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Forward with Patrick Miller

We’re finally back.” Following a turbulent summer of social and political upheaval during a once-in-a-century worldwide pandemic, thousands of educators across the Amarillo Independent School District returned to their classrooms. That was just the beginning of our journey. 

We were forced to implement safety measures to meet COVID-19 protocol. Imagine arranging a socially distanced classroom while preserving space for a classroom library, learning centers, or guided reading. All grade levels faced this challenge. 

Sanitation took on an entirely new meaning with masks, sanitizing stations, air purifiers, surface cleaning, and hand-washing breaks. Nevertheless, returning to school made it all worthwhile. Despite having less than a month to plan the adoption of a new Learning Management System, our teachers created innovative, rigorous, engaging lessons to ensure the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) would be fully covered. 

Despite these parameters, we knew some parents would elect to keep their children at home for virtual instruction. Our schools would be open anyway. Educators seldom speak of their personal sacrifices, but we all have families, too. The prospect of returning to our new normal brought a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety. It took an abundance of faith, caution and resilience to carry us through the most difficult school year we had ever known.

The new school year began on Sept. 1, 2020. Though we could not physically see the smiles on students’ faces, their expressions and joy filled our hearts with hope. Greetings with a high-five, handshake, or fist-bump were supplanted with a thumbs up (or down) to signify students’ mood as they entered our schools again. Walking single file on one side of the hallway is a rudimentary skill. Teaching 4-year-olds to stand on socially distant vinyl dots on the floor— then maintaining that distance when walking—was easier said than done. 

Our youngest students could no longer “meet at the carpet” for fundamental instruction and were relegated to their desks or table side seats. A year ago, they might have reached across a table to share a paper. Now they had to request their own individual items and speak behind desk shields, with masks muffling their voices. 

Yes, we were safe. But concerns lingered about the social and emotional impact this was having on our students. Many schools quickly adopted social and emotional curriculum to address the previously unknown effects of teaching during a pandemic. We all had to learn more than we expected.

When positive COVID-19 cases increased exponentially in the fall, class sizes took a precipitous decline. Students who once interacted directly with teachers now raised their hands from behind a desktop or laptop camera. In some cases, teachers instructed 15 students in-person while responding online to the needs of eight others. Meanwhile, COVID caused a substitute teacher shortage across the entire district. Despite the support of personnel from the Rod Schroder Education Support Center, there was no replacement for the bond our students had with their teachers. We all kept doing what we thought and knew best. 

Nothing can truly prepare you for the inevitable part of life. The news of each COVID-19 related fatality devastated us, and we continue to give our utmost respect and sincere condolences to their families. Regardless of age, ethnicity or background, they were all part of the Amarillo ISD family. We cherish the memory of their lives and embrace their legacies of love for as long as we shall live. It was a dark autumn made even darker by the abyss of winter. But the completion of one full semester and the ringing in of a new year reignited hope, which would persist throughout the spring.

As vaccinations became widely available, our schools began filling up again. Virtual students returned to campus. Teachers began preparing their students for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and the completion of the school year. Uncertainty was supplanted by realistic expectations that we would finish the school year—and finish we did. We never lost sight of the AISD mission: to graduate every student prepared for life and success beyond high school. With each twist and turn of living and teaching through a pandemic, we learned invaluable lessons of faith, resolve, and persistence.

We would not have completed the 2020-2021 school year without the support of parents, dedicated nonprofits and faith-based groups, heroic health care professionals, and the exemplary students we have the privilege of serving. Thank you for trusting us—as you always have—to provide children with a safe learning environment. In May, we officially closed the books on the 2020-2021 school year. 

As we prepare to return, let us remember to extend the same measure of grace we shared with one another as our lives were shaken during the worst of the pandemic. Some things have changed forever. We must embrace these changes with the same faith and resilience we discovered within ourselves last school year. We anxiously await the opportunity to welcome all students back for the 2021-2022 school year. We are ready to prove last year’s success was no fluke.  

Author

  • Patrick Miller is President of the Amarillo Branch NAACP and assistant principal at Eastridge Elementary. In 2021, he completed a 6-year term on the Amarillo College Board of Regents, to which he was elected at the age of 25. He has earned Master’s degrees in both teaching and educational leadership from WTAMU and has served in a variety of leadership roles within the Amarillo Independent School District.