COVID lessons learned: Teachers prioritize relationships with students, families

by Stefanie W. Brazile 
and Jeremy Higginbotham

From the moment COVID-19 reached U.S. shores, many aspects of American life were turned upside down. Perhaps no group experienced such a large disruption to their daily routines as did students, teachers, parents and school administrators. Unexpected challenges forced educators to look at new ways of educating students. Throughout Central Arkansas, communities came together and demonstrated they were able to meet these challenges with innovative technology and returning to the fundamentals of talking, listening and laughing together.


The sudden appearance of the virus required a top-down response from education leaders and Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key is proud of the way educators responded to the emergency situation.  

“We learned many valuable lessons as a result of schools abruptly closing in March due to COVID-19. First and foremost, we knew we had some amazing educators who are able to adapt to any situation, and what we observed during the last several weeks of school emphatically reinforced that fact. The educators of Arkansas not only met expectations, they far exceeded them!” Key said.

Under normal circumstances, schools prepare for a maximum of 10 days for remote learning in the event of bad weather or other unforeseen situations. With COVID, however, educators had to quickly transition to online and remote learning for months. “Not only did they make the transition look seamless, teachers found creative ways of reaching their students where they were and even provided broadband for students via buses parked in school parking lots.” Key said. “This allowed students to access the internet safely from their own vehicles so they could finish their assignments.”

Cheri Huett Millheim reads a story online to her first-graders at Morrilton Primary School.


South Conway County School District Superintendent Shawn Halbrook echoed the praise. “I think our staff did an excellent job of pivoting from March 16 to the end of the year. We still put out the packets every week in hard copy in addition to online.” Halbrook explained technology gaps were highlighted during the crisis and revealed a severe need for reliable broadband in rural Arkansas.

Halbrook said that when distance learning became the only option, district staff began to record all lessons and learned to interact with students via computers and phones. As the semester unfolded, they realized the ongoing benefits this provides students and parents.

Previously, if students were absent because of sickness, a death in the family or snow days, new class material could not be shared until they returned to the classroom — but no more. “From now on, our lessons will be recorded and available online so if we have to go off-site again, we’re prepared. The students will be able to download this when they are on Wi-Fi,” Halbrook said. “Think about this: If you have a kid struggling, they can go home at night and watch the lesson again. Their parents can watch it, too.” 

Using CARES Act funding from the federal government, the district is purchasing 1,200 Google Chromebooks to add to the 1,300 on-hand so students in grades ninth through 12th will have one to use at home.

“Has COVID been bad, absolutely. Do we want kids to come back because that is the greatest and most effective way to learn? Absolutely, we want to see our kids. But COVID should make us a better educational system, more reactive and personalized than what we were before. We always want to put kids first.”  


Area colleges and universities joined their K-12 counterparts in immediately developing new ways to reach students and staff while striving to maintain valuable one-on-one interaction with students. 

Central Baptist College (CBC) quickly adapted to offer Zoom classrooms and interact remotely with students. Most instructors had participated in CBC’s Professional Adult College Education Program (PACE), according to Gary McAllister, Ed.D., vice president for academic affairs.

“We’ve offered online learning for nearly a decade in our adult program — flexible types of degree options and accelerated semesters which allowed students to connect via Zoom and to be able to work online in multiple modalities,” McAllister said. 

“Boy, this has been a spring to remember, but it’s been great because it’s helped us to achieve some of the goals that I’ve ultimately wanted to achieve. Sometimes things that are forced upon you bring change, so it’s been good for us.” 

The veteran administrator talked about a student, Sydney Hawkins of Conway, who had been working part time in a pharmacy and suddenly became an essential worker. This prevented her from meeting with classmates during the assigned Zoom instructional time. She was provided materials that she could work on during her time off so she could complete her class requirements.

Her pharmacy hours increased to 15-30 hours weekly while she was taking 18 hours of classes at CBC. As a senior education major, she plans to teach fourth through eighth grade. Before COVID-19, she would spend three days in class and two days on school campuses, working at the pharmacy in the evening or on weekends. When schools and many businesses temporarily closed, her routine stopped and her work schedule increased. 

In one class, Hawkins was required to complete a Unit Plan that would determine 70 percent of her grade. Unable to attend the class Zoom meetings could have been disastrous, but her instructor, LaNell Crook, assistant professor of education, went out of her way to help.

“This class was the most stressful of them all, but Mrs. Crook was good about working with me on weekends and after her regular office hours so I wouldn’t be completely lost.” Hawkins credits her instructor with not only keeping her stress level down but also helping her achieve a 95 on the assignment.

UACCM Student Adan Morales Hernandez is grateful for his professor amid the pandemic. “I’m very thankful UACCM and Mr. Lum were able to reconfigure our work areas. The online simulations are just not the same as being able to do the work hands-on here at the college. Because of this, we can continue our training in the best way possible and students will be able to find the jobs they need.” (Mike Kemp photo)


While all area schools had to learn quickly to adapt to the new environment, some school programs had to find a different path to success when some options, like online learning, simply weren’t possible.

The University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton (UACCM) has an extensive Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance Technology Program housed in a 54,000-square-foot training center that opened two years ago. The state-of-the-art facility offers training in the high-wage, high-demand occupations of HVAC, automotive service technology, industrial mechanics, maintenance and welding. The college moved quickly to adapt the technical education classrooms so that essential, hands-on training could continue.

“A primary component of our career training programs involves working in the labs, training with tools, equipment, machinery, etc.,” said Mary Clark, UACCM director of marketing and public relations. “It’s one thing to teach someone history or math online but quite another to teach someone how to weld or work with high voltage electricity. Some of that can be done with virtual simulators, but the instructors also have to be resourceful and creative when developing ways to transition back to in-person training with social distancing guidelines remaining intact.” 

UACCM Professor Brian Lum realized the urgency and took action, spacing out workspaces, installing Plexiglas and staggering student’s on-site classroom times so they could get the hands-on training needed to be job-ready. Lum is a professor of Industrial Mechanics and Maintenance Technology (IMMT) and wants his students to be job ready upon course completion.

“We spaced out all of our IMMT labs to keep the technical students safe. They have their own tools and other items that they would use and even have a pad-lock to keep the components safe. Nobody but that student touches the items underneath the Plexiglas,” Lum said.  

Before the campus went online around Week 10, IMMT students’ work was all hands-on. They would even take their tests online at off-times so that all of their time at the center would be utilized working on the equipment. “I knew these students needed to be here and we did all we could to make that happen,” Lum added.

Student Adan Morels Hernandez was grateful to be able to attend classes safely. “I’m very thankful UACCM and Mr. Lum were able to reconfigure our work areas. The online simulations are just not the same as being able to do the work hands-on here at the college. Because of this, we can continue our training in the best way possible and students will be able to find the jobs they need.” 


As educators throughout the 501 worked to develop unique ways to reach their students, one Conway teacher took it to the next level in the form of a pie in the face. Lance Nail has taught third-graders at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School for four years. He always uses technology in his classroom, but knew that he would need buy-in from parents and strategies to encourage students to work hard at home.  

One Monday, the 27-year-old challenged his young students that if they completed all of their reading goals for the week, his then fiancé would hit him with a pie in the face — live on Zoom. The 20-plus students met the challenge and moved close to their screens to watch the big event as laughter erupted, followed by students wanting to know more about his fiancé. (See Nail’s “pie-event” as it happened live at

“While COVID-19 has caused so much uncertainty in the world, I tried to assure my students that everything was going to be alright,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on Zoom, just talking and continuing to build our relationships. Overall, I would say this was a positive experience for my students, as well as myself.” The teacher promises he is brainstorming more unique ways to motivate students and plans to continue that beyond the COVID-19 era.


Blake Tyson, professor of music and director of percussion studies at the University of Central Arkansas, also whipped up a project of his own. He knew that his homebound percussion students were not only separated from each other, but also the sophisticated instruments on campus. He knew they all had something nearby to tap on, shimmer or shake, so he came up with the inspired idea of composing a piece of music especially for his students to perform together – in an all new way.

“Many of my students had nothing at home but drumsticks and practice pads,” he said. “But I wanted them to know they weren’t forgotten. They weren’t alone even if they felt trapped in their own place. I was getting down thinking about all the things we were going to miss –concerts, recitals, the percussion performance all just gone. I wished we had one last chance to play together.” 

Tyson contacted his students and assembled a list of make-shift instruments, which included drum sets, tambourines, egg shakers and even a toy glockenspiel. Tyson then composed a short piece that would allow the students to participate. He sent the score and asked each student to record themselves playing their part.

“Together Again” is built on the theme of UCA BEARS (Ut, C, A, B, E A, Re, Sol). According to Tyson, the piece contains small parts of basic warm-ups that students do every day in the practice rooms, along with “a motif that turns up in many of my pieces representing friendship, love and kindness.

“The piece I wrote feels fun and has a sense of community, because we have that sense of family when musicians play together. While that was blown apart by COVID, I wanted us to feel like we were together again.”   

Tyson took all of the individual videos which students turned in and edited them into one harmonious piece. “Once I sent the video out, many students told me that it was a very emotional moment for them to see everyone together. The whole process felt like something that needed to be done and it made me and a lot of my students feel better.

“What I learned, or at least confirmed, is that all of us…we are so connected — not only my students but the whole human race. You have these 20 something people who see each other every day and they need that community to encourage and support them. This experience was my way of keeping that community together and letting us all remember that no matter what, we are not alone.” (The UCA Percussion Ensemble performance of “Together Again” is available at


Ensuring that no one felt alone was exactly the message teacher Jordan Starkey wanted to share as she looked into her computer camera each week to connect with fourth-graders at Springhill Elementary School. Starkey used this time to communicate with parents and to remember the challenges that kids face outside of school. 

“I could see right into their homes and see things I would never have seen,” the teacher said. “It was constant communication. This experience showed me to pay more attention — even to kids that you may not think need it. I will always remember that all of their journeys are different and will strive to be an even better support system in the future.”

Like many teachers, Starkey also took time to support parents who had become at-home teachers in addition to their careers, their housework and family responsibilities.

“So many parents would call me worried their children would fall behind. It gave us a chance to really talk about their student’s progress and they would say, `I am so thankful you would just listen to me.’” 

Starkey wanted to make sure that every parent knew that no matter how their student performed at home, in the end, everything was going to be ok. “My saying this relieved parents’ anxiety and stress. They would say the communication would bring them peace. In return, we saw this same support come back to us from the parents.”

Once these challenges pass, Starkey plans to continue to connect with her student’s families. “The biggest lesson I took from this 100 percent was how to love people better. My job is to always love my kiddos by educating them, but now I will work harder than ever to understand their lives outside of the school.”  


Another 501 teacher actually found herself on both sides of a computer camera as she watched how her two children responded to distance learning. As she had to help each of them differently at home, Conway Christian School’s Yolanda Rhine became more sympathetic to the learning styles of her students. As the semester progressed, she gave those who needed it the individual instruction necessary for success.  

“It was not a completely different experience for my ninth-graders at Conway Christian because my class was already familiar with Google Classroom and had Chromebooks they took home,” Rhine said. “It couldn’t have been a better time during the school year because we were familiar with each other and had a routine. The biggest challenge for some students was just Internet not working.” 

As she watched her teenage son and college-age daughter work at home, she was reminded that many students need a teacher to provide a pat on the back and encouragement. “For some kids, the physical presence of the teacher means so much. When all of this happened, it rocked one of my children’s world,” Rhine said. “I had home-schooled in the past, and I, like many parents thought, `I have got to relearn how to do this.’”

Because of her own child, Rhine realized many of her students needed that personal relationship through this scary and unpredictable time. She developed friendships with students which aided learning and their emotional stability. “Beyond talking to me in group, some needed one-on-one time with me. And not necessarily to talk about school, but to talk about life, family, what’s going on with the world or even about sitcoms. Deepening these relationships helped me become an even better teacher,” she said. “This whole thing has been a wonderful, crazy experience.”


Commissioner Key summed up the 2020 school year like this, “There are so many things we have learned that we never thought were possible prior to COVID. If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught us that resiliency and adaptability are powerful tools in making the impossible possible. Our primary objective now is to take what we know works well, capitalize on those best practices, work to address shortcomings, and be prepared to deliver the best education possible to our students this fall no matter the circumstances. Our students deserve nothing less.”