Third-grade teacher Toynette LeDay and her husband Murphy LeDay were signing insurance paperwork at the Lafayette Parish School System’s central office on March 13, 2020, when LPSS received word from the state that all K-12 schools were ordered shuttered as the novel coronavirus began its documented spread in Louisiana.
“That was it,” the Myrtle Place Elementary School teacher recalls saying to her husband, watching LPSS administrators hustle out of a meeting room and begin calling out the names of media outlets to contact, a sense of deep realization settling in her stomach.
Since that moment one year ago, school hasn’t been the same.
Initially, Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered K-12 schools closed until April 13. Then it was until the end of April, then the end of the academic year as the state weathered its first wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. LPSS announced plans to conduct virtual and distanced learning during the absence, then scrapped that plan after surveys revealed disparities in internet and technology. Graduation dates shifted from spring to summer as the school district tried to maintain celebrations.
When Lafayette resident Holly Walker, a mother of three, heard LPSS schools were closing, she was in sheer disbelief. Walker, whose 9-year-old daughter Lauren is now a student in LeDay’s class, said she relies on school and childcare outside the home to make running her baby and children’s clothing boutique, Lafayette Moms and Babies, feasible.
“You think there are certain things in life you can count on that are never going to change,” she said. “School is one of them. School will never stop.”
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From that moment on, Walker said life was about give-and-take -- keeping the kids entertained while avoiding unnecessary exposure, deciding when it was appropriate to integrate family members back into daily life, juggling her day-to-day business operations with COVID-19 shopping restrictions and childcare needs.
Walker and her husband, TJ, turned their dining room into a joint office. She would shuffle the kids outside while TJ, an inside sales representative for an oilfield company, took calls, and he would watch the kids at the end of the day so she could take time alone to watch TV.
During the first stay-at-home order, Walker’s children rode along as she delivered local purchases as orders trickled in and she tried to scrape together whatever business she could.
“Driving around for work was good because we were out of the house. It was our only reason to get dressed. It was our only reason to look presentable. It was our only opportunity to see the outside world,” Walker said.
Walker later reopened her business under Lafayette Consolidated Government’s “Safe Shop” guidelines, with shortened hours as she cobbled together childcare between herself and her husband, family members and, eventually, daycare.
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At times, the boutique owner said, she wondered if she should close her business or if she could hold on through months of reduced sales. After seven years running her boutique, Walker said the pandemic cut her business down to making just enough money to cover rent and essentials, and she didn’t want to go back to the days of grinding only to earn nothing for months on end.
But if she shuttered, Walker said she knew it would be a long-term mistake.
“Is that really what is good for me? Is that what’s good for my kids? Is that what’s good for this community? I want my kids to see me thriving and be successful and not be a quitter,” she said.
As Walker tried to balance her business and family, LeDay and her co-workers were finding ways to connect with their students while remaining safe at home. The third-grade English language arts teacher said she called and emailed parents weekly, sent home supplemental learning materials and participated in school-wide spirit activities, like Pajama Day, chalk art and pet-themed videos the teachers filmed for the kids.
While trying to lift her students’ spirits and maintain some sense of connection, LeDay was sheltered in her home, ordering groceries online, sanitizing purchases and foregoing normal activities, like church, while the virus stole loved ones. LeDay said a friend’s husband returned from Washington D.C. on March 13, 2020, quickly fell ill and within weeks was dead. Other friends and acquaintances suffered the same fate.
“It was one after another….We’d get on Zoom calls with school and no one knew anyone [who’d died from COVID-19] and I knew a bunch of people. That was scary,” LeDay said.
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In July, the virus struck her own family when LeDay’s sister, Debra Green Wiltz, fell ill. She struggled to get tested for the virus, then collapsed while awaiting her results. She was hospitalized, first at Abbeville General Hospital then at Ochsner Lafayette General, but her health worsened, LeDay said. Wiltz died on Aug. 2 at age 64.
Wiltz’s death came the same week LPSS teachers initially returned to their schools to begin in-person preparations for the new school year. LeDay said she was filled with shock, dismay, grief, pain and fear she too could be a victim to the novel coronavirus.
“I didn’t have time to process if I was going to go back or not, there were no ifs, ands or buts because my husband lost his job [pre-pandemic] and I needed to work,” LeDay said. “I just had to trust. I just had to put my trust in God and say, ‘Ok, you’ve got this. I have to do what I have to do.’”
Returning to school for the new year last fall was surreal, she said. LeDay recalled entering her classroom and seeing stacks of district tests she’d run off on the school printer, student book assignments uncompleted and the students’ last submitted assignments — it was almost like a moment frozen in time. LeDay said it felt like a disaster movie, where the characters flee from an earthquake or attack, and return to the aftermath.
“Everything there was just as it was before,” the veteran educator said.
It wouldn’t remain that way for long, as educators cleared their classrooms of unnecessary furniture and congregant elements, stocked up on sanitation supplies, studied up on new district and campus COVID-19 policies, and tested safety strategies students would be expected to follow on campus.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette will begin mandatory random COVID-19 screening for faculty, staff and students starting Monday.
Like all things education-related during the pandemic, the return to school was full of uncertainty and change. First, LPSS planned to return in mid-August as scheduled prior to COVID-19, then the first day was shifted until after Labor Day. Originally all students faced the potential for hybrid in-person and at-home learning schedules, but in August LPSS announced pre-K through fifth grade students would be allowed to attend school face-to-face full-time, while middle and high school students would be on hybrid schedules, subject to more change in the future.
Roughly 8,500 students enrolled in the Lafayette Online Academy for the fall semester, opting for the virtual learning experience over the risks of an in-person classroom.
Walker said she knew from the beginning her children wouldn’t be among them. Her decision to continue with in-person learning was twofold. First, there were concerns her third-grade daughter and twin kindergarteners’ education would suffer. Second, Walker knew she couldn’t successfully run her business while overseeing her children’s virtual education. Something would have to give.
“It’s like having to do homework with your children at night after work except it’s their whole education….Do I quit [my business] forever so we can temporarily do some online schooling or do we fight to squeeze it all into a one-hour window that we have in the evening when everyone is going to be frustrated and tired and miserable? It’s just not feasible for everyone,” she said.
The mother of three recalls the wave of relief she felt when back-to-school plans were finalized. For the first time in months, Walker said she knew she’d have the opportunity to give her undivided attention to her business or at least get five minutes alone in her house.
“I can do something without somebody asking me for a snack,” she said.
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Though a defined return date offered some direction, it didn’t answer questions floating among teachers and parents about how schools would operate in the new academic year . Walker and LeDay recall conversations and online chatter among peers questioning how students would adapt to wearing masks all day, avoid touching other children and navigate school assignments if they’re mandated to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure.
Both women said they’ve been impressed by the children’s resiliency. LeDay said the students social distance, wear their masks, diligently wash and sanitize their hands, and accept other new protocols as if they’ve always been in place.
“My boys don’t know any different. They just walked into school and they may think that wearing a mask all day is something that everybody’s always done at a school because they’ve never been to one before,” Walker said.
While the Walker twins may not understand the changes, big sister Lauren, 9, remembers what school was like before COVID-19.
With second grade cut short, Lauren had no opportunity to celebrate the end of the school year or give her teachers a proper goodbye last spring. The 9-year-old recalled it was nothing like the end of first grade, when parents gathered for a final day of fun to celebrate the end of the year with their kids. She even missed the chance to officially celebrate making the Principal’s List for the first time.
The abrupt end and time away made coming back to school even sweeter.
“I was really excited. I was excited to see all my teachers and see what we’re going to do this year,” Lauren said.
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Being back has had its ups and downs. Lauren said wearing a mask all day was hard in the beginning, and getting used to it took practice and short mask breaks while safely distanced. The third-grader doesn’t remember what all of her classmates look like without a mask.
But the trials and new rules and routines haven’t dulled the third-grader’s enthusiasm to learn.
“[When I get a question right] I get really excited. I normally get excited when it’s a really hard question and I’m like, ‘Yes, I did this!,’” Lauren said.
Connection, laughter and positivity have been key to navigating and surviving the pandemic, LeDay said. Educators, led by the school’s principal Catherine Bricelj, instituted classroom mailboxes for “kind notes” from students and co-workers to lift spirits, the school’s courtesy committee is lending support to educators struggling or experiencing personal hardships, and schoolwide recognition days and activities, like a Black History Month contest spearheaded by LeDay, have helped add levity and fun.
LeDay said she still brings the same spirit of joy to her classroom. She considers herself a comedian, launching into song while explaining concepts, telling funny stories about her life and searching for quick moments to crack a joke and build connections with students. It’s how she operated before the pandemic, and it’s transcended the virus’ impact on schooling to remain part of her teaching style now.
“I’m all about business, but at the same time, in that 90 minutes if we can have a little 2 minute fun, we’re going to do that because when that happens you can see their little minds open. It’s like you’re not really a teacher, you’re a person, and when that happens what I see is when they open up, they understand better,” she said.
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Finding the joy in the moment doesn’t mean the year has been without its challenges. LeDay said at first she was fearful to be too near her students. Concerned about contracting COVID-19 from an asymptomatic child, she would hover near the front of the room and deliver lessons from the board. Eventually, after several months, the teacher warmed up to getting closer to students’ desks and visiting with them for brief periods.
The workload this year has also increased.
LeDay oversees two in-person ELA classes and also manages Myrtle Place’s first- and third-grade students in the Lafayette Online Academy. She said the grades were divided amongst a handful of teachers, on top of their in-person courses. LeDay juggles posting, checking and reviewing assignments for LOA students with lesson preparations, grading, teacher meetings, car line duty and other needs for in-person school.
She said it’s not in her to give less than her all to her work.
“I’ve been teaching 26 years, and I’m a mom, so I can juggle...If I have to bring it home and do it, I will,” LeDay said. “I’m up sometimes at 4 o’clock in the morning thinking — How can I do this better?”
In addition to LOA work, LeDay is also trying to cram in concepts from second grade that the students may have missed or struggle with after the abrupt end to the school year last spring.
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“There are things they didn’t get last year, to where we have to go back and pull and look where they’re weak, and so I have to make sure they’re getting as much as possible. But then, on the other hand, I have to teach Guidebooks at a third grade level, and it’s like how do you find the time? Well, I have to find the time,” the veteran educator said.
LeDay said she’s confident deficiencies can be corrected, especially if parents continue to offer extra support and struggling students consider summer school or tutoring opportunities. The third-grade teacher said she’s seen definite growth and improvement since September.
“I definitely think they are going to catch up,” LeDay said.
Walker said she isn’t concerned about her daughter’s performance, but 6-year-old twins Michael and Thomas were recently flagged for RTI, response to intervention, for learning needs. It’s hard to know if these are natural struggles the boys would have always faced, or if the pandemic played a role. Class days were shortened to accommodate transportation needs, which means things like integrated RTI time in kindergarten and independent reading time for Lauren, among other things, had to be trimmed, she said.
While tracking how the pandemic has impacted learning will take time, other losses are immediately clear. Walker, past vice president of the Myrtle Place PTO, hasn’t set foot on campus this year for school activities. No pageants, no fundraisers, no special lunch days or escorting her kindergarteners to class for the first time. It’s been hard missing all those moments, she said.
Louisiana will move to a Phase 3 of coronavirus rules on Wednesday, which means a loosening of some restrictions.
“Things have been sacrificed and it shows up somewhere,” the Lafayette mother said. “There’s no way that anybody could have come up with a perfect answer. I don’t blame anybody for this. I don’t blame the teachers. I don’t blame the school board. It is what it is, but every little change affects people in some way or another.”
Both women are hopeful an end to the pandemic is in sight. LeDay received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in late February and is due for her second dose this week. She said relief washed over her after receiving the first dose, as she builds protection against the disease that took her sister.
“I really hope we’re on the downhill,” Walker said.