McNary teachers and administrators pulled out as many stops as possible to create a celebratory atmosphere when students picked up their caps and gowns last week. It’s just one way schools have had to adapt traditional school activities to the pandemic (Submitted).

When Gov. Kate Brown announced last month the cancellation of all in-person classes for the remainder of the school year, teachers and faculty around the Salem-Keizer School District were challenged with the task of trying to teach virtually. 

One of the big aspects of virtual learning is making sure that the school community remains in connection with each other. Ashley Gruber, Lexxy Johnson and Todd Layton have played big roles in fostering those connections at McNary for the last two months. 

“The work of these three has been instrumental in helping our school have meaningful connections,” McNary principal Erik Jespersen said. 

Gruber, Johnson and Layton are all teachers at McNary and have been heavily involved in informing kids and parents as to what’s happening with the school — and it goes much deeper than making sure kids are turning in their assignments on time.

“We have been trying to put together more of a cohesive connection for the entire school body,” Layton said. “The idea is that we’re trying to reach out to every kid and make sure that they understand that McNary is here for them.”

One of the biggest points-of-emphasis has been the graduating seniors. Johnson, who is the activities director at the school and runs student government, has her senior officers meet with a graduation committee twice per week — the committee is made up of teachers and administrators.

“We have a lot of people that interact, then we have a better feel for what’s coming up,” Johnson said.

“The biggest goal of the seniors is to still feel like there is stuff to look forward to for their senior year and it’s not just finished in the spring. So we are all trying to create that school spirit atmosphere even within distance learning community,” Johnson said. 

Johnson and the senior officers also created student bios for seniors on the McNary 2020 Instagram page — which is run by Gruber — highlighting where kids will be attending college and what they plan to study. 

“They wanted to celebrate their next steps, which is why they have done those student bios,” Johnson said.

Johnson also had her students make a video for Teacher Appreciation Week earlier this month to show their support for the teachers at the school that have worked so hard to maintain balance in the midst of chaos. 

“Many of our teachers have done a tremendous job reaching out to kids,” Layton said. “It’s been good to engage and support all our teachers here.”

Along with running McNary’s multiple social media pages, Gruber is in charge of putting content on the recently revamped McNary website — which features parent resources, a news and updates section and a feature that allows students to speak with a virtual counselor. 

“It’s about figuring out what stuff should go on what platforms. Parents are on Facebook probably more than Instagram. We want to make sure that we get the information out to all the different places,” Gruber said.

Gruber is in her first year as the media production teacher at McNary, while Layton teaches graphic design and Johnson teaches social studies. 

Virtually teaching classes like media production and graphic design has turned out to be twice as hard according to Gruber and Layton, partially due to kids not having access to certain software that was needed.

But that doesn’t stop them from working hard to provide engaging and interactive assignments for their kids.

“I want to make the projects fun so when they look back on this time, they will remember the class being fun and engaging and something that helped them through this tough time,” Layton said.

When Gruber’s students meet over Zoom, they are required to introduce their pets and are given extra credit if they are wearing an animal onesie.  

“It’s a whole new world of teaching but it’s fun to connect with the kids and see what they are creating and coming up with,” Gruber said. “I just want to engage with them and make things feel more normal.”

Through this process, Layton has been reminded, thanks to multiple messages from his students, how important the job of a teacher is, not just for giving instruction, but also for the way teachers foster and facilitate meaningful relationships with their students.

“You don’t know how much you’re missed. The messages that the kids have sent about missing school, it helps me realize how important our jobs are,” Layton said.