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Class During COVID: Portage High School kicks off school year with hybrid learning model

English teacher Nicole Giessel said she’s excited to be back in the classroom
Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 6:00 PM CDT
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PORTAGE, Wis. (WMTV) - While there may be many uncertainties facing this school year, one thing English teacher Nicole Giessel knows for sure is that she’s excited to be back in the classroom.

This year marks Giessel’s 14th year teaching, with seven of those years at Portage High School, where she currently instructs American Literature and AP Language and Composition.

“I was excited to be back in person. Of course there’s the element of is it safe or not yet, but I teach because I enjoy interactions with students,” Giessel said. “Sure, I like reading and I like writing, but to do those in isolation is not as fun for me. I was really excited to be able to see kids, even though it’s only each kid, two days a week.”

According to the Portage School District’s Return to Learn plan, middle and high school students will use a hybrid model. Students with last names beginning with A-K comprise Cohort A, they will learn in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays. Cohort B students will be in-person Thursdays and Fridays, and the schools will be deep cleaned on Wednesdays. When students are not learning in person, they will be online. Giessel also said class sizes are smaller this year, with about five or ten students from a previous 25 or 30.

Throughout the high school, lockers are closed off, there are direction markers in hallways, and hand sanitizers in classes and hallways.

Reflecting on the sudden switch to virtual learning in spring of last year, Giessel said this year, there’s been more time for preparation.

“We left for spring break thinking we were coming back, then found out we weren’t coming back," she said. "So we were set with our plans and ready to go we thought, but those plans don’t work the same virtually. It was really hard without any materials or any training or any idea of what was going to happen next to figure out where to go and how to work.”

Giessel said during the spring she was communicating with families to make sure they had what they needed to learn. From that experience, she said she and other teachers were able to determine what worked and what didn’t work.

“Now with the summer there was some time," she said. "We knew we were going to be hybrid for a while, there was some time to plan, some time to process, we knew what we were getting into.”

Giessel said this year comes with new challenges for both teachers and students, like mental health concerns as well as more to manage and balance, in addition to concerns about COVID-19.

“I asked them in a back to school survey what are you most concerned about?” she said. “Usually they say their grades, the ACT, failing their driver’s license test. This year, their concerns were huge concerns. Grades are not even on their radar. It’s getting COVID, making sure their family has enough money now that they’re back to school they can’t work, how do they manage virtual learning? Much bigger issues than they were ever concerned about before.”

Coronavirus cases are on the mind of senior Emma Meicher, a member of student council, which Giessel advises, and a student of Giessel’s from last school year.

“I’m worried about cases going up and probably closing, or even smaller classes if we have to go into that, I don’t think that’d be as fun or effective for us," she said.

Senior Maddy Demarte echoed similar concerns. Demarte is also a student council member and former student of Giessel’s.

“The chance that we could go online fully and there wouldn’t be any in-class instruction, which would definitely be harder,” Demarte said. “But knowing that the teachers already have a plan and it wasn’t like last spring, it’s going to be better, but it’s definitely concerning.”

Meicher also foresees potential challenges facing this school year.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be everyone wearing masks and following the sanitizing protocols that we have and everything,” she said. “I think as the school year goes on, everyone kind of gets a bit more lazy with everything, that’s just how we are, and as long as it is effective, hopefully we can keep those procedures in place.”

Despite potential hurdles, Meicher said she’s excited to be back.

“I’m actually really excited to get back to school to learn in the classroom,” she said. “I think that’s easier than online, see my friends again, even if we have to socially distance and wear masks and stuff. Overall, I’m really excited for the year.”

Demarte said her goal is to keep a positive attitude throughout the year, something that Giessel sees the importance of.

“One of my goals is to find some appreciation in everything. In myself, in my fellow staff members, in students,” Giessel said. “I’ve been so excited to see that when kids are like, I appreciate being here for two days. I appreciate being face to face and seeing my peers. I appreciate all of the things we’re doing to accommodate actual learning. My goal is to keep up noticing those positive things and appreciating my work and the work and efforts of students.”

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