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COVID in Appalachia: Teachers Share Their Pandemic Journey

Wearing masks, teachers John and Alicia Kilby stand in front of a poster of the Rabun County Middle School Mascot.
Rabun County, GA middle school teachers John and Alicia Kilby prepare for another day of pandemic teaching.

As we mark the one year anniversary of the pandemic in North Carolina, BPR is launching a new series of oral histories from Appalachia. It’s a partnership with Foxfire Museum to gather and share how COVID-19 has shaped us. We start with Rabun County middle school teachers John and Alicia Kilby, interviewed by their former student Zain Harding.

Learn how you can share your experiences during the pandemic with BPR & Foxfire’s oral history guide

The following is an edited excerpt of the Kilby’s oral history, recorded in July 2020. Click above to listen to BPR’s audio version. 

Zain Harding: With the pandemic, how did your school adapt?

Alicia Kilby: Well at the middle school with the pandemic, it really wasn’t anything different because, as you guys know, we were kinda coming out of the flu season and Rabun County Middle School does a really good job giving us the supplies we need, like they put out hand sanitizer, they always give us those huge cans of Lysol spray, I mean our janitors do a fabulous job at keeping our building really, really clean.

Zain Harding: What are some possible precautions that could be put in place once school starts?

Alicia Kilby: I think, hand washing knowledge, I mean, you guys should be washing your hands anyway. You know, it’s kinda gross not to, but hand washing, I would say extra hand sanitizer, what else? Maybe directional hallways, like you go in one way and out one way.

John Kilby: Kind of what you’re seeing in the grocery store or Home Depot or something like that where you can only go in one way and out the other way. 

Alicia Kilby: Social distancing and maintaining the six feet is going to be hard because-I could see that being really easy for the teachers who teach the smaller, the littler kids, but I mean you guys are teenagers and you’re just social by nature so, this is going to be a tricky, tricky thing to manage. 

Zain Harding: Did you feel that there were any things that could have been done better?

John Kilby: Honestly, no I really don't think so. It kind of blindsided everyone and you always, well I say that-you want to try to air on the side of precaution in these types of matters because it’s something you really can’t see, and I think the community really came together strong and I think that everyone did the best they could, given the circumstances.

Alicia Kilby: Well, I mean, think about you guys. We were at school regular on Friday and then *snaps* that next Tuesday we were in a virtual classroom, so not only did the teachers have to rise to the occasion, but you know, most the students in our classes were totally on it and they could just-and I mean totally rose to the occasion and did well and I think everyone compensated within the community and pulled together really strong and made the best of a really, really, really bad situation.

Zain Harding: Regarding your school system, how did they handle graduation?

Alicia Kilby: Oh, it was an awesome little virtual video, like, I’m not super crying in public, but I definitely cried on my couch watching the graduation. I thought it was, it was put together very well and it gave the seniors the acknowledgement that they deserved and I hope, though, I really do hope, that they get to have that in-person graduation ceremony at some point before we start back in August.

Wearing marks, teacher Alicia Kilby helps a student working at her desk.
Credit Courtesy: Alicia Kilby
Alicia Kilby helps eighth grade student Mallory Shriver with a post WWII project.

  Zain Harding: How difficult was the change for you as a teacher?

Alicia Kilby: *laughing*

John Kilby: Oh, gosh. As a teacher, I feel like the best learning experience is going to be actually attending a classroom. The quality of that one-on-one, you know, being in front of someone while they’re giving instruction-you’re just trying to learn things. It’s hard to do in a virtual setting. Some people can handle it, but…

Alicia Kilby: I will openly admit that I struggled because you guys know as my past students, I’m super social. It was very hard for me to be in a virtual classroom and not have that interaction where I can tell you, like, check your attitude Zain, like, I really did miss that face-to-face interaction. I think our house is probably more organized than it’s ever been, just because I start on one side and go to the other side just waiting on someone to tune in and need something on the computer, it was-I didn’t like it. I personally struggled with it. 

Zain Harding: Would you say that the students were really receptive to the changes?

John Kilby: I think a majority-a large majority of students were receptive and eager to try this method. I believe that it also showed a lot of the students, too, that maybe this can work for them and maybe it can’t. It comes down to a discipline, and a lot of young-a lot of adolescents, a lot of kids, they’re not used to the ‘okay I have to work here for an hour and then I’m gonna move over to a different subject.’ 

Alicia Kilby: A lot of kids, and I’ll speak from when I was a kid, I would probably have thought staying home when it snowed for a couple of days was great, but then the thought of not getting to go back to school at all in a year, that’s just-that’s a lot for teenagers to take on and I think most of the kids rose to the occasion and did the best they could in the situation we were in.

Zain Harding: Regarding the assignments, what kinds of assignments did you give your students?

John Kilby: From an English standpoint, I tried to incorporate a lot of the events that were happening we happened to be reading “The Hunger Games” at the time and so it was a great opportunity to kind of reflect and maybe journal how someone’s life is being affected by crisis or being put on lockdown or quarantine so I mean it kinda correlated to a lot of what we were reading so I tried to make assignments, and the department as a whole tried to make assignments that would allow you to explain in your own words the conditions and feelings and emotions and so almost a little bit of a therapy session, I think, was what it kind of turned into for a lot of kids. It gave you the ability to explain the world as you see it.

Alicia Kilby: From a social studies standpoint, we kind of worked together here and we were looking at current events and news. I had kids tracking economics and economic patterns with what was happening with the virus and how it was spreading worldwide. As far as assignments go, we did a lot of online forums and we did a lot of Google Meets, we did a lot of just back and forth “if you need something let me know.” … I did try to get the kids outside to do fun hands-on stuff like that every chance I got where they would go out and do something and then go and do a small little write-up about it, and if they wanted to share pictures or video from their experience, they could do that with their parent’s permission.

Zain Harding: Well that’s all the questions that we have. Is there anything that you would like to add?

John Kilby: I feel like the best learning is doing and actually being in the classroom, personally. I feel like the quality, for me especially, is much better when you are present and so I hope that we can all try this new world out and have the ability to do that to sit in the same room and talk and learn and socialize so it’s going to be an interesting outcome to see how it all comes out in the wash I guess.

Alicia Kilby: Well one thing to remember, and it goes for students, teachers, staff, parents, random community people, we’re all in it together and we have to work together to keep everyone motivated and on track with what we’re doing.

Catherine Komp joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in September 2020 as the organization’s first Director of Content, leading BPR’s talented team of local journalists and content creators, overseeing national programming and facilitating collaborations and engagement initiatives.
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