learning loss, but rather skills students have acquired while learning from home. Hutton points out a lot of kids were providing family care, and she marveled at how some students who pre-pandemic struggled with minor tasks, but they’re now tackling complicated schedules and managing various changes.

District 87 school board member Elizabeth Fox Anvick praised the staff, specifically food service employees, who distributed 1 million meals throughout the community during the time when schools were shut down. But she said the constant barrage of insults and misinformation delivered at school board meetings has worn her down emotionally. She pointed out that school board members now have police officers escort them to their cars, and she always makes sure to walk into meetings with more than one person.

Anvick has also told her children not to randomly answer the door at home because of hostilities and she has security cameras rolling 24/7. Moderator Camille Taylor, a former Normal Community High School counselor, responded, “Not exactly what you signed up for?” Taylor added, “It makes me so sad to know that we’ve come to this.”

Taylor said it will be important for the McLean County League of Women Voters to educate the community about candidates for upcoming school board races in District 87 and Unit 5.

“There will be strategically and purposefully many more people running for spots that may or may not have the mission and intent of serving children,” she said.

While admitting March through October 2020 was a tough time, Kingsley Junior High Principal Stacie France said her staff consistently innovated and found a new way to do things. Guided by the school’s mission and values, they focused on priorities of comforting and helping families, even sending staff into the neighborhoods of feeder schools to make sure needs were met.

She cited as an example, staff members who delivered food to a student who lived in a one bedroom apartment and his mother came down with COVID-19.

“The parent was in the bedroom isolated and we were bringing food to the family and dropping the food outside and having the kid come outside and talk to us. We were frankly not really worried about that child’s schoolwork. We were worried about lovin’ on that kid and loving him right through it and once they got through it, then we were going to be able to help him get back to school.”

When schools were forced to switch to remote learning, YWCA McLean County helped out essential workers who needed to go to work and couldn’t be with their child to guide at-home learning. Teachers from its Young Wonders program for school-age kids led small classrooms in daily activities that included social-emotional learning, e-learning support, free tutoring and other structured activities both on site and at some school locations.

Melissa Breeden, vice president for education and curriculum for the YWCA, said those students who couldn’t learn at home would often get a boost when one of their teachers would stop by the YWCA and offer encouragement for their off-site but not-at-home student.

Social-emotional learning was so important and Breeden says those efforts were helped by a grant from the John M. Scott Health Care Commission which offered increased wellness grants to support schools and their partners. New immersive and physical activities could be added to keep kids from becoming bored or anxious.

When virtual learning began, Breeden says some of the kindergarten-aged kids were so confused and didn’t understand what happened to friends. One little girl had a meltdown and Breeden intervened.

“Turned out that she just missed her friends – the friends that she saw every single day. So, I was able to coordinate a really quick Zoom meeting. It was adorable and she felt so much better after so again, focusing on making those connections happen because we are human and we need those connections to keep going.”

Finding the upsides

Not all students were challenged by remote learning. In fact, Normal Community High School student Bradley Jackson seemed to thrive. Before heading off to practice for his performance in the school play “A Raisin in the Sun,” Jackson offered up his Top 5 positive aspects of having to learn from home during the pandemic.

Among the bonuses was learning all of the applications in the Google suite.

“I’m ready for any job in the corporate world,” he cheerfully shared.

He also believes it made him more agile and willing to embrace change, another trait he thinks will serve him well throughout life. However, when pressed, he did admit that going back to the classroom was better because it was easier to build relationships and not have to worry about technical glitches with Chromebooks.

Amaya Hursey spent her sophomore year at Normal West high school learning remotely. At first, she liked it. Hursey admits she has some social anxiety and she initially enjoyed being home with her new pandemic puppy. But as time wore on she felt trapped in her room and longed for a different environment for learning.

“Not being able to interact with other kids was a downfall for me and not being able to understand another perspective, especially in English class. When we had Socratic discussions, it was very hard to hear the other students so I wasn’t able to relate and add onto what they were saying,” Hursey said.

Hursey says she also struggled with geometry because the teacher had difficulty with the technology and as a visual learner, Hursey wasn’t able to see how the instructor solved problems.

After some initial anxiety about returning to the classroom, Hursey says she’s been able to have one-on-one time with teachers and build relationships, something that has also helped improve her grades.

Updated: December 16, 2021 at 8:32 PM CST
This story has been updated from its original version to remove a quotes from a McLean County teacher. The teacher told WGLT they were not aware the event was public and potentially reported on by the media. A League of Women Voters leader said panelists were not informed that the media might cover the event.
Colleen Reynolds was a correspondent at WGLT. She left the station in 2023.