BOZEMAN — Public health officials, doctors, nurses - so many people make up the front line workers, working to curb a global pandemic and, as the phrase was coined a year ago, “flatten the curve.”
But one group of essential workers had to overcome the impossible in less than a week after it began in Gallatin County: teachers.
This time last year, students and teachers were preparing or in the middle of starting their spring breaks, which gave them a short amount of time to prepare when a global pandemic changed everything.
“That sense of loss and lack of closure had a pretty large impact on our student body and our staff,” says Erica Schnee, Gallatin High School principal.
To Gallatin High School principal Erica Schnee, it takes a special heart to become a teacher, a thought she had as she read poetry written by high school students about one of the big words of 2020 and 2021: Quarantine.
“She had both freed and trapped me,” Schnee says, reading the students’ poetry from her phone. “Quarantine, we found sanity in our own company.”
“I have been hired as the principal for Gallatin High School but the school wasn’t open. I basically was the principal of a school with no students.”
Schnee says March 13, 2020 hit home to hundreds of faculty, even more students.
“The senior class, that was a challenging year to them,” Schnee says. “Our current juniors, it was at the end of their sophomore year but they’d been to Bozeman High for two years and that was the last time. They left on March 13, not knowing that was the last time they were ever going to go to school there.”
“I never thought I’d ever say this but I really miss school,” said GHS English teacher Megan Motley last year, then working at Bozeman High.
Schools nationwide closed as COVID numbers trickled in.
That’s when I met Megan Motley, an English Teacher at Bozeman High School at the time, in April, 2020, a month after seeing her students physically for the last time.
“We had a student a couple of years ago that we just kept a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in our office and he just knew,” Motley said back in April. “If you didn’t get breakfast this morning, you can go and make a peanut butter sandwich and I can’t...we just don’t have that space right now.”
Flash-forward to now...
“It’s been a lot of kind of building the plane as we’ve been flying it this year,” Motley says.
Then a Hawk, now a Raptor.
Motley was one of dozens of teachers to help begin Gallatin High’s first year in Bozeman history.
“It was kind of this limbo of will we or won’t we? And there was a lot of disappointment, at first,” Motley says. “I think it was difficult to find closure for a lot of reasons last year. We didn’t get to have the closure of saying goodbye to our students.”
In Bozeman, students finished the school year remotely.
Elsewhere in Gallatin County, Willow Creek Elementary School was among the first schools in the COUNTRY to re-open, with limitations.
Then, in Bozeman and Gallatin High School, it was a blended model.
“We got to have two first days of school this year because we had students in track A and track B and so half of our students were coming Monday-Tuesday, the other half were coming Thursday-Friday,” Motley says.
CODY “How was it for you to see your students again for the first time?”
MEGAN “It was really, really awesome.”
The struggle in schools to fight COVID is not over.
But Motley and Principal Schnee both say, for them and other teachers, the lessons have been tenfold, just like the team learning them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for a first-day-of-school because there have been these really, really special moments through all of this and I think that’s been a big thing this year, too, is just like… really trying to slow down and pay attention for those because sometimes you really need them,” Motley says.
And learning, Motley says, isn’t just for students.
“I start class every day by saying it is so good to be here with you and I feel like my students probably don’t even hear it anymore but I mean it every single day, so I kind of hope they take that with them, too, just those moments of gratitude and those moments of being in the moment and just saying, wow, it’s so good to be here right now,” Motley says.