Oliver's students were resilient during pandemic

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BRATTLEBORO — When Academy School was suddenly shut down in mid March because of COVID-19 concerns, Jen Oliver did what the Discovery Channel's been doing for years.

There was Frog Week, Butterfly Week, and Bird Week.

"Each week had a different focus," said the academic support teacher for all three first-grade classes at the elementary school in West Brattleboro. "Online learning is challenging for sustaining attention, especially for 6- and 7-year-olds, so we did our best to make the content as engaging as possible."

Oliver's audience seemed to enjoy being taught about various species from afar, just as adults are glued to the shark-based programming on TV each summer.

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"The students I worked with these last three months came to our Zoom sessions with a smile on their faces and eager to learn. They participated in our lessons and put forth their best efforts. They were happy to connect with me and tell me about all of the things they were doing," the West Chesterfield, N.H., resident said.

Oliver was nine months pregnant when the school year began. Just after meeting all of her students, she would go on maternity leave, give birth to a baby boy, and eventually return to work on Feb. 24. She helped the first-graders with math and reading for the next three weeks.

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And then the virus changed everything.

"This year was unlike any other in my 10-year career at Academy School," she said. "Suddenly, I was home with my 6-month-old baby (Kyle) and my 3.5-year-old daughter (Juliana), trying to teach, keep up with my daughter's preschool, take care of my kids, and grapple with all that was going on in the world."

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With her husband working from home, he was able to watch the kids while Oliver used Zoom to work with her students — as groups and also one-on-one. Along with the wildlife themes, she also taught math and reading, helped with art projects, introduced some recipes, suggested good places to hike, took them on virtual field trips, and even gave her students ideas for playing outside.

"One of the biggest things that I noticed about our students during distance learning, was just how resilient they all were," said the 35-year-old mother of two. "To think about how when we all left school on Friday, March 13, none of us knew that we wouldn't be returning the following Monday. We didn't get to say goodbye to each other or stock up on hugs, we didn't get to reassure them face-to-face, and we didn't get a chance to prepare them for having their worlds and ours turned upside down."

After eight years as a first-grade teacher, Oliver switched to the academic support position in the fall of 2018 so that she would have more time to devote to her family outside of school. She never could have imagined that her second year in a new role would go like this.

"It has been a whirlwind for sure, but I keep reminding myself how blessed we are to still be healthy, have our home and jobs, and to get to have this extra time home with my children has meant the world to me," she said. "As a mom, I feel very fortunate to have had this time home with my children and to be able to witness and be a part of all of my son's first-year milestones."


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