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An NEK elementary teacher carries on through loss, getting COVID herself

A photo of two yellow school buses in a school parking lot.
Erica Heilman
A Newport City Elementary School teacher has continued preparing her students for their futures while experiencing personal loss and a case of COVID.

For two years, teachers and school staff have managed rapidly changing COVID protocols. In a series airing all week, independent producer Erica Heilman talks with teachers, administrators and staff in the Northeast Kingdom. In this story, Erica speaks with fifth-grade teacher Patty Ovitt from Newport City Elementary School. She starts out talking about the frustrations of trying to do hands-on work with classes when large portions of the class are often out with COVID.

Patty Ovitt: "My biggest concern during this whole last two years is, tools or items enough for each student."

Erica: "Like a microscope?"

Patty Ovitt: "Oh yeah, a microscope. We did a lab of rotting fruit. The kids had to figure out what decomposers were. I had 40 plates of rotting food in my classroom. But what happens is, on a Monday one kid leaves, on a Wednesday a kid comes back, the next week — a Wednesday — three leave again. And they're all leaving for so many different amount of times, I can't replicate anything to catch them up. So some kids have missed so much time, they've missed units.

"I'm also a hands-on teacher. I brought worms to school, I saved 'em from fall, brought them in, the kids use them for their decomposers. Well, once they're gone, I can't get 'em back. And so to offer to move to the next group of kids, I don't have 'em. When they've missed a week, and there's more than one that misses it, and they're not the same days that they're missing, I don't know how to catch up on that.

"And so some kids, I'm gonna worry about them not having what they need to move on to the next grade. Because they're the ones that we're raising to be adults. When they have a big gap, a couple of things happen. One is they don't have the knowledge. Well, the next year's teacher wants to build on that knowledge that they don't have. So they're already behind the eight ball. Then we notice when a kid is behind, their anxiety goes up."

More from VPR: Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

Erica: "Your sense of yourself. How is this impacting your own?"

Patty Ovitt: "Well, I have a unique situation. And that's probably why I don't say anything. I lost my mom, my dad, my brother-in-law, and my uncle last year. And then I had COVID. So I had a lot going on that really isn't about my teaching or the students. So I try to stick to them. What they need."

Erica: "Was it COVID-related, those deaths?"

Patty Ovitt: "Two were and two were not. My mom and my dad didn't die from COVID. They were 84 and 88. My brother-in-law and my uncle died from COVID. And so it was just a hard year. And then we have the funerals. We have the whatever. Then the new year comes and I'm thinking, I'm going to focus, I'm going to regenerate, you know, and start over kind of, and then I get COVID.

"I have been so diligent, I don't take this mask off anywhere. I have a grandbaby that's a year old. I don't think he knows what my face looks like. And then I spent two hours here at school one day sitting with a group of six kids for two hours working with them. And the next day I was told two of them were tested positive. And three days later, I had COVID."

"I love teaching fifth grade, I love teaching science and social studies in fifth grade. I use it as how I cope. When I can come in and I can spend time preparing a lesson so well that I am confident, and have all the materials I need, that's how I de-stress."
Patty Ovitt, Newport City Elementary School fifth-grade teacher

Erica: "How do you lose four family members, have COVID and carry on as a fifth-grade science teacher?"

Patty Ovitt: "I think it's because of my passion for the kids. I love teaching fifth grade, I love teaching science and social studies in fifth grade. I use it as how I cope. When I can come in and I can spend time preparing a lesson so well that I am confident, and have all the materials I need, that's how I de-stress. I prepare so that the kids have no glitch, that their learning is theirs, they own it and they have everything they need to grasp it. That's where my stress goes away."

Erica: "Your sense of self-esteem is in part contingent on how much you're imparting to these kids. Is that, is that right?"

Patty Ovitt: "Yeah. I would say all of it is. Yeah, yeah. That's what I do. That's why I do it, is so these kids can grow up. They can become mature adults, capable, happy, healthy, out in the world doing what they want to do. And it doesn't stop because of COVID. And so I still feel like I need to do whatever I can to get there. You know, get them there, from here. And that's a challenge now. A real challenge."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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