COVID and Community: How the pandemic is changing us

[ By Snow Burns ]

Editor’s Note: Snow Burns and her family are recent transplants to the Gunnison Valley living in Mt. Crested Butte. Snow is conducting a series of interviews with people directly impacted by changes brought on by COVID-19. This week she talks to Gunnison Community Elementary School teacher Jennifer Diamond.

This interview series, devoted to the Gunnison County community’s collective COVID-19 efforts, looks back on many ways our community has supported each other in the past year. Even in this most difficult year, there have been countless acts of adaptation, innovation, grit and love; we have somehow managed to become closer than ever – all while remaining physically apart. It is a pleasure to be able to share a few of these stories.

As our students return to school, we have two stories from the Gunnison Watershed School District. By working together, our community has given Gunnison County students an incredible gift: the ability to continue to grow, learn and experience a degree of normalcy in this strangest of years. This has not been without an expense – first and foremost on our educators, but also on the choices we all collectively have to make in order for schools to remain open. As the first semester came to a close, I had the privilege and pleasure to learn from Lisa Hart and Jennifer Diamond about how they have adapted, how the students are coping, and their thoughts on education and community. Jennifer’s interview is featured this week (see last week’s issue for Lisa’s interview).

Jennifer Diamond, Fourth Grade teacher, Gunnison Community Elementary School.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your relationship with the Gunnison county community.
I moved to Gunnison in 1996. My husband and I came here, and we just knew Gunnison was it.

What does community mean to you?
I never knew what community really was until we went through a traumatic event with my daughter, Delaney. She was born at 24 weeks. She was taken from Gunnison via a little NICU ambulance down to St Mary’s. We spent 80 days at St Mary’s.
It happened 11 years ago, but it still makes me verklempt, and I think back to what community is, and it’s this community that pulled together and created the Delaney Rose Diamond fund for us. Where people – strangers and churches, came together and donated money for us, and that is the money that helped us survive. I don’t know where we would be financially without that. Community is the place that embraces you, and that’s what they did.

Tell me a little about what you do.
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years – and for seven years within the district. This is my fifth year as a Fourth Grade teacher.

How’s it going? How’s the work been impacted? How are the students?
I have to go back to the crisis learning of the spring. I had 25 fourth graders and that was a very rough time. To suddenly teach over the screen and to adapt curriculum and try to keep in contact with 25 students. But our district was very forward thinking. I credit Dr. Nichols (district superintendent), and I think about our technology crew at our school, and them quickly thinking that we better get one-to-one devices for our district.

And that started the blended learning cohort this summer. I jumped on board for that. I’m a person that really hates change, and the crisis-learning disrupted my world considerably. But that cohort was probably the best thing that I did. I learned so much; I had to take our math and our literacy curriculum, and to transform them into a blended learning curriculum that students could access remotely on their Chromebooks.
Shari Sullivan-Marshall and Katie Gallagher were the instructors for the class, and sometimes I would close my Chromebook at the end of the day and I would sit outside in the sun, and I would think, “God, I hate blended learning.” I would curse those ladies.

I was mad. But I knew the importance of it. I knew that we had to get something for these kids if we were to start off remote. All of the schools were starting off remote. Could Gunnison pull it off in person? We really didn’t know. And so I wanted to be prepared. We worked all summer trying to get prepared.

And as a fourth grade team, we decided the biggest push was to teach kids about Chromebooks. So I came up with a system that I liked, and I take it back. All that cursing that I did to those two ladies.

This is what this generation needed.

These kids needed this. They are the technology generation. This is how they learn. And it was incredible to see them take off. These kids have risen to the occasion. And I do thank Shari and Katie now. Even if we went remote, it would be fine. I have this comfort knowing that I have prepared them.

Although I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that it has come at a cost, because I am truly exhausted. And there are days when I have tears in my eyes, and I’ve spent all of Saturday and Sunday working on this. It’s hard on my family because they see me working so much. And it’s hard for every teacher out there, that we’ve had to make this change.

And there are new roles that teachers have had to take on. I can’t send my students down to the nurse because they’re testing for COVID. So at any moment I have to stop and help with a loose tooth, or a bloody nose. And I have to make sure that my classroom is sanitized. That windows are open, that fans are on, that we’re cleaning desks, that we’re not sharing materials. And all of those things become very stressful on a day-to-day basis.

I appreciate what our district has decided. They decided that health and safety is their very first priority. To date we don’t have any in-school transmissions of COVID. And that’s incredible. I give my health checks, and we have several times during our schedule where we check in with students. We call it Mustang Mindset time. Those are times when you can just get a feel of where your classroom is at socially and emotionally. I love that those are built into our schedule.

And I have been able to slow down a little bit and really look at the needs in the classroom. We know it’s the safest place for children to be. And if I could see them – if they didn’t have masks on their faces – they would be smiling. They want to be in school. They need to be there.

How are you? How are the people immediately around you?
I think that COVID is very lonely, and we might be going on with our lives and with our families, and we see the students, but… there are teachers downstairs in my school that I have not seen, or talked to. And that is sad. It’s sad to not have those connections. We’re surviving. We’re making it. But it is lonely. I’ve not even met my (school) parents. I don’t know if they’re tall or they’re short. The only time that I’ve met them was for a Zoom call, or a Google Meet, for parent teacher conferences. It is a lonely place to be.

Do you have anything to say to the community?
This community has really pulled together, and it sounds a little cliché but I think of Hillary Clinton and her book It Takes a Village, and it really does, and the Gunnison village is an incredible place. It takes all of us. Every single person, whether it’s an employee at Walmart, or at City Market, and teachers, and doctors and the lumberyard. It takes us all making the right choices to keep us healthy. We’ve done it for our children. And what an incredible place we live.

Any final thoughts?
We teachers see the success, and that is driving us. It gets us up every morning. To see that kids are coming every day and that they’re happy, is all that matters. So we’ll put our exhaustion to the side and we’ll do what we can to be there for them. They’ve shown that they can do it, and we want to show them that we can do it, too.

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