Jones and Ornelas CUSD

Christi Jones, left, and Blasa Ornelas are honored as Coolidge Unified School District Teacher and Support Staff of the Year, respectively.

COOLIDGE — The pandemic has, at least temporarily, disrupted and reshaped learning environments. But connecting with new technology is the lesser challenge of pandemic-interrupted education. The real trick, as Coolidge teachers Christi Jones and Blasa Ornelas can attest, is maintaining the rapport with students that made their in-class approach so successful.

“The biggest thing we can do as a staff is let our students know we are there and that we care,” said Jones, a Coolidge art teacher for both the junior high and high school. Jones has taken a lead role in implementing the district’s “7 Mindsets” program, which focuses on social and emotional learning for both students and staff.

“We’re giving students an opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggles,” Jones said. “Their teachers, other people out in the world, everyone has a bit of a struggle, and that is OK. We just have to learn techniques so we can overcome those struggles and move forward.”

Jones and Ornelas were recently awarded Teacher and Support Staff of the Year, respectively, by the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce. Both women describe students who depend on strong communication with their teachers and staff, and whose growth was threatened by the shift away from the classroom.

“In a self-contained classroom it is really hard to keep them away from each other,” said Ornelas, a paraprofessional who works with special education students. Ornelas, who has also filled in for other staff due to illness this fall, says that many of her students are used to being in groups working together.

“I don’t know how to say to them, ‘I’m sorry, social distancing, use an air hug,’” Ornelas said, “but we have to do that now.”

Ornelas said they have overall taken it better than she’d first feared, and that her students understand they are still loved and cared for by the teachers and staff. Nevertheless, she describes one student who was new to the district last year, who initially refused to talk but had made great strides before the switch back to remote learning last week.

Ornelas said her own children, in second and sixth grade, have told her they were more comfortable in a classroom than behind a computer camera.

The communication gap is one of many reasons why neither teacher, and many others, believe remote learning is an ideal situation.

In Coolidge and elsewhere, students’ graduation and secondary education has been put at risk. At the most recent school board meeting, Superintendent Charie Wallace addressed the problem of students skipping out on the remote "classes." Even students who maintain strong grades are at a disadvantage if scholarship funding falls this winter; in a city like Coolidge, with so many low-income families, that is a major concern.

Jones also said she was disappointed in seeing many events canceled. In the past, both she and Ornelas would help write grants so students could visit art museums in the Phoenix metro area. “Students loved that,” Jones said. “So many of them have never seen art in person and it was fun for them to get out of town.”

But beyond the limitations of the remote platform itself, Jones admits that teachers, and parents, now have the added fear of checking after their student’s health.

Jones and Ornelas described the fear of students getting COVID-19 as a major source of extra stress. “It will be midnight and I’m thinking, ‘oh that kid wasn’t here, I hope they are OK,’” Jones said. “It just kind of occupies you.”

If there is a silver lining to the situation, it was in Coolidge’s foresight and investment in technology tools. Coolidge had earlier made sure each student was equipped with an iPad, which made them better prepared than other districts. Jones also said that many students who were previously nervous to ask for help had been taking advantage of the iMessaging technology and seeking more help than before. In her art classes, Jones has used remote learning to teach students about cameras and photo formatting, as well as digital drawing apps and sketchbooks.

Ornelas said she has noticed parents or other family members are very engaged with the technology, particularly for children with special needs.

The teachers’ overall success is evident in the continued passion students have displayed for their work. According to Jones, many of her students have been taking home recent ceramics work from the art studio to give away as Christmas gifts.

Jones was able to get some metal supplies for an advanced art class this year, working on techniques such as sawing, enameling and stamping. She also had prepped for remote learning by collecting donations from family and friends, so that each of her students could have an art supply kit to take home.

Jones was also able to organize a Coolidge photography contest as a way of both providing something positive for students to participate in, but also to support local businesses during a time of need.

“Originally, I thought it may be something small but I was quickly astonished by more and more staff reaching out to donate,” Jones said. “They truly demonstrated the meaning of being Coolidge Strong and made me proud to both live and work in our community.”

Jones, who has two master’s degrees in education, has been teaching in the district since 2014. Ornelas is herself a graduate of the Coolidge school district; she had worked at Hohokam Elementary and Imagine Prep in Coolidge before switching to the junior high and high school two years ago. This is the second year in a row Ornelas was honored with the chamber award.

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Aaron Dorman is a reporter covering Coolidge and the surrounding area. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.