Teachers are suddenly also a Covid-19 Task Force


Olivia Joyal photo

Olivia Joyal’s classroom is set up and ready for her in-person students during instruction

At Pine Grove School, an elementary level school in Rowley with 500 students, COVID-19 is as much of a problem as it is in any other school. Teachers are suddenly also a Corona task force, doing their best to keep students out of harm’s way. 

As the first teachers to be actually teaching students physically, in school, during the Coronavirus pandemic, nerves were especially high for Special Education teachers all around the country. One of these teachers is Olivia Joyal, who is teaching Special Ed for her first year at Pine Grove Elementary, fresh out of college. 

Joyal’s classroom set-up is far from normal during these scary times. Unlike most teachers, who have their own classroom, with desks 6 feet apart, Joyal has a hallway. Students come into her hallway where they have designated desks, and she then takes individual students into her classroom. This is where she checks in with them and is still able to build close relationships.

“I can only have one kid at a time {in my classroom}, which is hard because we still have to keep our distance and I just wish I could see them all,” said Joyal.

Teaching students with disabilities poses its own set of challenges, but with a virus outbreak, things have not been made easier. Some of these children are at higher risk with the virus due to pre-existing conditions, and to make sure they stay out of Corona’s grip, is a task teachers could never have been prepared for. 

Joyal went to high school in Melrose and got her undergraduate degree in elementary education and human development at Merrimack College. She then did a fellowship, where she worked at a school in Lynnfield as a special ed teacher, while also taking classes at night at Merrimack. Going into school, she knew she wanted to be a teacher, she loves building relationships with her students and knew that special ed teaching was for her. 

“It’s very rewarding, especially in special education, to see kids come in at a certain place and see where they end up by the end of the year and help them on that journey,” said Joyal.

Joyal teaches students ranging from kindergarten to 2nd grade with disabilities ranging from minor learning disorders to autism. She has a few students who have chosen to stay in the remote learning model and she says it is hard, but they are making the best of it. During virtual classes, which she uses Google Meet for, she teaches some students in the afternoon. She meets with smaller groups to go over math problems and do alphabet, reading, and spelling work. Her students all follow the same curriculum, they just go at their own pace and stay at a level that is comfortable for them. 

When the pandemic began, she was still teaching in Lynnfield, and it was sad for her to have to transition from the close relationships she made at the school to only seeing each other through a screen. Since being at Pine Grove Elementary, she has gotten to know her students very well and she simply cannot wait until she can be with them under normal circumstances. 

Joyal shares the Special Ed. department with 5th and 6th-grade teacher, Nicole Parker, who has been teaching for 15 years. She has a small classroom where only a limited number of students can be at once, and she is very enthusiastic about learning more about technology through remote learning. She chose to be a special education teacher because she enjoys working with small groups, which seems perfect for mid-pandemic teaching. But she said it is not as easy as it sounds.

“Some of my students are at higher risk for the virus,” said Parker, “but I am doing my best to clean my room after someone has been in it and I am personally making more time for handwashing and sanitizing.

Parker does not mind the extra steps she has to take to keep everyone healthy. She says her students are very cooperative when it comes to distancing and mask-wearing, some just need a little reminder here and there. She says that working together to find creative ways to teach in a hybrid model has helped tremendously.

“Ms. Joyal and I are communicating on ways to help make the hybrid learning model work more effectively, but I think the district as a whole is communicating more,” said Parker.  “We are all sharing resources and being a united front on all aspects of teaching and learning.” 

The district put in place mentors for teachers a few years back. They support new teachers with anything they need, such as, navigating through the school, helping plan lessons, and brainstorming ideas to support particular students. Shauna Magee is Ms. Joyal’s mentor. Magee attended George Washington University and Boston University and has been teaching at Pine Grove for 16 years, starting as a first-grade teacher and then a reading specialist. 

Magee, being the reading specialist, helps some of the same students that Joyal teaches, giving them many opportunities to work closely together. She says working with Joyal is wonderful and that her support of the teachers and students around her is greatly appreciated. 

The mentor system has been a big aid in communicating and finding solutions for teaching students during this scary time and technology has made remote learning possible. Without Google Meet or Zoom, it is almost impossible to say how teachers would be expected to teach during a deadly pandemic. But since these websites do exist, teachers have quickly adapted to using them and are doing everything in their power to provide a safe learning environment for everyone. 

“The students love her kind and quiet demeanor,” said Magee.  “She is also very professional and organized. We are so lucky to have her!”