With COVID-19 restrictions loosened, 2 primary school teachers reflect on the beginning of a “normal” year

A small group of Upper Blue Elementary kindergarteners fidget while seated in an oval on the rug of school classroom. Their multicolored mesh and rubber sneakers smush under their knees as they settle into their crisscross-applesauce positions as instructed. 

Teacher Courtney Laszlo grabs a box that rattles with rainbow-colored animal figurines. 

As the children attempt to sit still, Laszlo explains the next in-class activity.  When a child answers a prompt correctly, her face brightens. If a child doesn’t understand, her face falls into a more concerned expression and she nods until they get it right. 

Laszlo said the hardest part about COVID-19 restrictions was the lack of facial interaction she got to have with her kids. As she did with the kindergarteners in the circle, Laszlo finds emotional expression to be an important part of teaching.

For the 2022-23 school year, however, COVID-19 restrictions have been rolled back. Both Laszlo and one of her coworkers, Kerry Bergstrom, are grateful for the normalcy. 

For the past two years, teachers across the county made rapid adjustments in accordance with state and national health guidelines, all while keeping their student’s best interests in mind. 

But this year, protocols are the least restrictive they’ve been since the coronavirus pandemic started.

Bergstrom, a first grade teacher at Upper Blue Elementary, has taught at Upper Blue for over 20 years. Though she’s a seasoned veteran, Bergstrom said COVID-19 took a toll. 

“What was really stressful was the spring of 2020, when we were told to stay home, and we had to teach remotely,” said Bergstrom. “That was hard. That was stressful.”

Bergstrom was previously a kindergarten teacher. Her job was to teach the fundamentals of being a student, so small things like reading, learning sounds, holding a pencil and counting were her specialty. 

All of these skills, however, require close contact and physical involvement from kindergarten teachers, Bergstrom explained. 

“It was very challenging, especially when you are trying to teach phonological awareness and phonics,” Bergstrom said. “When children learn to pronounce the sounds and words … being able to see a person’s mouth is really important.” 

Bergstrom said not only were children unable to learn the proper way to pronounce letters, the sound of the letters were also muffled by the fabric of their masks. 

Courtney Laszlo, a kindergarten teacher at Upper Blue Elementary School, assists a student with in-class work Thursday afternoon, Sept. 1, 2022. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Laszlo used to routinely be concerned about her and her students safety. Now, she gets to teach class without a mask and within a distance that can be helpful for students.
Eiliana Wright/Summit Daily News

Writing was also a problem. 

Bergstrom said she couldn’t help students hold a pencil correctly or point important images out on a piece of paper from behind the child as they sat in their seat. She had to sit across from them, trying to direct a student from the opposite calibration of left and right — a problem she didn’t expect to be so complicated. 

Making young children wear masks was a daily problem with her students, Laszlo said. Children are not as concerned with hygiene as adults, and they would often throw fits about wearing a mask, she said. 

Now, masks are not required in the school and teachers can interact with their students as they would before COVID-19.

However, students are required to wear a mask during school if they show symptoms or contract COVID-19. In that case — even though it cramps her teaching style — Laszlo wears one, too, so the student doesn’t feel left out. 

While the two teachers experienced many pitfalls and struggles during the pandemic, both have enjoyed getting back to normal. 

In the daily scheme of things, Bergstrom said she appreciates that the pandemic brought more awareness to the cleanliness and hygiene of their learning environment. 

She said teachers constantly wipe down desks and give children time to wash their hands. She also sees that masks are worn more often with common sicknesses. 

But one of the bigger, overarching changes the pandemic brought forth was the sense of community of teachers and administrators. 

Kerry Bergstrom, a first grade teacher at Upper Blue Elementary School, left, and Renée Bartnick, a first grade and special education teacher, right, review standards in Bergstrom’s classroom Thursday afternoon, Sept. 1, 2022. Bergstrom said during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though she could hear other teachers through the wall, she wouldn’t see them for days on end. She’s grateful that she gets to work as a team once again.
Eiliana Wright/Summit Daily News

Bergstrom and Laszlo have both worked for Upper Blue for around 20 years, teaching side by side as kindergarten and first grade teachers. 

“I missed her,” Bergstrom said about Laszlo. 

Though she could hear Laszlo through the wall in the next classroom over, the two weren’t able to see each other in person. “It was hard for everybody. Everybody was emotional. There was a lot going on in our community,” Bergstrom added. 

The silver lining, however, was the opportunity for teachers and administrators to intentionally connect, Bergstrom said. 

She gave Upper Blue Elementary Principal Robyn Sutherland credit for how much she cared for her teachers during that time period. Sutherland reportedly organized Morning Circles, a practice that brought teachers space to support one another. 

“Even if that meant all of us standing outside, 6 feet apart from each other on a freezing cold day in a circle on the playground, we at least got to see each other and say something positive to start our day.”

Bergstrom admits that the pandemic made it hard to be a teacher. But at the same time, she said, there was so much good to be learned through the hardship. 

“Our world is still unsettled,” Bergstrom said. “People are being affected in different ways, and I feel like it just makes you more empathetic to what other people are experiencing.”