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Monday, October 26, 2020

The Balancing Act

How teachers talk to their students about COVID-19, express honest feelings, ease anxiety, and balance it all.

Erika Goler and Amanda Katsilis, wearing colorful face masks and sitting six feet apart in their classroom, are catching their breaths. Amid the pandemic fatigue, everyone feels the added pressure. Even if the work itself remains the same, how we perform that work has changed.

The JB Akron Intervention Specialists co-teach Akron’s oldest students. They’re tired, but smiling. Even on the most difficult days of this uncommon year, they exercise JB’s trademark growth mindset to push forward. In fact, Goler and Katsilis say that they’re incredibly grateful to be here, in-person, teaching the kids they have come to love.

“We have friends who teach in the public school system who are virtual right now,” said Katsilis. “They’re stressed. They miss their kids. We’re so lucky to be here, in the building.”

Luck, prayers, and the seriousness with which JB faculty, staff, students, and families are taking JB health and safety protocols, are the reasons that Julie Billiart Schools can remain open while others have gone completely virtual. JB’s small class sizes and ample space for social distancing have kept cases at bay. But whether in the classroom or at home, many teachers are putting in extra effort to keep the ship afloat.

The pair have both virtual and in-person students, as Julie Billiart Schools have given parents a choice between the formats for the first two quarters of the school year. Their goal, like that of all JB teachers, is to give students in both formats the best education possible. Aside from academics, they strive to make their students feel safe and supported.

It’s important that JB students know their teachers understand them and their struggles. Goler and Katsilis ease uncertainty by talking about what’s going on in the world in an age-appropriate way.

“We’re really honest with our kids because they’re older,” said Katsilis. “We can talk with them about our lives and families. We can empathize with them when they’re sad about not being able to see their friends because of COVID. We tell them about our own kids, who haven’t been out in months.”

Goler added that being a positive light in their lives and having as much fun as possible helps ease anxiety.

“We’re (Amanda and I) the loudest people in the room. We’re here every single day. We’re always hyping our students up,” said Goler. “We’re having fun, but we’re also being open and honest with them to build a relationship so that they feel comfortable coming to us.”

The pair are celebrating Halloween “more than they typically would” in the classroom this year because they know that many of their kids won’t be able to go trick-or-treating. They spend time outside every day and embrace chances to move. They’re taking time to ask their students how they feel, and striking the incredible balance of soothing nerves while wearing masks.

Goler said that of course their kids are nervous about COVID. She and Katsilis help bridge a gap and create context around how serious the virus can be, while helping kids to not feel afraid. She said the students are nervous that what happened in the spring - a state-wide school shut down - could happen again. JB students enjoy the routine of their school day, and they like being together in the classroom.

The pair try to help their students focus their energy and attention on the present. Even students who used to complain or pout about having to get up early to come to school now feel more grateful for the classroom.

“Sometimes if they’re having a hard day, they say they want to go home. But they don’t. Now they realize they don’t,” said Goler. “They know that if they’re not here, in-person, they miss out on art and recess. They don’t get those special extra moments.”

Though both students and teachers are grateful for the option to come to school, some families simply can’t because of extenuating health or medical circumstances in their home. Goler and Katsilis understand this and make sure their virtual learners feel included and are seeing success at home. JB’s virtual learning specialist, Josh Mozzocco, helps to make the technical aspect of virtual learning a reality. He supports all of our teachers, students, and families with the many new challenges that come with a virtual school option.

“It’s all about communication with our kids - in school and out of school,” said Katsilis. “We’re a team. And the parents are a part of our team, just as much as anyone else. I feel like we have even more communication with parents since COVID started.”

She doesn’t just mean more communication with the families who chose virtual learning. Both Goler and Katilis believe that, out of all the negative that has come from the virus, one shining positive is how it has brought the JB community together.

“I think all of our eyes have been opened to what the other has to deal with,” said Katsilis. “I think that virtual learning in the spring gave parents a better understanding of the challenges we face as teachers. It also gave us a better understanding and appreciation for our parent community.”

Both teachers agree that their students and students’ parents have made the experience so successful. Goler said that, before returning to school in-person, she was nervous about how much of a positive effect she could have on students while wearing a mask. She and Katsilis were concerned that their students would struggle with technology or that they would have lost a substantial amount of progress made in the previous year.

“To see the kids making such obvious progress in the face of all this uncertainty is amazing,” said Goler. “They’re really doing great.”

And if we have to move to virtual learning again at some point, as a state or a nation?

“We’ll be ok,” they agreed. “We will get through it like we did in the spring. We would make the best of it.”

Knowing that their students are safe and healthy and having their academic and social needs met is enough for Goler and Katsilis. They sanitize their hands and stretch their minds. When they leave for the day, they remove their masks and breathe deeply. They drive home to their own families and their own children, who have spent the day in distance learning. They thank God for all the educators and parents across the country who must work as a team to help our kids through this time. They rest well knowing that - like they tell their students - tomorrow is a new day to learn.

open-quote Julie Billiart Schools gave us hope after our daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability. At JB, she thrived in the small classes, received necessary therapies, and developed the self-confidence to ask for help when she needed it. close-quote

JB Parent

open-quote I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words how grateful I am that you saw my daughter for all that she is today and all that she is yet to become. close-quote

Tammie Sommer

open-quote Julie Billiart Schools has helped my child become a better version of himself. The teachers and therapists at JB really know and understand how to reach children who learn differently. close-quote

JB Parent

open-quote They have all the resources necessary, specialized to the individual learning of each child, and the heart that goes with it. I don't think we would have stayed in Ohio if it wasn't for JB! close-quote

JB Parent

open-quote My kids love everything about JB and look forward to going to school every day and seeing their friends and teachers. JB is truly a one of a kind school enriching young lives everyday. close-quote

JB Parent

open-quote All of the teachers and staff at JB are patient and willing to take the extra time to make sure we, as parents, understand and are comfortable. close-quote

JB Parent

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