Teacher faces challenges, adapts in a time of pandemic

Debra Klevens


At the end of the school day Thursday, March 12, I called my yearbook representative on my way home from work. I knew that life as I knew it was about to change because of the coronavirus, and I needed to prepare myself, my family and my school family for the unknown.

Dan, the representative, and I processed the next steps. He suggested getting the seven extra laptops I had checked out to my students at Parkway West High School and lend them to the yearbook editors. Providing the editors with Macs would allow them the flexibility to have the necessary software to complete the yearbook remotely, if it came to that.

As I entered the school Friday morning, I tried to remain optimistic. I am supposed to be the leader of my classroom. However, inside I faced fear. I was not sure how I could possibly complete a 264-page yearbook with students working from home who didn’t have access to the software. Additionally, I didn’t know how I would be able to check on the welfare of my students. Not having that face-to-face daily interaction really concerned me.

I knew I needed to cancel our family trip to Hawaii, which my husband had spent a year planning. I knew there was going to be some devastation on our kids’ part. I also knew the right thing to do. I needed to hunker down on the home front, go buy supplies, and stay put.

With those thoughts swirling in my head, I put on a brave face for my students. In case school shut down after spring break for the foreseeable future, I made copies of how to log into Google File Stream so that all students with internet access could obtain their work from home. Hour by hour, I explained my plan as students blankly looked at me. I could tell they could care less as to what I was saying. Even after asking them to put the handout in their backpacks, many of them left them on the desk.

At the end of the day, I cleaned up the classroom, turned off the lights and computers, brought home some of the classroom’s favorite yearbooks for inspiration. Then I called my husband. I told him we needed to cancel Hawaii.

I knew there was no way I was going to do schoolwork over spring break. I was supposed to be in Hawaii on vacation. This was going to be my family time. But then I found myself worrying as it became clear that St. Louis County was shutting down schools. Questions flooded me, with no clear answers. How will life as I know it still exist? How would I keep my aging father safe? When would I see my sister and brother and their families? I worried about my students. How could I maintain normalcy for them come March 23, when school was to resume?When would school actually resume? Was I to have the same expectations of my students during this time? What kind of additional training would I receive to prepare for the unthinkable?

In addition to overseeing the yearbook staff, I am also in charge of Parkway West’s student newspaper. The newspaper program was a much more natural transition because we already produce a daily online paper. By the end of the afternoon, I had a basic plan and ran it past my managing editor-in-chief and conceptual editor-in-chief.

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Monday morning, March 16, during my spring break, I laid in denial continuing to watch the news cycle. By 2 p.m. I could no longer deny what needed to be done. I started looking at the yearbook pages that we had outstanding. I outlined what needed to get done. My dream of relaxing in Hawaii was replaced by 12-hour days preparing for our yearbook completion.

I started by acknowledging my obstacles and asking for help. I felt we owed an incredible product to our audience and that nothing would prevent us from delivering. I embraced Google Docs and identified most students in the photographs. I provided yearbook staff with phone numbers of students and faculty we needed to reach to finish the book. I organized and prepared for student success. We continued to educate and inform our readers, because that is how we kept normalcy.

My classroom has always been a family and has remained a family throughout COVID-19. Over the past few months, we helped our colleagues who were struggling when they didn’t have what they needed. We continued to lift each other up.

Today, tomorrow and the days that followed were captured in our yearbook. We produced a book that will be more valuable than any other book I have produced in 21 years. Our sales flourished as well. Most importantly, we remained a classroom that worked together for the common good of our community.

Someday, my hope is that my students will share stories with their children and grandchildren about living through this time. Because these days are historic, it was critical that we not let these events pass without capturing how they affected students, families, school and our community.

As a teacher, this was a challenging time to remain strong. With so much unknown, I continued to remind my students of all we had to be grateful. This helped me to remain positive. I tried my best to continue to make students feel valued and needed. 

COVID-19 made this a challenge. High school students are not the best at checking email. While Zoom calls were fun at first, the level of engagement quickly dwindled. I worried when I didn’t hear from students. I tried to check on them frequently. When all else failed and we were unable to connect, I reached out to the parents and school administration.

Teaching is difficult, but the relationships I have been blessed to make over the past 21 years are my bonus check. I wouldn’t choose any other profession. I feel blessed to get to connect with these bright young minds that challenge me to be my personal best, even under these trying times. I look forward to the day when we can return to face-to-face learning.

Debra Klevens, CJE (Certified Journalism Educator), has advised the national award-winning publications program at Parkway West High School for 21 years. What began as a yearbook career turned into an expansion into the online newspaper world nine years ago. Under Klevens’ counsel, the publications staffs have earned multiple Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) Gold Crowns, CSPA Silver Crowns, and National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker awards. Klevens is married to her husband, Michael, and is the mother of two daughters, Sydney and Zoe. Klevens is also a member of the Jewish Light Board of Trustees.