Texas school closings fray the personal bonds between teachers and students

Karen Sams, a 2020 Teacher of the Year, is struggling to adapt to virtual learning with schools closed because of the coronavirus.      Courtesy of Adelynne Davis
Karen Sams, a 2020 Teacher of the Year, is struggling to adapt to virtual learning with schools closed because of the coronavirus. Courtesy of Adelynne Davis

Around this time of the school year, Karen Sams expects to be in the “sweet spot” with her 17 third graders — the point at which, after months of watching them closely, she knows their quirks and understands how to motivate them.

Sams used to greet every child at the classroom door, giving each the choice of a hug, high five, fist bump or dance before they walked inside — a ritual expected of all teachers at Crockett Elementary School in Weatherford Independent School District, outside of Fort Worth, where she has spent four of her 16 years as a teacher.

She used the time together in her colorfully decorated classroom to build community among her students. On “make-it-happen Mondays,” they each talk about what their goals are for the week. On “wonderful friend Wednesdays,” the class picks one student and takes turns saying nice things about them.

“It adds another layer to our classroom community because each kid is celebrated and loved,” she said.

But with Weatherford schools temporarily closed by the coronavirus pandemic, Sams has lost the opportunities that face-to-face instruction yield. Soon, she will start video chatting with her students regularly, seeing an incomplete class in an array of small boxes on a screen. “You don’t get those warm, fuzzy feelings you do in person. It’s hard to feel someone’s energy or know their tone or feel that hug,” she said.

Switching to entirely virtual classrooms has been emotionally and logistically challenging for Sams and thousands of other teachers who rely on hugs, body language and routine to connect with students, especially those who may lack support and stability at home.

Sams now conducts her staff and student meetings by video conference.

Sams now conducts her staff and student meetings by video conference. Courtesy of Karen Sams