On a given school day, half of the middle and high school students in Alexandria are in class while the others are at home. They are divided by last name and alternate days between distance and in-person learning.

While in the school, students must wear a mask and attempt social distancing. At home, kids attend classes virtually at the same time as they would if they were in schools.

Teachers are now conducting classes with half of their students in person while the other half are on the computer.

"It's very hard to recognize kids when they have a mask on, even in my classes," ninth grade math teacher Tyson Swaggert said. "Then, when they are at home, I don't even know who they are on the screen. I know it's what we have to do and that we are doing the right thing, but there's a lot of challenges this year. I think it's gotten easier teaching in the hybrid method, but it doesn't feel normal."

At the high school level, students and teachers have four classes. When the district went to distance learning last spring, classes were staggered every other day. Now, they go to the same classes every day, but there's fewer of them. Swaggert is thankful for this because it allows some ability to build personal connections with his students.

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"It would've been impossible to build those relationships if we had a normal class load," Swaggert said. "I've been an educator for 15 years, and this has been the hardest time trying to get to know kids. There are no facial expressions, and you don't realize how much non-verbal communication there is until you don't have it. We're getting better at it, but the facemask is like a muzzle, and the kids don't want to talk as much."

At Discovery Middle School, students have a nine-period class day, with one of those periods being a 30-minute lunch period. Other than lunch, students are in different classes with different teachers throughout the day.

"For our class periods in a day, teachers have class for 45 minutes with a four-minute passing time between class," seventh grade English teacher Mackenzie Doherty said. "When students are moving from one class to the next, teachers have four minutes to mop 18 desks and chairs and then go back over the 18 desks and chairs with a microfiber cloth while new students are filing into our classrooms. At the same time, we have to start a virtual meeting for the students who are at home that day."

The time between classes is one of the hardest adjustments for teachers in high school and middle school. The sanitation requirements limit the accessibility teachers have to help students with questions in the curriculum.

"We don't have the time in our schedule to reach out to students and families as we did before," Doherty said. "I know many teachers are struggling trying to give 100% of ourselves to our kids in our in-person classes, while also giving 100% of ourselves to our distance learning students at the same time. It's in teacher's blood to want the best for our students, and this balancing act is draining mentally, physically and emotionally on us because we constantly feel like we aren't doing the best for one group of students."

"Teachers are at school every day teaching to students at home and online at the same time," Doherty said. "Many are working overtime to make ends meet for our students and be the best teachers we can possibly be in this model."

Even with the Safe Start learning model's challenges, there's a sense of relief to have the students in person in some capacity.

"Last spring, when we switched, I knew all my students so well, personally, and their learning style," Doherty said. "I was nervous about getting a new 140 students and have to try and get to know them all through a screen. To be the best teacher for students, you need to build a strong relationship with them. I feel lucky that we have been able to do that this past month."

Pulling positives

The saying, "Iron sharpens iron," is more prevalent in the Alexandria School District now than ever. Teachers and students are growing beyond the curriculum and learning from a challenging life experience.

"Many people worry about the gaps students will have because of this time, but I think of all the growth they are experiencing," Doherty said. "I think this time has taught students to be adaptable, to connect differently, to be problem solvers, to take ownership in their own learning, to be their own IT support, to write well-crafted emails to be empathic and to feel a sense of gratitude."

"Students are learning things they can't get in a textbook, but are skills that are so important for their future. I am just so proud of the students at DMS and the positive spirit they bring into the building each day. They are what keep us teachers going day in and day out."

It's not just the middle schoolers that are going the extra mile. From last spring to this fall, Swaggert is blown away by the amount of time and effort his kids are putting forward.

"Last year, there was a sense of shock that anything could be taken away from them," Swaggert said. "When I talk to kids here, most of them say they want to stay in the classroom. Then I go talk to other friends of mine, who are teachers in other districts, and it's not the same for them. Their kids want to do distance learning. We had higher expectations with distance learning than other districts, and they met them."

The hope is that students and teachers will be back in the school like they were before the COVD-19 pandemic sooner rather than later. Swaggert is happy to have his students back in school part-time, but he doesn't want the hybrid method to feel routine.

"I don't know if I could handle distance learning for the rest of my career," Swaggert said. "It takes the joy of teaching away, and I think I'd have to find a new career. I think we could've gone full go, but if we would've switched to hybrid halfway, it would've been really hard. I think the district made the right decision."